‘Black-Ish’ Doesn’t Perpetuate Racist Stereotypes; It Expertly Demolishes Them

The headline “Shows like ‘Black-ish‘ perpetuate racist stereotypes” is so far-reaching and so desperate for controversy clicks under the pretense of being a conversation starter — it’s no surprise it comes on the heels of Deadline’s recent article about “ethnics” on television — that it almost reads as master satire. In, of course, the NY Post, Andrea Peyser puts forward the idea that ABC’s Black-ish, a sitcom about a middle-class black family and one of the many wonderful diverse shows from this season, “promotes ugly racial bigotry” but seemingly ignores the fact that Black-ish is dedicated to openly discussing and breaking down racist stereotypes, that the show promotes non-stereotypical black characters, and that the writers place racial issues at the forefront of many episodes in order to open a dialogue and introduce the larger, whiter world (the world that still makes up the vast majority of TV) to the intricacies and specifics of the black community. 

Peyser’s “argument” is virtually nonexistent. For much of the article she avoids picking out and exploring specific instances within the series (which is currently in the home stretch of its 22-episode first season) that are examples of this so-called “racial bigotry.” Rather, Peyser (who, it should be mentioned, is a white woman so patiently explaining what constitutes racism) peppers her piece with unnecessary, laughable, and largely pointless references to her white daughter’s black best friend (“her fourth-grade teacher, a white man, lectured the inseparable girls, in earshot of their parents, telling them that they must never forget that their skins are of different hues.”), a Donald Trump tweet from back in October, and the short-lived Starbucks “Race Together” campaign. At one point, she throws in three sentences about Fox’s Empire, presumably only because it is another television show that features black people.

In comparison to “Race Together,” Peyser says Black-ish “brings about the same kind of racial lunacy, making people of all skin colors appear biased, clueless and, most of all, racist.” How Peyser comes to this conclusion is impossible to figure out; she cites the “false notion” that wealthy black people become members of the bourgeoisie (she does not show the receipts as to why this is false) and references the pilot episode in which Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) wants to have a bar mitzvah because that’s what his friends are doing for their 13th birthdays and how his father is upset that he wants to play field hockey instead of basketball. How this makes Andre (or the rest of his family) racist is beyond me. Sure, it’s a simplistic plot occurrence to serve as the jumping off point to introduce Andre Sr. (Anthony Anderson) and his occasional overzealousness with racial issues and his preoccupation with racial identity — a preoccupation that rings true because black people are always being reminded of our racial identity by those who are not a part of it, such as in a hitpiece wherein a white critic proclaims a black-centric show is racist — but it works on dual levels: It’s not so much about Andre Jr’s desire to be white (this desire does not exist) but is about his desire to fit in with his peers. The pilot episode ends with a compromise, a combination African-American celebration plus bar mitzvah, simultaneously embracing their own culture while open-mindedly exploring a friends’ (as for the sports decision: this was not about race but about Andre’s desire to kiss girls’; Peyser doesn’t mention either of these storylines’ ultimate conclusions).

MILES BROWN, MARSAI MARTIN, MARCUS SCRIBNER, YARA SHAHIDIThe entire piece reads as if Peyser doesn’t regularly watch the show and has only read basic episode summaries, and bases a good portion of her opinion on a petition started nearly a year ago, months before the show premiered, (and with only 243 of its “1 Million Strong” claim) by someone who had an issue with the show’s title. On paper, it is, admittedly, a questionable title (though this is the network that brought us Cougar Town and Trophy Wife) but it’s one that makes complete sense within the context of the show (if, you know, you watch it). Plus, simple research will lead to creator Kenya Barris explaining that the phrase “black-ish” does not refer to black characters who, as Peyser puts it, “are not black at all” but rather about the filtered, privileged environment that his Barris’ (and fictional Andre’s) children have in comparison to his experiences growing up in Inglewood — a privilege that is explicitly explored in the hilarious “Martin Luther Skiing Day” episode.

Even just the term “black-ish” alone contradicts Peyser’s main argument about the show promoting racial stereotypes: It is a term actively destroying the shucking, jiving, or gang-banging stereotypes that television too-often delighted in when shoving a black character into a network sitcom. (Oddly enough, Peyser’s relatively more positive paragraph about Empire notes that the characters are musicians and a former drug dealer which, when put forth so briefly, can certainly seem stereotypical, especially in comparison to Black-ish.) The “black-ish” family on Black-ish are not stereotypes but instead well-rounded and unique — an advertising executive, a doctor, an awkward nerd, and a shallow popular girl are character traits that were once largely reserved for white characters. Why, then, are they suddenly traits that provide “sick ethnic jokes” or “racist drivel”? The “ethnic jokes” and stereotypes that are present in the show don’t make black people the butt of the jokes; rather, the punchline is Johnson family’s reaction — like Andre’s offended response when his son’s white friend waltzes into the Johnson home and expects the fridge to be full of grape soda.

It’s hard to really unpack Peyser’s argument because there isn’t much of one to begin with — it’s also hard to take the sentence “Ask Donald Trump” seriously when applied to any argument, let alone one against a sitcom about a black family. This isn’t to say that Black-ish is a perfect television show above reproach (and it certainly isn’t to say that multicultural shows can’t be racist) but this isn’t a thoughtful, measured criticism but instead a hastily-written essay written around a poorly constructed, clickbait headline. It smacks of desperation and an attempt to create controversy when there isn’t one. It’s a piece that doesn’t at all exposes the sitcom’s racial insensitivities, but rather those of the author.