Black-ish and Proud

at arrivals for Paley Center Tribute to African-American Achievements in Television, The Paley Center for Media, New York, NY May 13, 2015. Photo By: Gregorio T. Binuya/Everett Collection

Have you been watching Black-ish? If you’re like most people I’ve talked to, there’s a good chance you haven’t—in that case, I’m here to tell you that you’re missing out. 

Upon seeing ads for the show, which feature an affluent African American family wearing neon-color clothes and spraying Day-Glo Silly String, you may reasonably conclude that Black-ish is a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air update, but it’s not, exactly. When you learn the characters are an advertising exec father (played by Emmy nominee Anthony Anderson), a doctor mother (Tracee Ellis Ross, pictured above) and multiple good-looking children, you may think it’s a revision of The Cosby Show, but that wouldn’t be right either. Cosby and Fresh Prince both featured well-to-do black families, but neither spent much time (aside from a “very special episode” here and there) actually talking about race. And there was little mention of how unusual the overlap of race and wealth was back then (and still is today). The fresh thing about Black-ish, now in its second season on ABC, is that it does exactly that—with humor and grace.

The Atlantic named Black-ish one of the best comedies of 2015, praising how the show “tackles cultural issues in a deceptively casual way, never sacrificing humor for the sake of didacticism.” Black-ish is indeed about blackness, but in no way does it alienate viewers who aren’t black. The show serves as a gate, open to people of all cultures, through which they can pass in order to learn and to think about how race and culture determine identity—as well as how they don’t. Black-ish bears a closer resemblance to Modern Family than to anything Tyler Perry has made, for example. Although unique in their specifics, the Johnson family’s dramas and decisions on Black-ish are relatable for all audiences via the overarching theme: Dre, Bow and their children are a loving family, learning and growing and doing the best they can. It’s simply realistic that, since they’re black and live in a mostly white, upper-class world, their race frequently affects their daily life. And the show doesn’t pretend otherwise.

“The PC way of handling culture has been to not talk about it,” says Kenya Barris, the show’s creator. “But we should be talking about it.” Barris is right. The idea that discussing race and culture is somehow racist is not only misguided, it maintains ignorance and fear. It’s not that there aren’t other black characters on television; there are. But for the most part, those characters don’t talk about race, and their story lines don’t have much to do with it either. I’m not arguing that characters should be defined by race, or deemed interesting only by virtue of it, but I agree with Jenna Wortham, who wrote in The New York Times that, by not addressing race, other shows “perpetuate another kind of colorblindness, one that homogenizes characters and treats race as inconsequential, when it is anything but.”

Being accepting is not the same as being color-blind; it never was. The light Black-ish sheds on this fact makes it as important for viewers unfamiliar (or uncomfortable) with the issues it presents as it is for those who see themselves represented in the characters. Although some critics were initially (and reasonably) concerned that Black-ish would offer nothing more than stereotypes—and thus do more harm than good—the show has resisted that simplistic path, instead tackling cultural identity issues with complexity. And did I mention humor? A lot of humor.

For instance, in the episode “The Word,” Bow and Dre’s youngest son, Jack (Miles Brown), performs an unedited version of Kanye West’s song “Gold Digger” at a school talent show, an offense for which he’s threatened with expulsion. Jack has no idea what all the fuss is about, and, the show makes clear, the adults aren’t entirely certain either. At least, they all have different ideas about what the N word means and how important context and intent should be when applying “zero tolerance” policies like the school’s. At first, Bow, who is biracial, tries to play nice and comfort the all-white school board, believing she can get Jack off the hook not because he’s black but because he’s adorable. Dre, however, is adamant that, by virtue of his race, his son has every right to say the word, and the school administrators don’t get to be offended when it comes from him. Although Jack is ultimately spared the punishment, the show refuses to land on any one rule for who can or cannot, and when or in what company, use this fraught word. The point instead is to start a conversation and provide audiences with context about how complicated and tendentious history is. Race, as it turns out, isn’t the only factor at work here; generational differences are also key.

Other episodes focus on elements of life less obviously related to race but also often ignored on-screen. The recent episode “Keeping Up With the Johnsons,” for example, addresses Dre and Bow’s spending habits, which they agree have gotten out of control. NPR points out, “There’s a candor about the way that having money affects Dre and Rainbow’s sense of who they are and how they’re raising their kids that’s very uncommon in a world where the obviously rolling-in-dough families on Modern Family, for instance, almost never discuss it.” Dre initially links his spendthrift ways to the history of slavery in the United States (after not getting a paycheck for 400 years, he says, black folks were understandably ready to spend when they did finally have money), but he and Bow eventually realize it’s not only their race but also their very different upbringings that have affected their relationship to their wealth and how they handle it in their marriage.

Questions like these—about how to raise children, sustain a loving marriage, and balance work and family—are all recurring themes on Black-ish, none of which are the exclusive domain of any particular racial group. That said, the show has been in the news lately because of tonight’s episode about an issue that does affect the black community more than others: police brutality. Tonight’s show may not be as funny as some others—although it is titled “Hope,” so that heartwarming, family-focused quality will doubtless remain intact—but you can bet it’ll be as smart and provocative as the rest of Black-ish has been. And since February is Black History Month, there’s no better time to start watching.

Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. eastern time on ABC.

Feature photo of Tracee Ellis Ross: Gregorio T. Binuya/Everett Collection