Losing Your Religion While 'Black-ish'

Declining faith can feel like a threat to cultural identity for African Americans.
Losing Your Religion While 'Black-ish'
Image: ABC

When ABC’s Black-ish opened its third season at Disney World—filled with sunny optimism and corporate product placement—I thought the show might be losing its edge.

Then came the second episode, entitled “God.”

Dre Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson) responds to his teenage daughter Zoey’s (Yara Shahidi) growing spiritual doubts. It’s a dramatic shift for a show that usually plays faith for laughs, with Dre’s overbearing mother Ruby and her exclamations about Jesus and other outlandish churchy behavior.

As Dre explains in the narration, faith has been a vital part of the African American historical experience, so it makes sense for viewers like me to assume the whole Johnson family believed in God. (Stats back this up too. About 8 in 10 African Americans say religion is very important in their lives, reported Pew Research in 2009, compared with 56% of the general US population.)

When Zoey begins doubting God’s existence in a world filled with injustice, her father experiences his own crisis of identity. After noticing a lack of faith among his white affluent coworkers, Dre associates his daughter’s wavering belief with her proximity to affluent white suburbia (a recurring theme on Black-ish).

Dre’s suspicion of white affluence is partially rooted in his distrust of his biracial brother-in-law Johan. Freshly returned from Paris, Johan (Daveed Diggs, in an homage to his roles in Hamilton) embodies the European stereotype—sophisticated, worldly, and atheistic. Overreacting like a typical sitcom dad, Dre attempts to ban anything in the home that feels too white—including almond milk, radicchio, and even hummus.

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest cities in America, I can relate to Dre’s panic. I’m the son of a black evangelical pastor who felt the intellectual bias at my secular private high school. Most of my friends saw my blackness as distinctive and cool, but my faith as inexplicable and inscrutable. When I watched members of the white Braverman family on ABC’s Parenthood struggle to understand why Jasmine’s mother wanted to take her grandson to church instead of a baseball game, I immediately thought of my friends from school.

The most predictable response to a perceived cultural attack is to panic—then launch a counteroffensive.

Consequently, it took me until well into my 20s to shed the idea that white affluence was synonymous with secular views. On a certain level, it makes sense, though: If you’re educated enough and wealthy enough, you don’t need to ask God to meet your needs—you just need to make sure to stay on track with your investments and career goals.

But we can’t eliminate race from the equation. African Americans and other people of color, like Dre Johnson, are forced to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I experienced Dre’s panic in a visceral way, because I understand what it’s like for any slight against religion to feel like a cultural assault.

When I told my teenage friends about Christian rap—in the days before Lecrae’s popularity—they thought I was joking. I felt embarrassed and marginalized by their incredulous response.

I see it on TV and in the news. I remember a Daily Show segment that included Jon Stewart singing in front of a swaying choir of black performers singing profanities, which ended up characterized as a gospel choir, as if what makes a song gospel has only to do with its style and has nothing to do with its message.

When Portland city planners authorized a major construction project on an arterial street in a historically black neighborhood without seeking input from any of the various black churches adversely affected by the loss of street parking, it felt like a slap in the face.

The most predictable response to a perceived cultural attack is to panic—then launch a counteroffensive.

On Black-ish, Dre enlists his mother, Ruby—the most overbearing presence in the Johnson family—to coerce Zoey into reciting a bungled version of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not until later that his wife convinces him to stand down; bullying someone into belief is not exactly a winning strategy.

Even though we may have the same kind of experiences, our overreactions will not all have the same long-term ramifications.

It’s actually Dre’s attempt to assert his religious blackness that demonstrates how the struggle for cultural significance is universal. White people do this too; a certain segment of white evangelicals are drawn to strong, authoritarian personalities, especially in seasons when they perceive their faith is under attack.

Whether those strongmen are pastors, entertainers, or politicians, the allure is the same. They promise to keep you safe by protecting you from the dangerous other, they make you feel better by belittling your perceived opposition, and they pledge to prioritize your beliefs over and above others. Their collective message is, “You are important. I will fight for you.” They almost always leave devastation in their wake.

In the “God” episode, Dre only abandons the strongman approach once his wife lovingly intervenes, helping him to see the futility of his approach. Her mediation makes him pause and later begin praying with an earnest, fumbling desperation as he realizes that he’s not as good of a Christian as he thought. Eventually, hope arrives, in the form of an audible “Thank you, God!” from Zoey, uttered in the aftermath of a serious health scare. Only in a moment of true crisis does her Christian upbringing—inconsistent as it might’ve seemed—begin to bear fruit.

Dre’s relatability in the “God” episode stems from reality that many of us have experienced what we perceive as cultural assault. Lashing out after feeling like we’re on the outside is a normal part of the human experience.

Even though we may have the same kind of experiences, our overreactions will not all have the same long-term ramifications. In the case of Dre, the victims of his frustration are the almond milk he dumped down the drain and the hummus lovers in his family. But we also know that many times lashing out can come from those with the power to affect the lives of others in important, permanent ways… people like doctors, educators, police officers, or politicians.

And even though America is a diverse place, the higher you get up the chain of command in most of these institutions, the more likely it is that person in power will be white. Even though the urge for a strongman-type response may be universal between black and white people, the ramifications of that response can end up with quite disproportionate consequences.

What do we make of this difference in power? And when it comes to both our personal spiritual lives and the institutions that support them, how can we proactively look to the gospel rather than overreacting to perceived cultural assault?

For starters, we need a healthy dose of introspection and humility.

Like Dre, some of us people of color need to hear his wife’s pragmatic wisdom. Not every conflict can be solved by diagnosing racial prejudice. Not every microaggression deserves a snarky response or a formalized escalation. On the other side, many white Christians must lean into conversations around race and class. They must take on a humble posture and ask difficult questions about privilege, institutional racism, and how this affects their own perception of what constitutes cultural attack.

Despite the hurt, violence, entrenched inertia, and partisan craziness, God’s vision for racial unity the church is possible. We as American Christians are capable of experiencing race not merely as something that divides us, but as another available dimension to explore the imago dei in each of us. Executing this vision will require us to dig deep, invest in eternity, and truly learn how to know and love one another.

But if that seems too overwhelming, maybe we can start with just laughing at a sitcom together.

My vote goes to Black-ish.

Jelani Greenidge is a writer, musician, communication consultant, and stand-up comic based out of Portland, Oregon. He's currently looking for a seminary that will offer transcript credits for Xbox achievements.

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Losing Your Religion While 'Black-ish'