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.
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.