In high school, I took a class called “The Black Experience in White America,” studying stacks of books on critical race theory, reels of historical documentaries, and pages of prose written by African Americans. The course asked: What does it mean to be black in America?
For me, this was a driving existential question because my own story didn’t match the stereotypes. The media often portrayed blackness as being trapped in a socioeconomically oppressed “urban” neighborhood, eschewing formal education, being surrounded by black people, not having a relationship with one’s biological father, and facing blatant racism. As a black teen in an upwardly mobile, two-parent home in a San Francisco suburb, my experience was more like TheCosby Show than Boyz n the Hood.
Still, my young black identity already bore the scars of racism, suffered the isolating effects of otherness, and possessed deep questions about how far a brown-skinned girl like me could really go in our society. I wondered: Am I as black as the black kids whose lives match the stereotypical narrative? Does America see us as equally black?
Many years later, the conversation on what it means to be black in America extends far beyond the classroom. We see it happening in the public square: on hip-hop tracks, in movies, and in sketch comedy shows like Key & Peele. Now, it’s even happening on network television, with ABC’s new fall comedy Black-ish.
Black-ish on TV
Black-ish is about an upwardly mobile black family that lives in the Los Angeles suburbs. The father, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), is a senior advertising executive who was born and raised in Compton—a predominantly black, socioeconomically oppressed area of L.A. As a child, he decided to live a “better life” when he grew up, so he applied himself in school and worked hard to build a successful career. When he married his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor, they decided to raise their four children in an upper-middle class, predominantly white neighborhood, where they share a house with Andre’s racially conscious—and hilarious—father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne).
The premise of the show is rather unrealistic. Apparently, Andre woke up one morning, about 15 years into his marriage, and suddenly discovered that his wife and kids completely lack racial consciousness. Throughout the first three episodes of the series, Andre freaks out with each realization that their economic success has come at great cost to their blackness. He’s concerned that his oldest son wants to play field hockey instead of basketball. He’s appalled when he discovers that his kids aren’t aware that Barack Obama is the first black President. And he’s worried that his kids “don’t see color” and that his wife seems to support their colorblind approach. Andre tries to convince Rainbow and the kids that they have abandoned their racial identity and must return to their cultural roots. But the only person who agrees with him is Pops.
While many TV shows have centered on a black family—including the popular ‘90s series Family Matters, The Steve Harvey Show, and Sister, Sister—this one is unique in that it explicitly examines both race and class. In essence, it asks: What does it mean to be upwardly mobile and black in America?
In a word: Black-ish.
By pitting the Johnsons’ class against their race, Black-ish is really saying is that upward-mobility and blackness are mutually exclusive. Black people like the Johnsons who live in the suburbs and have prestigious careers and send their kids to private school are not real black. They’re black-ish. If you want to be real black, you need to stay in the ‘hood.
The Consequences of Black-ishness
Black-ishness keeps black people trapped in negative stereotypes. Social psychologists have studied how people can maintain inaccurate stereotypes even when presented with contradictory evidence. It’s called subtyping, and it’s rather simple. Since no one expects a group of people to perfectly conform to the group’s stereotype, it’s easy to explain away inconsistent behavior as “exceptions to the rule.” In this way, the group stereotype remains intact, while still acknowledging that not all group members’ behavior is consistent with the stereotype.
In his book, social psychologist Tom Gilovich explains, “Racists who maintain that African Americans can’t excel outside sports and entertainment are unlikely to be much troubled by the likes of, say, Barack Obama (‘He’s half white’) or Attorney General Eric Holder (‘His parents were immigrants from Barbados’).”
In other words, President Obama and Attorney General Holder aren’t black, they’re black-ish. By subtyping black people who don’t conform to the stereotypical narrative as black-ish, Americans are able to maintain their stereotype of blackness as poor, urban, lacking in formal education, lazy, and dangerous. Since race is a social construction, blackness is whatever the dominant group in society decides it is.
Rather than acknowledging that the Johnsons represent an upwardly mobile group of black people who offer a Black Experience in White America narrative that differs from the stereotypical one, the showrunners for Black-ish have subtyped upwardly mobile black people, thus reinforcing the stereotypical narrative in America’s consciousness.
But even in the wealthy suburbs, Andre and his family can’t escape the racial discrimination that all black people experience in America. Indeed, some of the most poignant scenes depict the subtle but debilitating forms of racism that upwardly mobile blacks experience. In one scene the Johnsons are ogled by a group of white ethno-tourists, as if they are a strange species in an otherwise nondescript white suburb. In another scene during a business meeting at work, Andre acknowledges that while “lower management” is ethnically diverse, “upper management” is decidedly not.
Moments later, Andre is promoted and becomes the company’s first non-white senior vice president…of the urban division. It is during these moments that racially conscious audience members cringe and are reminded that no matter how successful Andre becomes, he’s unlikely to be treated as well as his white colleagues. In many ways, the black and black-ish experiences in white America are eerily similar.
Christena Cleveland, PhD, is a social psychologist and an associate professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University. The author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, she blogs at christenacleveland.com and tweets as @CSCleve.