Let’s just pull the bandage off: I’m black, everybody. I know, I know, I don’t “sound” or “act” like it. My insincerest of apologies if you feel betrayed by this revelation. I’m what Hollywood would call the token black friend: the single black representative in a friend group who is well spoken and educated but still offers up plenty of sass along with all that sage advice. And while I have indeed mastered the divine art of real talk, with or without the finger-snapping, there’s a lot more to me than that. As such, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to transcend my blackness.
The irony in this is that by trying to be seen as more than “just a black girl,” I can’t do anything without wondering how it looks when I do it because I’m a black girl. I assume that people are taking me at face value, so I worry about how I come off. If I put the hood of my jacket up to block the wind or rain, will someone think I look menacing because hood = hoodlum? If I make a joke about my blackness around someone who isn’t my (white) husband or a close friend, will they think I’m the kind of black person who’s “always trying to make it about race”?
Life has trained me to count the black people when I walk into a room. This isn’t for solidarity purposes. I do it because if I’m the only one, I have to prepare myself for the inevitability of becoming the Official Black Culture Expert. Try being the only black person in a history class while slavery is the topic of conversation; (white) people are either falling all over themselves to prove that they think slavery was Super Horrible, or they’re waiting for you to get really up in arms about it so that they can write you off as JASBP (Just Another Salty Black Person).
So naturally, I was hesitant when Black-ish, a show following a modern black family, was announced. What if I watched it and couldn’t relate at all, proving all those (usually black) people who called me an Oreo* right? What if the show perpetuated stereotypes with no acknowledgment of the various personalities within black culture? (As a hilarious Key & Peele sketch says, “We are not a monolith!”) Plus, there’s no way it could be as good as The Cosby Show, which I loved as a kid and feel confused about as an adult since it turns out Bill Cosby is some sort of sexual predator.
What eventually convinced me to give Black-ish a shot was my younger sister being a fan of the show. While she is a lot more in tune with her black identity than I am, we share a lot of the same entertainment tendencies—if she liked Black-ish, I thought, there was a chance it wouldn’t scar me for life. And wouldn’t you know it: I think it’s hilarious! While Andre Johnson, the patriarch of the show’s family, is in many ways a stereotypical depiction of a black man, the show is often about his journey to the realization that black life is not a singular experience.
Take, for instance, season one’s “The Nod.” ‘Dre is worried because his eldest son, Junior, doesn’t know about the nod—when two black people, often strangers, nod at each other in silent solidarity. Blaming himself, he spends the episode attempting to forcefully ingrain black culture deeper into Junior, only to learn that his son already belongs somewhere: in nerd culture. Watching ‘Dre discover the parallels between his life as a black man and his offspring’s lives as kids and teens who happen to be black was refreshing. With its tongue often firmly in cheek, Black-ish, to me, is about learning that no one has to fit into a certain mold just because of the color of their skin.
But it doesn’t shy away from the blackness of the family either. In season two’s “Hope,” the family sits around watching the verdict roll in for a cop who shot and killed an unarmed black man. The youngest children, twins Jack and Diane, have no idea what’s happening, and their mother, Rainbow, struggles over whether she should fill them in or let them continue to live in a world that is, for the moment, colorless. Junior wants to go join a protest when the not guilty verdict comes in, and his older sister, Zoey, loses it because she’s worried something will happen to him if he leaves the house. In the end, they all come together and join the protest as a family.
That episode hit me. Hard. It basically summed up every conflicting emotion I’ve had since 2014, when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, and race relations in this country exploded. It was impossible not to notice the descent into madness over the past two years, but I didn’t want to voice my concerns out loud. That would mean admitting the realities of my blackness to people who have gotten used to me using it, at most, as a punchline. It would mean having frank discussions with my husband about what life might be like for our future kids, instead of playfully saying we’d have to disown them if they grew up to be accountants. I didn’t know if I was ready for all of that.
And I still don’t know if I am. But considering how things will likely unfold over the next four years, I know that I’m going to have to get serious about it eventually. To that end, I think watching Black-ish will help. Because for the half hour that I’m watching the show, I can experience and explore my black identity. It supports my belief that I don’t have to fit in with anyone’s idea of a black girl but my own, but it also pushes me to acknowledge ALL parts of my identity, even the parts that appear to be only skin deep.
*Oreo, by the way, is a super fun term that refers to a black person who “acts white” and thus must be white on the inside. Aren’t people the best?