Updated on May 29, 2017
Black TV: “Unrealistic” Black Excellence vs. The “Relatable” Stereotype (Part I – The Black Family)
Everyone can agree that representation of Black people in the media is a huge issue, but our reactions to the attempts made to be more inclusive vary depending on each of our own experiences. It’s obvious that there is not enough representation of Black people on TV in general, but the other concern is that the representation that we do have is not always positive or accurate. The argument over what positive and accurate representation looks like is an argument that we have been having for decades, especially when it comes to the portrayal of the Black family and the Black woman.
Often the argument comes down to whether we as Black people disagree with the constant barrage of stories with a slave or house servant narrative or whether we are annoyed by stories featuring characters with almost superhuman qualities or “unrealistic” excellence. Do we feel alienated by upper-middle class Black families on TV or do we feel offended by the stereotype of poor Black families on TV?
White characters have the luxury of being able to lead fairly average lives and it is either their stories that are extraordinary or it’s their personalities that endear them to us. Their socio-economic status doesn’t always have to be an indicator for their unique personalities, nor must their financial situation represent the entire race they belong to. Furthermore, white characters aren’t always thrown into a historical setting or a supernatural role in order to make them relevant and interesting.
On the other hand, too often, Black characters struggle to find that happy medium between magical and human; between an extraordinary exception to the stereotype of their race and a “normal” Black person – or even a normal person in general. Black characters are criticized for their location on the financial totem pole instead of just being allowed to represent one story of many. The problem is that we as Black viewers fear that these Black characters’ lives will represent all of our lives and too many times when it comes to other people’s perceptions of us as a community, they do.
Some argue that while they may be tiresome, the movies and shows that focus on Black people as slaves and survivors of the Jim Crow era are important as a teaching tool for young people and a reminder of where we came from. Others argue that these stories can be desensitizing and dehumanizing and that it is more important to see stories of Black people whose lives we can aspire to. Again, the issue seems to stem from the idea that one Black show, just as it is with one Black person, is expected to speak for the entire Black community.
Two groups that have been historically underrepresented or misrepresented in the media are the Black family and the Black woman. Prior to the 1970’s, Black people were shown in the media by using stereotypes (e.g. Amos & Andy) and other offensive gags like blackface. Black TV shows didn’t exist and depictions of the Black family were few and far between. Black women went from being portrayed as mammies to being fetishized and hyper-sexualized as Blaxploitation characters.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s with Sanford & Son and Good Times, two shows about working-class Black families, that the Black family was finally put on screen as a feature and not a side note or the butt of a joke for benefit of outside communities. As groundbreaking as these shows were, they garnered criticism for enforcing the stereotype of the constantly struggling Black family. Then came The Jeffersons who moved on up to the affluent Eastside after creating a better financial situation for themselves. This show struck a bit of a happy medium by showing that it was possible for an average Black family to work hard and gain success in America, a premise that was both realistic and inspiring.
Then in the 80’s The Cosby Show was born. I don’t need to go into the many, many merits of this show for the culture (notwithstanding the stain that Cosby himself left on the legacy of the show), but it was a massive success. Still, there were naysayers who complained that The Cosby Show was not relatable because of the family’s upper-middle-class existence. People also criticized it for not dealing explicitly with racism or acknowledging the plight of the lower-class. So even though The Cosby Show did not play on the stereotype of the poor, Black American, it was still considered problematic to some because it was unrealistic and too politically safe.
Nevertheless, The Cosby Show created a kind of blueprint for the Black family sitcom. In the 1990’s there was a surge of Black family-based sitcoms, starting with Family Matters. From then until the early 2000’s more than 15 shows like Moesha, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sister, Sister, The Parent ‘Hood, One on One, and The Bernie Mac Show were created featuring mostly working-class to middle-class Black families. This explosion of Black family sitcoms ended in 2005 with Everybody Hates Chris. Not only was there a lot of representation during this time, but there weren’t too many complaints about the quality of representation. I think this is mostly because the wide variety of characters and family dynamics allowed for more than one kind of story to represent the Black community and more than one kind of story for us to relate to.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 2015, that we would get another Black family sitcom, Black-ish. Black-ish is probably one of the most debated shows of that year. Black and white people alike were either put off by the name or by the premise. And again there was the issue of relatability. Some Black people vowed never to watch the show again after seeing the wealthy Johnson family in the pilot episode. People also thought it was ridiculous that the father, Andre (aka Dre), was afraid to lose his “Blackness” because he and his family belong to a higher tax bracket than what he grew up in.
The thing is, in many sitcoms, things are exaggerated for effect due to a lack of time and not supposed to actually be taken literally. After watching the show past the first episode, you are better able to understand that Dre simply doesn’t want to forget where he came from, he doesn’t actually think he won’t be Black anymore because he is rich. Dre is also concerned that his children will not grow up with the same values that he was raised with because they are a lot more privileged than he was as a child. These concerns are normal for people who are first-generation members of the Black upper-middle class.
Still, Black-ish’s premise was so upsetting to some people that there was a petition started to get the show canceled, citing it as racist, unrealistic, and responsible for perpetuating stereotypes – namely that if you don’t act Black then you’re not Black, you’re only “blackish”. Not surprisingly, even Donald Trump tweeted these sentiments when the show premiered. There’s no point to address the idea that the show is racist but as far as unrealistic, that is also an unreasonable accusation. Just because the Johnson’s story isn’t every Black person’s story doesn’t mean that it isn’t representative of any Black person’s life. Maybe everyone cannot relate to the show but calling it unrealistic begs the question, is it possible for Black people to be rich? Of course, it is.
As far as perpetuating stereotypes, in the comedy genre, in order to debunk a stereotype or point out the ridiculousness of it and its effects, you first must demonstrate the stereotype, which is what Black-ish does. But it doesn’t just leave the stereotype there. Black-ish then addresses many different perspectives and points of view about the topic at hand by letting several characters have meaningful voices in the dialogue. For example, Dre’s parents live with them and they often share their points of view as people who have lived life and raised a family without the affluence that their son has. There are also other characters in the show that don’t have the same story as the Johnson’s. Most importantly, unlike other shows in the past that may have been bogged down by respectability politics, Black-ish pointedly and explicitly addresses race, class, and a variety of other issues.
As one of the only currently running sitcoms that stars a Black family (The Carmichael Show is another one, but I’ve never seen it), I think that Black-ish does an awesome job of making us laugh as well as making us think while showing us a cohesive family and characters with depth. It is understandable that the show may rub some people the wrong way, but taking into consideration all of the Black shows in the past that have been problematic for not being realistic or aspirational enough, I think that this one does the best it can to give a variety of different Black stories and perspectives screen time. But it is still sad that Black-ish is just one of a handful of shows about Black families and that the 90’s explosion of Black, family-oriented television is simply nostalgia for us. So as they say, although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.
Stay tuned for Part II, where I will discuss the Black woman’s similar decades-long struggle to be portrayed accurately and positively on television.