‘black-ish’ Keeps It Real about the Invisible Black Man

Here is a primetime network sitcom that subtly explores a man's sense of failure to reaffirm his blackness, exacerbated by seeing the seedlings of erasure in his own home.

Adam Taylor/ABC

The opening scene of the black-ish pilot is soundtracked by Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” and my very first thought was, “Damn, they got me!”

As Andre Johnson (Anthony Andersen) introduces his family and narrates his thoughts on being a successful black man trying to raise a family that’s “real,” the drum march of Kanye’s voice rises and falls in the background, building him up. I took this as a good omen that Andersen had truly let Jesus take the wheel and would not callously steal 30 minutes of my life.

I refer to it as “the coon factor,” but the worry of a primetime network comedy focused on a black family keeping it real is that it will be the 30-minute censored equivalent of a “white people do this / black people do this” comedy bit—stale, uninspired, and chock full of stereotype jokes.

The pilot, which airs this week on ABC, follows “Dre” on the day he is promoted to senior vice president at the ad agency where there are no folks of color on the management team. To his surprise, he is named SVP of the Urban Division, essentially boiling his job down to black man in charge of black stuff. His boss insults him further by requesting that he also keep it real on his first pitch, which incenses Dre into a mad spiral of reaffirming his blackness to himself and his family.

Dre’s anger and antics throughout the rest of the episode come from feeling like his blackness (and his family’s blackness) is being attacked. It’s a feeling that many of us can understand.

We exist in a world where racism is trotted out as a trending topic to be denied on Fox News when most of its ills and insults occur in every day life. When you’re black and well… working/breathing/living, you are usually being asked to keep it real in one way or another every single day, and that request is not only offensive but it wipes out your individuality and condescends your sense of self.

Dre lashes out on his family only to have them push back. What he fails to realize is that he is imposing the same urban title on his family in retaliation. This underlying plotline is the very reason I was impressed with black-ish. The conforms of systemic racism have caused a precious grasping of your blackness that oft times seeks to destroy us. I constantly ponder the true danger of racism, which I always state as most basically: the inability to be an individual.

Black people (and people of color) do not have the comfort of being one person. Every action and everything we say is laced with the caveat of “wherever I do this, I am somehow representing all my people at once.” Dre walks through his office and either head nods or daps every POC that he comes across as he narrates about his network of black folks in the company looking out for each other. Many of the folks he daps are simply secretaries, security, and even the janitorial staff.

It’s a walk I’ve taken. When I work in many of the top agencies in NYC, I immediately look for the brownest person and rarely is it they are the boss (and sometimes sadly, if it is that person feels clueless). I change my voice and vernacular when I see them and they usually become the only person I hug and show actual friendship to because they allow me to be comfortable. I know they aren’t saying “Hey girl hey” because I’m in the room, nor will they comment on my hair any further than “You got it done? It looks great.” They won’t make me sit in a meeting where the word “ghetto” is used over and over to describe things they don’t like. The brotherhood Dre refers to is a real support system and his feeling of making them ALL proud by being promoted to management is a victory many of us have experienced or can’t wait to.

To be honest, I expected to hate this show immediately. But despite a few cringe-inducing jokes (Andersen refers to his biracial wife as “someone who’s not even really black”—a lashing out that stems from her lack of understanding of his frustration. It’s hard to watch but also speaks to the truth of his insecurity and anger), I was blown away more by the perfect timing of this plot for today’s reality.

Last week The New York Times published one of the most ignorant and racist articles I’ve ever read about the modern black woman under the pretense of reviewing fellow ABC cohort Shonda Rhimes and her black female characters. This article was on the tail of Vogue.com’s declaration that the big booty was now inescapable—a decision that was brought about by a video featuring a Puerto Rican and a white woman talking about their booties.

The backlash brought about the discovery that out of 20 culture editors, the Times has no blacks and only one POC. None of this is shocking. The reason we celebrate new hires of color at these publications is because in 2014 we still have no voice in the masses. Black people are called on when these places need to keep it real, but there’s no osmosis and no exchange of information. We are all hired as the heads of the Urban Division metaphorically, because black people should be in charge of black stuff. We’re still stepping out on the stage to perform our dance, but never a part of the repertoire.

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All this is racism in sheep’s clothing. To put a black person in charge of black stuff means that you’ll never have to actually learn about another culture or experience, but you’ll “have black friends.” It’s a visual front of the most fraudulent order. The white editors who wrote both trash articles saw themselves as celebrating black folks, a notion so insulting it makes me spit.

I do not need to be complimented or approved of. My booty has always been big, as the slave masters saw fit to draw in their auction sketches many centuries ago. It was this same big booty that made Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman a circus sideshow, so hearing that JLo is a pioneer of a body I was born with equates me to being a living ghost. The lack of black presence in corporate America is not just dangerous because white people don’t understand black things and often say dumb shit, it LITERALLY ERASES US from the timeline. This is what we mean by whitewashing.

In black-ish, Dre reacts by trying to reaffirm his blackness within his home. He’s upset that his son doesn’t want to play basketball, that his youngest children don’t want to play with the only other black child in their class because it makes him feel underrepresented in his own home. The insecurity that has been imposed upon him worries him in a way that almost makes the show less funny because it’s so true. His children are simply seeking to be individuals as children are wont to do, but his sense of failure is exacerbated by seeing the seedlings of erasure in his own home—Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne as wife and father, respectively, do a great job simply reminding him that he is a human and there are no standards for realness.

He is, in fact, very real by simply existing as himself: black father, black executive, and black man.

There is a moment in the scene after Dre daps all his “brothas & sistas” at work where he introduces his white coworker as someone who is an “honorary brotha.” I screamed out loud in frustration from my couch. The notion of “hood pass” and “honorary black” is one that truly destroys me, but the truth is when a person of color says that what they are referring to is the fact that this white person SEES them.

It’s a very misguided idea, but it stems from the same place of erasure. The white person that allows you a safe space of comfort is delineating from the norm of the elite power story. They should not be honorary anything but rather a person who simply sees the world as it is. There is no special pass for seeing reality or understanding that we exist.

All our black ish has always been here and respecting it doesn’t make us any better, it makes you better.