Black-ish is Tone Deaf on the Issue of Colorism :: Black Girl with Long Hair


First, let's estab­lish that I am a fan of . Dre and Bow John­son - a suc­cess­ful ad exec­u­tive and anes­the­si­ol­o­gist liv­ing in an all-white LA neigh­bor­hood - are the per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how inte­gra­tion has both ben­e­fit­ted and failed black peo­ple. They are the best and bright­est of black Amer­i­ca, who have assim­i­lat­ed into the upper mid­dle class while grap­pling with the black com­mu­ni­ty iden­ti­ty they left behind. In its best episodes, Black-ish is insight­ful and heart­felt.

But col­orism has been Black-ish 's striped ele­phant in the room, and one of its weak spots.

The John­son fam­i­ly is what many would con­sid­er light-skinned, with the excep­tion of Diane, played by the adorable Mar­sai Mar­t­in. (Three of the actors who star in Black-ish - Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi and Miles Brown - are bira­cial in real life.) I'm not sure if this cast­ing was intend­ed, but it pro­vides a rich oppor­tu­ni­ty for explo­ration of col­or and black­ness.

But for a long time, Black-ish only (and very briefly) touched on col­orism in an episode where Bow grap­ples with her dis­dain for Junior's white girl­friend, as she remem­bers being a mixed race youth strug­gling to fit in with both the black and white crowd.

But it seemed the show might take anoth­er swing at it in a recent episode titled ToysRn'tUs, which tack­les black rep­re­sen­ta­tion in media and cul­ture. When Dre casts a fair-skinned black fam­i­ly for an ad cam­paign (that his assis­tant jokes looks like the DeBarge's) his co-work­ers note that he has an affin­i­ty for lighter skin. Dre takes offense at this - as many black peo­ple do when accused of col­orism - but nev­er reflects deeply. Instead he knee­jerk reacts by re-cast­ing the fam­i­ly as West African in tra­di­tion­al garb. Cue the lame jokes about them being Soma­li pirates (who, inci­den­tal­ly, reside in East Africa) and then the show kind of sput­ters to an end with Dre sheep­ish­ly admit­ting that some­times he gets car­ried away in his pur­suit of equal­i­ty.

I under­stand that Black-ish is a com­e­dy, but this is an unsat­is­fy­ing fin­ish for a show that ded­i­cat­ed an entire episode to why it's okay for black peo­ple to use the N-word.

As the episode ran I won­dered why, when Dre was con­sid­er­ing how to re-cast the black fam­i­ly, it didn't occur to him to put in peo­ple who looked like his own daugh­ter.

The fact that Dre enter­tained two cat­e­gories of black­ness in his mind - light-skinned and African - speaks to a real-world prob­lem. Although they rep­re­sent the vast major­i­ty of the black pop­u­la­tion, medi­um and dark-skinned "just black" Amer­i­cans are often sim­ply not seen and, inex­plic­a­bly, find them­selves strug­gling for equal and fair media rep­re­sen­ta­tion. (See here, here, here and here.)

One of my new faves, Calv­in Klein mod­el Ebonee Davis, addressed this in an open let­ter to the fash­ion indus­try;

I was told that brands only booked black girls if they looked like they'd been "plucked from a remote vil­lage in Africa" or like a "white mod­el dipped in choco­late," and from the start of my career in 2011, I lived by those words.

She repeat­ed the point in a Feb­ru­ary TEDX Talk;

Cast­ing direc­tors would ask me, "Where are you from?" to which I would respond, "Seat­tle." And then, "Where are your par­ents from?" to which I would respond "Seat­tle." I was met with looks of con­fu­sion. As if it were impos­si­ble to con­cep­tu­al­ize that black beau­ty exists right here in Amer­i­ca.

Black-ish 's awk­ward han­dling of col­or makes Martin's char­ac­ter Diane, who has up to this point absorbed the worst of the family's female traits, a lot more sus­pi­cious. Bow is the ide­al­is­tic mom, Zoey the styl­ish daugh­ter. Diane is... the evil genius. The one who was put on a no-fly list, the one who might be demon-pos­sessed, the one who is feared by a grown black man (Deon Cole's char­ac­ter Char­lie).

It doesn't help that the show hasn't done a great job of explain­ing why Bow and Zoey wear their loose­ly-curled hair nat­u­ral­ly while Diane's kinkier-tex­tured hair is straight­ened.

I'm just hop­ing the Black-ish writ­ers are self-aware enough not to fall into the Com­ing to Amer­i­ca trap of attribut­ing the stereo­typ­i­cal­ly neg­a­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics to the sis­ter with the dark­er skin.

Tack­ling col­orism is not easy. It's evi­dence that oppressed peo­ple can oppress. But it's an invis­i­ble force that shapes alot both with­in and out­side of black Amer­i­can cul­ture. Black-ish 's sea­son is not over yet, and the show has done an over­all great job of tack­ling com­plex issues, so I have faith that they will take anoth­er stab at the issue of col­orism and, this time, get it right.

Do you watch Black-ish? Did you see the ToysRn'tUs episode? What are your thoughts?

Leila Noel­lis­te, founder of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008). Social media, pop cul­ture and black beau­ty enthu­si­ast. bell hooks' hair twin...