As an African-American, I miss the TV shows of the 80’s and 90’s (also the 70’s, but I only watched those in rerun). The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, The Steve Harvey Show, Family Matters, The Waynes Brothers, Living Single, and Martin all lit up my TV screen. As a kid, I would come home from school and flip on Fox, the WB, ABC, or whichever station was playing my favorite characters and chill. My friends would come over, we would talk about TV at school . . . they were good times. Even if there still was a decent amount of segregation between predominately-White and predominately-Black TV(at this point there were few shows that represented any other person of Color), Black folks, and the Black family, were actually on TV.
Adult me does not watch a ton of television and when I watch TV, I am one who “binges” by watching episodes back to back or making enough space to watch an entire mini-series. Nevertheless, I pay attention to what network TV is putting on the air – especially when it comes to race. This fall ABC’s comedy line-up is trying to make some moves towards diversity, but its efforts leave me with some questions.
1 – Are the attempts to diversify TV “talking about race and ethnicity too much”?
What concerns me about this new line-up of explicitly racial television is that it is with with agenda to “talk about race.” I believe that we need to discuss the realities of racialization and my colleague Liz Lin wrote a great post about how Millennials should remember that race matters. Nevertheless, one of the things I tell students when they are writing personal narratives it to “show me” don’t “tell me.” When we write stories, we want to be brought into the action. The best writers and storytellers describe what is occurring and where the plot is going. When we discuss race and ethnicity, the best way is to “show” people the realities not just tell them about it.
The Cosby Show reframed the “Black family” for many people. Yes, these were upper-class Black folks, but they were Black folks. The Cosby Show integrated African-American culture and tradition in a way that was genuine and approachable to everyone. Non-Black people didn’t need to enroll in a Historically Black College and/or University (HCBU) in droves after watching the Cosby show, but hearing the Huxtables talk about life a Hillman (a fictitious HBCU) during the Civil Rights movement, learning from Black intellectuals, and Denise attending an HBCU made a difference. The shows’ integration of HBCUs exposed many Americans to a different American reality and history. And the arts . . . well Mr. Cosby made sure to put in quality artist on the show (Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Art Blakey, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Howard Sims – the Sandman . . . you get it), he picked African-American artists for the decorations and paintings in the house. Those parts of the African-American legacy were omnipresent.
This same “normalization” of blackness(es) happened in Moesha, The Waynes Brothers, Family Matters, etc. None of these shows ignored the realities of race. They frequently discussed the experience of being Black in the U.S., but they did so in a way the highlighted their race & ethnicity without being captive to it. The Winslow’s were a Black (as adjective) family (as noun), but race and ethnicity described their family and narrative, it did not define it.
When I preview the show black-ish starring Anthony Anderson, it seems to be taking the “tell me” approach. Everything is so explicitly predicated on race (look at the title) that it feels stagnant. If people don’t really care to explicitly discuss race and ethnicity, I don’t know if they will watch past one exotic intrigue of the first episode. And for those – like me – to think about and talk about race and ethnicity more frequently the conversations seem pedestrian and tired. I worry that shoe will end-up perpetuating caricature even in its efforts to explore what is means to be Black. If black-ish (with a different title) was about a family life of a Black family, which would necessitate inserting its culture, I cannot help, but wonder if the conversations about race and ethnicity would be better and stretch people’s thinking and assumptions more effectively.
2 – Are we just perpetuating caricatures in an effort to be funny and/or cool?
Eddie Huang’s (who is very creative and an important voice for the Asian-American community) Fresh-Off the Boat looks funny. The situations are comical and some of the cross-cultural calamities are very real for immigrant families. But the brashness of the show makes me wonder if it will do more harm than good. In particular, I worry that cuts some corners in having a robust discussion of race, ethnicity, immigration, and assimilation when blurring the lines – too much – between insider (people with context) and outsider (people without context) information and comedy and when it uses comedy as a defense mechanism.
Again, look at the title. The idea of “Fresh-Off the Boat” or a “FOB” is a way to characterize immigrants who have not assimilated or acculturated to a new culture. Particularly, this is used in Asian-American communities for the people who still have a strong accent, don’t understand American social graces, have different eating habits, etc. Generally it isn’t something one I wants to be called – it is often a way to make fun of people who seem odd or “other.” Now I get that Eddie is trying to flip-it by adding a comedic and relatable element to the experience of being Fresh of the Boat, but I can’t help pick-up a sense of distain and/or displeasure for those who don’t assimilate or are slow to do so.
For many first-generation Asian-American kids there are a lot of things to laugh about and to try to understand about being the liminal “hypen” space between your parents culture and the culture outside of your house. Some parents do sweep-up all the free samples they can get (my African-American family did that too), accents and confusion do get people in precarious positions, the norms of parents who immigrated as adults and children who know nothing but the United States do clash . . . hair is complicated it can be a trail for Asian-American women to find a stylist outside of Asian-ethnic enclaves. Here is my issue . . . for Eddie and perhaps other Asian-American kids they can laugh at these things because they are in relationship with their family and their parent’s culture. Perhaps they are laughing:
- to cope,
- because they love their family,
- because they experience a comedy of cultural “errors” in their family life
- or perhaps they are angry with being in the “hypen”and embarrassed by their family
But the status of insider (one with context) makes a big difference to how one laughs. When you know the people in the story and their complexity, when you see them as multidimensional, you are laughing with them, not at them. Dave Chappelle took a hiatus from comedy and walked off the stage because he realized people were not laughing with him – not in the intimate way he joked with his friends and those who know the context of his jokes – they were laughing at him. For Dave, this perpetuated caricature and misunderstanding . . . I worry that Fresh-Off the Boat will do the same thing.
Cristela might be in the same situation as black-ish & Fresh-Off the Boat, but I have hope it doesn’t fall into the same traps. The show feels like a mix between Tyler’s Perry’s House of Payne and George Lopez because of the family dynamics and it being set predominately in a home.
Something seems a bit more robust in Cirstela.
My pessimism worries that the show won’t be successful, not because it isn’t well made, but because “normalizing” a non-White family doesn’t happen often in mainstream TV Film, etc. I worry we would prefer shows that simply take an exotic or hyperbolic view of race and ethnicity and make us laugh even when they end-up making our actual raicalized existence more complicated and convoluted.
I guess we will have to stay tuned in to find out.