In the course of any cross-cultural relationship, there comes an inevitable crisis point, where actual cultural differences and differences in experience become significant. This crisis point can be particularly acute when there are underlying sociopolitical dynamics at play. The presence of a biased cultural narrative (that favors one member of the relationship and is hostile to the other) complicates the relationship by forcing one or both sides to chose to accept or reject the narrative.
Let us take the friendship between a white American male, and a black American male as our example. Mainstream American culture has, for many years, consciously and subconsciously, promoted a narrative that privileges a largely mythological construct, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, straight, Protestant Christian “boy next door.” He is intelligent. He plays sports (baseball mainly, or the quarterback position in football). He is a captain of industry with unimpeachable morals. And so forth, and so on. He’s largely imaginary, but we can all describe him down to the smallest detail.
This fair-haired boy has a favorite frenemy who plays a important role in his life, a dark-skinned black thug: uneducated, lustful and animalistic. The fair-haired boy does all he can to help elevate and improve this base creature, but largely without success. He enjoys the thug’s songs and dances, and envies his primal passions, but ultimately finds him a frightening and unpredictable force of brute nature.
For years, these two figures have made up the dominant opposing poles of male American identity. We may recognize these as ridiculous and outdated stereotypes, but they are nonetheless inescapable: All our books, and movies, and television shows are formed either in obedience to or in opposition to such stereotypes. We may be brunette, not blond, or Jewish, not Christian, or black, not white, or female, not male, but we can still pledge our allegiance to the Boy Next Door, if we so choose. In other words, we can join (or at least support) “Team Us”, at the price of never questioning the narrative. Conversely, even if we are blond, straight, male and Christian we can still join “Team Other,” at the stiff price of committing to swim against the current.
The crisis point in the friendship is this: Does the black person laugh at all the faintly racist jokes? Does he keep quiet when Elvis is described as the father of rock and roll? Does he accept that all the movies he and his friend see together, or even discuss, feature white actors in the lead roles, and black actors as comic relief, minor villains, or cannon fodder? Does he keep quiet when everyone in the room complains about blacks?
The answer is “yes,” probably, if he wants to get along and advance in a world that is not wholly black. But there will always be a superficiality to the friendships founded on this basis. The black friend will keep his true self and feelings hidden. In many cases, the white friend will never suspect. The friendship may last for years, and even be treasured by the white person, if only for its unchallenging comforts and cheap exoticism. This is how people who are horribly racist can deceive themselves into thinking their caddies, maids, janitors or mammies are their own best friends. Yet in a moment, an unexpected gap can open, revealed, perhaps, by diverging reactions to some public event: the OJ Simpson case, the Black Lives Matter movement, the election of Barack Obama, the election of Donald Trump. In an unguarded moment, the black friend reveals his true feelings. Shock and horror are the result. This is scenario one.
In scenario two, the black person doesn’t just laugh at the racist jokes, he genuinely finds them funny, and perhaps adds a few self-loathing ones of his own. He agrees enthusiastically that Elvis is the king. He is pathetically grateful for scraps of attention and acceptance. He really does think his white employer is his best friend. In this scenario, it is likely the black person who will someday be shocked and horrified to find that his friendship didn’t really mean as much to the other person as he thought –to find out he was never a part of the club, but was only a mascot, a favored pet.
The third scenario is the most difficult, and accordingly the most rare. The person in the position of privilege –the white friend, in this example –and the person in the unprivileged position –the black friend, in our example –must decide to work together to challenge the narrative. The white friend must become, in the current parlance, “woke,” conscious of the continual broadband broadcast of assumptions hostile to those who share his black friend’s race. This is a very different thing from simply granting his own friend a one-person-to-one-person exemption from such assumptions. He must learn to notice how differently he and his friend are treated in the same store, or when approached by the same police officer. He needs to learn whose music Elvis covered, and he needs to accompany his friend to at least the occasional movie for black people, by black people.
It will not be an easy or a comfortable process. He may become angry. He may blame his friend. His feelings may be hurt. He may be horrified, or even radicalized. He will almost certainly experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance. But at the end of it, he and his partner in the process can become real friends, not fake ones.
In many ways, ABC’s new hit show “Blackish” is a standard sitcom with a well-worn formula: a boorish dad and his ditsy wife struggle to raise their smart-aleck kids while navigating relationships with wacky neighbors and overbearing relatives. But in one way, Blackish is groundbreaking, because America and Blackish are going through the consciousness raising process, together.
It is important to note what apple carts the show does NOT upset. Centering, as it does, on a wealthy, upwardly mobile black family, it is celebratory of American consumerism, and uncritical of socioeconomic disparities. That’s probably part of the sugar that makes the medicine go down easy. The other part is that the show is genuinely funny, with a stellar supporting cast, and a familiar, unchallenging format that recalls beloved classic sitcoms of years past.
On the other hand, every episode actually begins with a didactic, thirty-second preview of the episode’s racial consciousness-raising message, a bold piece of activism that is ironically made more palatable both by how unapologetically blatant it is, and by its believable delivery by the show’s protagonist “Dré”, a pushy, entitled, race-obsessed narcissist (but a likeable one!). Inside the episodes, the show has wrung improbably genial humor out of scenarios ranging from racial profiling, to unfair sentencing, to the 2016 elections. More subtly, the show includes a wide range of black people in lead roles, from the stereotypical (the reliably hilarious Deon Cole as deadbeat dad “Charles”) to the stereotype-defying (Marcus Scribner as earnestly geeky eldest son “Junior”), a spectrum that quietly affirms the uniqueness of black people as individuals, and our right to express ourselves in a wide and contrasting variety of ways.
Perhaps most subversive is the way the show invites the audience to emphasize with the couple at the center of the show, and to see things from their distinctly not-colorblind point of view, even when they are behaving at their worst. It’s significant, because it’s precisely at little breakpoints such as these that the great big “Us vs. Them” boundaries are drawn. When Dré and his wife misperceive an innocent comment as a racist provocation, we the audience see it through their eyes as an honest mistake, based on the reality of an often-racist world, rather than through the less sympathetic eyes of the white people around them. It’s easy to miss how significant little moments like this are –or the equally significant fact that the show is a major mainstream hit. It’s easy to present an alternative point of view to a fringe or a niche audience, but when you’re a primetime, broadcast network hit, you’re reaching people outside your own core demographic. There are definitely some Blackish fans out there in TV Land who are seeing and hearing things they’ve never seen or heard –or thought about –before. It might even be things that change their worlds, or at least the way they look at them.
Blackish is far from perfect. As mentioned, while waking people up to realities of race, it hits the snooze button on (what are in some ways more significant) issues of socioeconomic disparities. The closest the show ever comes to addressing poverty is in Dré’s sepia toned memories of a picturesquely impoverished childhood, and the family’s wealth-based sense of entitlement can grow wearisome. But if you’re looking to start some difficult conversations to deepen your friendship with that best bud of a different ethnicity, this might be the best place to get both that and a hearty shared laugh to go along with it. Go see it.