Race in your face: Black Sitcoms and Race Issues – Karoline Summerville

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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NPR.ORG

Black sitcoms have experience a rise and fall in popularity since the establishment of The Cosby Show. African Americans have fought for an equal standing in society as well as on the television set. It would be foolish to think, though, that these battles exist separately.

My blog post is a response to an article I read this week in the Huffington Post. The article outlines how different shows handle talking about race. For example, The Cosby Show avoided the discussion altogether while Black-ish tackles race head on. In one episode on The Cosby Show, Claire Huxtable tries to get a job as a lawyer but is rejected. The writers briefly discussed making race an explicit issue, but settled on subtly indicating race as the reason she did not get the job. Interestingly, The Cosby Show provides an ideal image of the black family and was a show that gave African American families hope. An image newly freed slaves could barely imagine.

African American leaders like W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington would be impressed with shows like this because they urged blacks to start small, and work with their hands to build our own communities. But in these shows, blacks are integrating (with the exception of A Different World which is set at an HBCU).

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A Different World, Pinterest.com

Shows that skate around race issues allows black audiences to envision a society free of racism, where we are no longer inferior to our white counterparts. Ironically, though, these shows are also an escape from the black struggle within American history. These shows allow us to see what it would be like if racism never existed. If we were equal, legally, economically and socially with whites from day one.

Unfortunately, these images are very much fantastical. But it is nice to see where we can get to as a society. Further, the absence of many white characters in these shows play into that black empowerment message. In other words, our lives are no longer seen in opposition to white lives, rather our lives are dominant.

Other shows focus on race and are not shy about these issues. A Different World being one of my favorites because it places an emphasis on black education and not the education that privileges whites structurally from the professors and staff down to the curriculum. I remember one episode when the students were having a debate and the teacher did not try to calm students down but he encouraged them to speak with anger and frustration. In this way, blackness is not stereotyped but embraced.

I am not sure whether I would rather black sitcoms to avoid race discussions or confront them. I do think it is important to have a mix of both. It is important, however, that the rise of white sitcoms in popularity not dictate the choices of black sitcom writers to avoid race to protect and attract white audiences for the sake of ratings.

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6 Responses to Race in your face: Black Sitcoms and Race Issues – Karoline Summerville

  1. mediaphiles says:

    Black sitcoms are different and definitely have to address different problems than other sitcoms. I do feel that shows today need to do a better job on including people of color. I think we should strive to create a sitcom where it is not labelled as a black sitcom or a white one. Master of None does a pretty good job of having such a diverse cast, but there needs to be more.

    Laya Mohan

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I think you make an excellent point about needing a good mix of both implicit and explicit relationships with the “issue”. I think shows which deal with various social issues head on have to heed discretion in how they go about it. There is no one right way to think about an issue, and imprinting one ideology or viewpoint into a widely produced television show is tricky. Some shows do it well (black-ish), and others don’t (literally any show or movie with a white guy playing an Asian). –Serena Daya

  3. mediaphiles says:

    This reminds me of the episode of Julia we watched followed by the discussion. The episode consists of blatantly talking about race, especially how children can be exposed to it at such a young age. In spite of this, in class, it was revealed that Julia did not normally touch upon those issues and would resort to a form of lackluster humor instead of discussing these important issues further. It is a shame that shows tiptoe around this matter a lot, but I’m glad shows like Blackish can also bring these issues to light as well as produce comedic comment at the same time.

    -Shelby Halliman

  4. mediaphiles says:

    I completely agree. I find that the only way to address issues now-a-days is by being as straight forward as possible. When creating a “cloud” around the issue sometimes it is unclear what the writers are trying to portray and make it difficult to raise awareness on a specific topic. Many times when race comes up people suggest being colorblind to avoid addressing the social issues but we should be celebrating our diversity, not ignoring it.

    Alexandra Peralta

  5. I love Serena’s line about there being no right or wrong way for black sitcoms–or TV in general–to address an issue (like race). So often people–especially white ones–like to tell artists/activists/leaders/humans of color how to deal with race.

    Also, trying to remember my own experience with shows like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince; my guess is that shows that don’t explicitly make race statements/arguments allowed my white self to perhaps just see them and unconsciously think–Oh look. They’re doing well. No racial discrimination in their lives!–and move on. Pointing out racial injustices would make it harder for a kid who grew up with white privilege to ignore them.

    HOWEVER. Educating me on racism is not people of color’s job, so–not that my opinion or permission much matters–but I’m of the opinion that makers of primarily black-cast shows get to decide how best to address race.

    (Leah Haynes)

  6. mediaphiles says:

    Racism is still around today and if sitcoms are trying to portray real life then it should be brought up. Magicoms are starting to lose their hold on America through social media bringing light to social injustices and issues and sitcoms themselves are tackling major issues such as introducing gay couples like in Modern Family. Sitcoms could be turned into a mechanism for informing viewers about what is occurring in minority societies and make Americans more aware of the social injustices they face.

    – turner arrington

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