By Ryan Ricks
Mixed-ish, a spin-off of the popular ABC show Black-ish, will premiere this fall. It’s premise centers around the childhood of the mother on Black-ish, Rainbow Johnson. The Wikipedia summary of the show states “ the series chronicles the early years of Rainbow Johnson as she recounts her experience growing up in a mixed-race family in the 1980s and the dilemmas they faced over whether to assimilate or stay true to themselves when her parents move from a hippie commune (that was raided in 1985) to the suburbs.”
At first glance, this may seem like it is a good premise. Finally, some mixed representation! Those were my first thoughts too. But, all you have to do is take a second look, and the problems of this show start rearing their nasty heads.
Let’s start with this: the very basis of feeling like you’re correctly represented in a piece of media is relatability, right? You have to be able to relate to the issues, problems, and situations of the characters. Mixed-ish fails in this. The whole premise puts a barrier between it and much of its intended audience. Growing up on a hippie commune is something the vast majority of people cannot relate to. Many people didn’t have to make the switch from commune to city life. Also, because the time period is the ‘80s, that just removes the whole show from its audience even more, because it is so far from the present day.
Unrelatability also proves to be a problem when discussing the setting of this show. The show takes place in the suburbs, a setting that has proved to be the death of relatability and “woke-ness,” as seen in Black-ish, which will be discussed further in this article. This means that the character of Rainbow Johnson and her siblings have grown up in privilege, something that many mixed people can’t relate to. This is very similar to how the family in Black-ish also lives in privilege. Based on the trailer, it seems that Rainbow’s white grandfather is paying for the family to live in the suburban house, which is just another situation that feels very off because of the unfortunate implications that arise from it (for example, it feels almost “white man’s burden”-like because the white grandfather has to use his own money to pay for the mixed family).
By taking a second look at the hippie commune, more problematic elements reveal themselves. Rainbow and her family so far seem to be the only mixed family in town, and because they were originally from a hippie commune, the concept of being in an interracial relationship is “othered,” as if it is something only “weird hippies” do. Because Rainbow and her siblings were born on some “weird hippie commune” instead of in a normal town or somewhere similar, it implies that being in an interracial relationship and having mixed children (or even worse, being mixed) is “weird” and “not normal.” Beyond being an offensive and ignorant perspective, this approach ignores basic facts, like how interracial relationships were becoming increasingly common in the ‘80s, and still are today. But can this really be a surprise coming from a show where the only possible interracial relationship is between a black and a white person? Can this really be a surprise when the trailer for this show fails in even the most basic aspects of making relatable characters, like appearance?
Appearance is a very important part of being able to relate with your audience. When I see someone who looks like me on TV, it is much easier to see myself in them. Mixed-ish again reduces the amount of characters its audience can relate to by giving them all problematic appearances. With Rainbow and her two siblings, Mixed-ish doesn’t seem to understand or care that being mixed can take on a variety of different appearances, and that even siblings with the same parents can look completely different. Rainbow and her siblings look exactly alike and are very white-passing. Each kid is very light-skinned, so much so that if they simply straightened their hair they’d probably be seen as white. While I understand there are many multiracial children who are white-passing, it is just very off-putting that every single sibling is white-passing. Not every mixed kid is going to be white-passing. I should know, being a mixed kid myself. Even if I straightened my hair, there’d be no pretending I’m white, and the same goes for many others. This choice, to have them all be so light-skinned, makes me worried that this show will go down a very bad, colorist route. Colorism is an issue that is very prevalent in minority communities, and making all the protagonists light-skinned could have unfortunate implications, especially if there are dark-skinned “antagonists.”
Let’s talk about hair for a second too. Rainbow and her siblings have at most type 3 hair (curls are elongated and “wide”), and it’s possible that at least one of the siblings’ hair can be classified as type 2 (which is more wavy than curly). Being someone with type 3 hair herself, I can understand the choice to give them type 3 hair…if they didn’t all have it. There are all sorts of hair textures, and they had to go with the most painfully stereotypically “mixed” type of hair? The type that you see in every other TV advertisement nowadays? Even the mother in the show, one of the few dark-skinned characters, has type 3 hair. And we’re not talking about the more coily end of the type 3 hair spectrum, we’re talking about curly hair that’s approaching wavy. It’s less curly than some of her kids’ hair! Considering that she lived on a commune for at least 12 years, it’s unlikely she had access to products that would make her hair this way, so viewers are to assume that this is her natural hair, which is very unlikely considering that it is much more common for black women to have type 4 hair (very curly, which much smaller and springier curls, also known as “coily”). This might seem like a small nitpick, but it’s actually just a new entry in the long list of examples of how the hair of black women has been changed to fit western beauty standards. While the elongated curls of type 3 hair are fine, the much smaller and springier curls of type 4 hair are shunned.
Don’t let the mixed characters fool you, Mixed-ish is actually a show that greatly lacks in diversity. In its quest to showcase the life of Rainbow Johnson, Mixed-ish ignores all other types of mixes. There are more races and ethnic groups in the world than black and white, and yet they’re completely ignored. Even in the trailer for the show, when mixed celebrities are mentioned and shown as examples for mixed kids to look up to, they are all mixes of black and white. How is anyone who is not a mix of black and white supposed to relate to this? All this does is invalidate their identity more than our black-and-white society has already done.
Moving to the trailer as a whole, it sends out a very, very problematic message. The trailer frames it like all the problems of mixed kids are solved in the present. They have celebrities they can look up to right? Life must be good for them. Well, speaking from the mixed experience myself, I can easily say that’s just completely false. I don’t even have to cite my own experience. The trailer already shows the weak points in its argument for me. Just because there are celebrities of mixed race does not mean that the problems of multiracial people have been solved. In fact, our problems have probably been silenced more than ever. Many celebrities do not talk about the fact that they are mixed. Even less do if it doesn’t directly benefit them. If this phenomenon is being brushed aside by everyone, then we can’t say that there are no issues pertaining to being mixed.
So far, everything I have mentioned has been shown directly in the trailer. Obviously, when the show premieres, it will contain a lot more content than what’s shown in a 3-minute trailer. However, I’m a little apprehensive as to what that content could be. My biggest worry is that the show might push the narrative that mixed children have to pick a “side,” or just one race to identify with. It’s a very common trope, both in entertainment and outside of it, and it’s just a toxic message that needs to be thrown in the garbage where it belongs. Hopefully the show stays away from this, but so far I’m not sure.
As mentioned before, Mixed-ish is a spin-off of Black-ish, an ABC hit. This means it will probably be very similar to Black-ish in terms of writing style or content. This worries me. Black-ish has its own list of issues and problematic characteristics that could spill over into Mixed-ish.
Like Mixed-ish, Black-ish is not a show where relatability seems to be the highest priority. Similar to its spin-off, Black-ish features a wealthy black family living in the suburbs. Even though it is a show that is in many ways about being black, it does not have a very large cast of dark-skinned actors. Although, I will admit, it has tackled the subject of colorism well, it’s still problematic how there are so few dark-skinned actors in the show.
One of the biggest issues with Black-ish is its tendency to make racism a joke. That’s not to say all jokes about white people being ignorant and racist and all that stuff can’t be funny sometimes, but the way that Black-ish does it, and how many other shows like it do it, are just plain unfunny, and shouldn’t be treated as comedic. Many of the racist moments in the show, especially the microaggressions, like hair touching, are treated as jokes. As if the white characters are just well-meaning people trying to do their best but still just succumbing to a primal need to be racist. It’s a gross point of view. It almost implies white people get absolved for being ignorant and racist because it’s “humorous.”
At times, Black-ish even goes so far as to make internalized racism within the black community a joke. For example, in one episode, the character of Andre Johnson, the father of the main family, wants to name his new son Devante, a name more associated with the African-American community. When he tells his co-workers, his white co-workers say the usual stuff about why doesn’t he want to name it “Bernie or Leon.” The real problem arises when his black co-worker says that if “he boards a plane and hears that the captain’s name is Devante, he’s not going to board the plane.” For one thing, where exactly is the joke there? Because personally I can’t find anything worth laughing at. African-American names have been looked down upon throughout all walks of life, from schools to jobs, with real-life consequences for those who have one. It has been proven multiple times that when a job applicant has an African-American name, they are far more likely to be rejected than an applicant with a white name with the same exact resume. This is real life; this is not a joke. And the fact that it was a comment made by a black man deepens the impact because Black-ish is really trying to make a joke out of internalized racism, something that is very real and has very real effects on minority communities.
When these kinds of situations are turned into jokes, it makes it feel like black people are just supposed to be resigned and do nothing when they are subjected to racism. They are supposed to “laugh it off.” It was just a “joke.” But racism is real, and it is harmful. It cannot be relegated to a joke. A racist joke is still racist because it came from a place of prejudice. Black-ish is harming more than it is helping representation when it does this, because it makes people feel like they can get away with being racist and makes minorities feel like they shouldn’t call these people out.
Because Black-ish was and is continuing to include these problematic elements in its programming, I fear that Mixed-ish will also pick up on these same features. I fear that it will heavily rely on stereotypes for both the black and white community, rather than devoting time to develop fleshed out characters and sensible plotlines.
To be clear, I don’t bring up these things because I dislike Black-ish as a whole. It wouldn’t be fair for me to completely judge a TV series I haven’t watched in its entirety. I think it has made great strides in normalizing black families on TV, bringing more black roles to TV in general, and showing the microaggressions many black people face in their lives, as well as showing what racism actually looks like in the present, because not every racist person is a full-fledged white-robe-wearing KKK member.
However, just because Black-ish has done some important things, this doesn’t mean it can simply be let off the hook for its problematic elements. Especially when its spin-offs also seem to be continuing the trend. I don’t think these shows were thought of with these problematic elements in mind. In fact, while in development, they possibly could’ve not even contained these problems.
I believe that the root of almost all the problematic elements of Black-ish and Mixed-ish and other shows like them arise from the pedestal on which entertainment companies put the white audience. Because entertainment companies don’t want to upset the white audience, they make these shows subdued. White people are the majority in this country, and so companies make the most money by keeping them appeased, making them believe that they are magnanimous towards minorities, even though that isn’t the case. The relatability of characters is lost as they are placed into environments and situations that most minorities can’t relate to. Instead of calling white people out for racist behavior, racism becomes a joke. Instead of families being heavily connected to minority experiences, they are moved to the suburbs and live a privileged lifestyle far away from the issues affecting minority communities. Because these types of shows are too afraid to take a real stand against racism and prejudice and other issues affecting minorities, they become complicit and accepting, making them problematic.
If there are to be good shows, especially good comedy shows, about minorities, we must stop fearing the wrath of the white audience. Why do we have to punish the minorities who are literally being oppressed by the people who are being pandered to?
I’m happy that minorities are getting more representation in entertainment and media. But if we’re going to be portrayed unfaithfully then what’s the point? These TV shows and movies need to make a stand, or else we’re going to remain in a vast sea of dim, gray, unrelatable, and problematic shows forever.
Image courtesy of ABC Studios