First, let’s estab­lish that I am a fan of Black-ish. 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.

Antho­ny Ander­son and Tracee Ellis Ross play Dre and Bow John­son

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.

Mar­sai Mar­tin, who plays Diane

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. 

Alli­son Dean (left) as the las­civ­i­ous Patrice and Shari Headley (right) as the whole­some Lisa in ‘Com­ing to Amer­i­ca’

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?

Black Girl With Long Hair

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

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36 Comments on "‘Black-ish’ is Tone Deaf on the Issue of Colorism"

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I saw the episode…and I think this is a reach. I think the point was to show the extremes and con­fu­sion that Dre had in regards to what is sell­able in Amer­i­ca. It was address­ing his per­son­al col­orism issues. As for Diane…again a reach. Lets not for­get that Diane had nat­ur­al hair when the show started.…and some­times rocked a fro. Im not sure who’s deci­sion it was to straight­en her hair.…it could’ve been a real life deci­sion made by Marsai’s real moth­er, and maybe had noth­ing to do with the show. Also nat­u­ral­ly Tracee & Yara are going to rock… Read more »

I haven’t watched Black­ish since the debut of Empire. I causal­ly watched, What turn off for me was the chil­dren, they were just not like­able!


This reminds me so much of a post I’d seen on tum­blr that read some­thing like “when’s the last time you saw a black fam­i­ly in the media where the moth­er isn’t lighter than the father and their daugh­ter isn’t mixed-race look­ing” and hon­est­ly, there aren’t many and it’s so upset­ting


It’s com­e­dy! Let’s keep it like that.…it won’t go into any­thing col­or deep.…unfortunately.


You for­got Diane’s twin broth­er Jack who is brown skinned. Jack is not light skinned.

It\'s Me
I don’t agree that Diane absorbed the worst of the family’s traits. In fact, I think that Zoey has it the worst. In a com­e­dy, where every­one gets sev­er­al oppor­tu­ni­ties to deliv­er punch lines in every episode, Zoey comes off as the bor­ing, some­times ditzy, place­hold­er. As an actress in a com­e­dy, that role takes her char­ac­ter nowhere. When Zoey goes off to col­lege next year, the plot won’t slow down one bit. She’s the Judy Winslow. Bo is the over­bear­ing, neu­rot­ic, out of touch mom who blun­ders her way through moth­er­hood and work (despite being a doc­tor). Dre’s moth­er… Read more »

Exact­ly. Diane is my favorite!

I feel com­pelled to com­ment because you have been post­ing quite a bit recent­ly about “just-black­ness” as though it has a look and is eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish­able from the “not just black” or “Africa black” against which you are jux­ta­pos­ing it. I have to be hon­est, there’s some­thing a bit lim­it­ed, mild­ly xeno­pho­bic, and stereo­type-affirm­ing about what you seem to be imply­ing with these posts, and sur­pris­ing­ly few peo­ple have replied express­ing con­trary view­points. I don’t think you mean to be alien­at­ing. With these posts, though, some one less dis­cern­ing might assume that one could eas­i­ly pick those looks out of… Read more »
I watch the show. Its great that the show exist. I am not going to get upset about Bow not being able to do Diane’s hair. I have seen many a young black child in the beau­ty salon cause their mom can’t do their hair. We need to be real­is­tic with are views and how things are. Its not con­sid­ered cute on a dark­er child on TV. Espe­cial­ly if her tex­ture is very kinky. There would be com­plaints of why is her hair not done. Since she is a young girl we don’t need to twit­ter shame the child cause… Read more »
Im not sure what you mean by kinky hair is “not cute” on a dark­er child on tv. If God cre­at­ed your hair very kinky then thats what it is. The point is the hair just needs to be kept neat. That is very do-able with kinky hair. Theres a pletho­ra of styles that could be done.…..and dark skin has noth­ing to do with it. If any­thing it should be easy in 2017 to do nat­ur­al hair for a child.…. braids ‚beads, twists, puffs, braid outs, twist outs, straw curls etc… Also I don’t see Char­lie and Diane as tokens.… Read more »

There are plen­ty of nat­ur­al styles that are cute & look “done” (or what­ev­er one wants to call it)–afro puffs, braids, twists, corn­rows, etc. The young black & brown girls at my daughter’s ele­men­tary school rock them every day & they look adorable, can’t nobody say any­thing about it. At the day’s end there are brain­washed black folk out there who are going to have some­thing crit­i­cal to say about one’s hair, regard­less.


You must have missed the episode where the MiL teased Diane’s hair into an afro and Bow com­plained that she couldn’t man­age it.

Yes!!! I remem­ber this episode… Maybe, it’s just the type 4 girl in me, but I found it quite dis­ap­point­ing :-( It can actu­al­ly be seen as tex­ture dis­crim­i­na­tion. Regard­ing col­orism, I feel like Dre under­stood the accu­sa­tion of col­orism as ‘why don’t you like “real” black peo­ple?’ instead of “why don’t you like dark-skinned peo­ple?”. So he replied with the West African fam­i­ly… I was very sur­prised because I thought he would just cast dark-skinned actors (the entire fam­i­ly or not) with Vio­la Davis or Lupi­ta Nyong’o beau­ti­ful com­plex­ions. To me, it just goes back to this elu­sive ques­tion… Read more »

I saw that episode…and I under­stand the dis­ap­point­ment, but the truth is thats real. Its real that many mixed moth­ers have dif­fi­cul­ty man­ag­ing their children’s kinky hair. It sounds bad, but they grew up with a dif­fer­ent tex­ture, and have no train­ing on how to man­age kinky hair some­times. I do think that they should make strong efforts instead of dis­miss­ing the hair as difficult.….but my point is that is a real life sit­u­a­tion.

Mel B

And can we acknowl­edge that its not inte­gra­tion if you’re the only one and there’s noone fol­low­ing behind you. That’s just a coin­ci­dence… not inte­gra­tion. One of the biggest issues I have with the show. They real­ly dont f****s with black peo­ple (oth­er than their fam­i­ly). You can be black-ish and have a mixed crowd of friends and go to mixed expe­ri­ences with­out it being a big deal


But they don’t real­ly inter­act with any­one oth­er than those in the neigh­bor­hood or at work. So I’m not under­stand­ing this here.

It\'s Me
Actu­al­ly, the only peo­ple the John­sons ever actu­al­ly invite *into* their home are black: Dre’s sis­ter, Dre’s best friend (Tyra Banks), Dre’s boys from the old hood, black nan­ny aka Vivian (Regi­na Hall). Charlie’s the per­son who was entrust­ed with babysit­ting when Dre and Bo went out of town and dri­ving one of their cars on their way to a fam­i­ly ski trip. Dre’s only friends with the two black dudes at work. All the white peo­ple they inter­act with are kept exter­nal to the main set­ting of the show, which is their home life. One cor­rec­tion: Junior brought home a… Read more »