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

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No, I don’t watch it, and I don’t want to. I’m tired of tv as of the past few years. Blackness and brownness is purposely being washed out of tv. It is purposeful programming to normalize things that aren’t normal. I see darker skinned people every day, but don’t see these images represented on tv. Now, the industry is wondering why they are losing money and people are watching other platforms. Screw television and the shows that don’t represent me.

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 »
To Igbotic – “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.” Here in the US, historically it has. Even though we come in all colors, shapes and sizes, if you deviated from the norm of a dark skin, kinky/curly haired look, then people would say, “Where your people from?” It’s like that in the south. Many of us were slave traded from particular areas in West Africa and… 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 »

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.

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 »

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

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… Read more »

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