Kenya Burris, creator of a Black Ass body of shows on TV recently premiered a new show on Netflix #BlackAF.
A friend of mine sent me the trailer for the show a few weeks ago and I was excited about it. I am a big fan of Blackish, and although I have never seen Mixed-ish and have to admit that Grownish isn’t for me (I think I’m too old to relate to the show), I am still a fan of his work overall. But being a fan of his recent shows centered on blackness and black families in America, I wasn’t too surprised to see that #BlackAF was met with criticism from some in the black community.
He’s accused of perpetuating colorism by not having a more inclusive cast of black actors, mostly because they tend to be light-skinned. Special criticism includes disdain for his casting choices in the roles of the female leads including Rashida Jones (#BlackAF) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Blackish) both of which are lighter skinned (and biracial) women.
While I understand the need for representation of black people of all hues in casting on TV, I do at the same time understand how (1) the families on his shows look the way they do, considering the stories are drawn from his own life, and (2) how it’s possible that his depiction of black families in his shows are representative of black American families (just not all).
- From the onset of Blackish Kenya Barris has allowed us inside the life of him and his family. Although he does not play himself on this show (as he does in #BlackAF) he has been open about the inspiration for the characters, the issues explored on , and the his shows and the parallels to his own life and that of his ex-wife and children. So basically, it seems Blackish and #BlackAF both parallel his real life, and thus his characters look much like his own family including his light-skinned wife (now ex-wife) and light-skinned children. If art imitates life and this is his life, then perhaps that’s the motive for his casting choices. Now I have no idea why casting looks the way it does on Grownish (with no darker skinned actors among the core group of friends) nor Mixedish.
- Beyond casting, criticism comes from the inability of some black people who have viewed the show(s) to connect with his characters, their “struggles” and his overall depiction of the “black experience”. Blackish and #BlackAF presents to us upper middle-class to wealthy black families with careers in medicine, law, entertainment, and advertising. They live in neighborhoods in California where there are no black neighbors, and for the most part the children have no concept of any real class-based or financial struggles despite that fact that some of the parents have as they were growing up. Although these are not the depictions and storylines of black people we typically see, are they so far from reality that we cannot imagine the lives and struggles of black people whose central issues may not be financially related, but still related to the complexities of navigating racism in this country? After all, money may shield some of us from some problems and even some experiences, but even with all the money in the world black is still black and it is still tough to be in this country. Furthermore, the shows explore complexities associated with not “fitting in” in either community neither white nor black leaving the Burris’ like the Johnson’s a bit outcasted. This seems to be the driving force behind Dre’s need to assert his blackness at work and at home (especially around his parents), and Kenya teetering between appearing “black enough” to be seen and respected as black, but not too black that he is threatening to white people. He literally allows himself to be the butt of the joke, making fun of his struggles with his black identity and addressing criticism for his work through humor and sarcasm.
What I see within Burris’ shows is a centering of blackness in a context that allows us to see the complexity of navigating intersections of race with other identities such as class/socioeconomic status and gender in a way that sheds light on the broadness of the black experience. We are not a monolithic people. We are poor, middle-class, working-class, rich, wealthy, formally educated, informally educated, light-skinned, dark-skinned, biracial, from the hood, raised in the country, the suburbs, inner-city, and so on. We are a combination of a bunch of experiences, pain, accomplishments, abuse, survival but most of all resilience. Maybe we cannot take #BlackAF or Blackish and use them as examples of the common black experience, and maybe many black people can’t relate. But perhaps we can use these shows to shed light on different complexities that some black people face, and admit that even if it isn’t #BlackAF or Black enough for us based on our experiences or how we see our own blackness, it is #BlackAF and Black enough for some Black people.