In this article, I—a black Christian—want to make you aware of a TV show called Black-ish and how we as Christians might learn from it.
I’m somewhat anxious to write about this show because one of my favorite, more cranky friends has recently discipled me in the ways of how sitcoms portray black culture. I won’t mention any names, but it’s definitely Thabiti Anyabwile.
Thabiti has encouraged me to consider the goals and effects of black sitcoms over the years—from Sanford and Son to Good Times to Sister, Sister to The Cosby Show. Beamed into our living rooms, these shows amplify conversations about race, ethnicity, and class—ones often had (or avoided) in our living rooms—to a broader, national setting.
And Black-ish currently rules the nation’s airwaves as the leading black sitcom. Depicting life for the only black family in an all-white suburban neighborhood, the Johnsons are a hilarious, self-discovering proxy for all things black, white, and everything in between. Testifying to the inherent ambiguities of what it means to be “black” in 2016, the show’s title dons a simple yet potent suffix: “ish.”
This suffix suggests that an ethnicity like “black” bends and molds since it depends on time and space. In other words, “ish” implies “blackness” isn’t just one monolithic construct or experience. Though stereotypes may tempt us to believe otherwise, the “ish” adds a question mark to the idea of blackness—an insecure “kinda?” or “basically, I guess?”
In short, the suffix asks more than it answers.
But in asking, well, whatever it asks, Black-ish can help Christians wanting to do the difficult work God calls us to—loving others made in his image—because the show models how (and how not) to navigate the difficult waters of race and ethnicity in a non-threatening way. It gently guides the viewer by enrobing the race and ethnicity conversation in something that eases most of us: humor.
Consider the second season’s fifth episode, “Churched.” The Johnsons attempt to skirt an invitation to their neighbor’s all-white church, which, culturally speaking, differs drastically from the Johnsons’ all-black church (which they rarely attend). The show sketches caricatures of both churches such that viewers familiar with either can’t help but shake their head with a grin, if not a few belly laughs.
Guffaws aside, this episode provides a window from one world into another, and invites us to look through the panes of both. Looking through these panes, we realize how silly some of our fears of the unknown are; we find healthy motivation not only to look through our own windows but also to leave our homes and worlds to experience someone else’s.
Such a departure from our world to another’s is an immense aid to mourning with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15), to loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and to embracing a humble mindset that doesn’t assume it has all the answers (1 Pet. 3:8). Such a mindset is imperative in the local church when the pangs of racism and bias abound in our fallen world. I would know. Recently, a white man accosted me and my wife with the n-word.
Consider watching Black-ish’s episode simply called “The Word.” It kicked off season two, and through it the show tackles the question of who should and shouldn’t be allowed to say the “n-word.” It examines this difficult issue through the situations many of us experience each day—the drive with kids to school, watercooler conversations at work, conversations between siblings. As we see these situations staged with humor, we can take the next step in having important conversations ourselves.
Such motivation is needed in a world that despairs when it comes to race. As Christians, however, we are filled with hope (1 Cor. 13:13)—a word that, incidentally, served as the title of Black-ish’s most recent and most sober episode. It focused on parents talking to their children about police, minorities, and justice—a relationship that’s become strained in America.
I wonder what thoughts and emotions names like Eric Garner evoke in you? How do you deal with those thoughts and emotions? Would a show like Black-ish, no matter how much you agree or disagree with it, affect your response at all? Would your response to Black-ish and its themes be Christian—or Christian-ish?
Black-ish and the Bible
I’m not here to say what the Christian response to Black-ish must be. I’m simply saying that whatever our responses to ethnicity and race, they must be Christian. That is, they must be controlled by our submission to Christ and his Word, which is why I’ve gone to lengths to describe Black-ish as a supplement, not the answer, to any conversation. God’s glory, not TV shows or cultural whims (1 Cor. 10:31), is our motivation. This particular show might help us move in love toward one another, but watching it is not crossing the finish line of racial reconciliation.
I suppose the danger with shows like Black-ish is that those who come to learn from them may accept everything they teach as truthful. And for all of Black-ish’s ambiguities, sometimes it overreaches, casting things as facts when they simply aren’t. For example, episode 23 from season 1, “Elephant in the Room,” suggests that to be black and politically engaged is to be Democrat. Here’s where we must watch critically, lest we treat the show like the first book an eager student reads on an issue, wherein the temptation is to think everything in it must be right.
Brothers and sisters, beware of this temptation before shows like Black-ish influence our thinking to be Christian-ish; before our TVs—whether tuned to our favorite sitcoms or news outlets—disciple us instead of godly brothers and sisters who submit to God’s Word, which gives us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).
Buoyed by such a confidence, then, we don’t shrink back from the culture in fear. After all, we are in the world (John 17:15). But we cannot check our consciences at the door. With minds being transformed and renewed by God’s Word, we must let our Bibles—not Black-ish—ultimately educate us on issues of race, class, and ethnicity. After all, we are not of the world (John 17:16). This is why Black-ish intake is completely optional; Bible intake is not. The show can be crass at times, and like any other sitcom it will come and go. But God’s Word stands forever (Ps. 119:89).
That said, I fear many will read that last paragraph and succumb to a common temptation in areas of freedom: seeing anything extrabiblical as unhelpful, useless, and vain—a waste of time and spiritual energy. We can confess that Scripture sufficiently and authoritatively speaks to issues of race and ethnicity while simultaneously interacting with shows like Black-ish that force us to face our theology.
Shows like Black-ish challenge us to see things through another’s window. And this challenge is welcome, since though we look different in our churches, we may still share a single cultural perspective not necessarily controlled by the gospel.
In this way shows like Black-ish implicitly ask us: “Are you Christian, or Christian-ish?”
Gospel or Garbage?
When interacting with products of arts and culture centered on race—from Black-ish to the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates book—I have to fight the mentality that says, “If it’s not the gospel, it’s garbage.” Yes, Paul counted all things as rubbish compared to knowing Christ (Phil. 3:8). But he also gave thanks for all good things (1 Tim. 4:4).
Augustine (AD 354–430) modeled how to navigate the tension between “all things rubbish” and “all things good.” Secular philosophies abounded, and the church wasn’t sure how to engage them. The great bishop compared secular philosophy to the Egyptians’ gold, which the Israelites plundered and employed for better purposes (Exod. 12:35–36). Under God’s instruction, Israel left Egypt’s idols yet took Egypt’s treasure for better use.
As the church, we might do the same with the gold Black-ish has to offer.