What the Reaction to #BlackAF Tells Us About Colourism in 2020: A Non-American Perspective

This is not a detailed review of #BlackAF.  Watch it yourself and take from it what you will.  I watched all 8 episodes and found it to be entertaining.  I didn’t watch it with any expectations.  To me, the feel it’s going for is a mish-mash of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” meets “The Office” meets “Shameless” in that it is at times satirical, dryly humourous and even tasteless.  At points it takes time to explain to the viewer how what has happened in a particular scene relates to black American culture or history and I appreciate the effort.  I’m aware that the showrunner Kenya Barris does this in his other show, “Black-ish“(also loosely based on his life), which I kinda-sorta look at if it’s on tv and I have nothing else to do and I’ve seen it done as recently as in Season 2 of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It”.  If done the right way, i.e. not in a literal or preachy tone (at times “She’s Gotta Have It”  Season 2 was guilty of this) it can work, otherwise, it can stay on the cutting room floor.

This show is not “The Cosby Show”, it isn’t “Family Matters”, it isn’t “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (heart eyes).  It’s based on Kenya’s life and he is not a “likable dad” in the show.  Regular sitcom dad, he is not.  The show tackles a version of humour that I’m not accustomed to seeing exhibited by predominantly black casts and I realise that it was a turnoff for some.  He has a biracial wife and 6 children (phew!), which also mirrors his real life.  Two major differences from “Black-ish” and his actual life are that the wife in the show, played by Rashida Jones, is a former lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom and his wife in real life is a practising doctor, similar to Tracee Ellis Ross’ character in “Black-ish” and the show, being on Netflix, doesn’t have to worry about censorship like a network show does, so there is cussing.

Ninety-nine percent of the reviews I’ve seen online (written and video) have read the show for filth.  So what is the problem with “#BlackAF”?  While I’ve seen critics (professional and non) say that they don’t like how the children speak to the parents, or that Kenya hasn’t mastered the ability to really delve into some of the topics he has tried to present in the episodes, or even that he isn’t a good actor, the biggest issue I’ve seen raised is how his family looks.  Being aware of his other television shows that are also based on his and his family’s lives, I wonder if we needed yet another show about the Barris family but, that’s not the point of today’s discussion.

Disclaimer:  There is much to unpack in a conversation about colourism so I will try my best to stay on one path because this could easily become 10 different discussions.  That out of the way, I cannot claim to completely understand the not light-skinned black American’s experience with racism, colourism and the like.  I see that many discussions in the US among black people still circulate around whether the “one-drop rule” should be observed, whether mixed-race people who have one black parent should identify with black culture or call themselves black and whether dark-skinned black women are statistically overlooked for marriage by dark-skinned black men in favour of lighter or non-black women.  Personally, my view is somewhat different because I come from a country where the majority of the population is black.  Our leaders are black, our favourite musical artistes are black, many of our sports stars are black.  For anyone asking though, when it comes to what we know as “black” in the Caribbean, are we all the same shade? Of course not.  Further, are all Barbadians and other Caribbean people direct descendants of dark-skinned African slaves? No, we are not.  Do persons of mixed race (not just black and white) exist in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean?  Of course they do.  Again though, that is not the point of this discussion.

On the point of colourism (i.e. discrimination based on one’s skin tone, typically within the same racial or ethnic grouping), I have seen reviewers of the show fall into three major groups, those who say that they (1) are tired of seeing shows about black people on television where the major characters are light-skinned or mixed-race, making it seem as though that is the only acceptable representation of “blackness”, (2) are upset that there aren’t any or enough shows on television which portray families with dark-skinned parents and children and (3) wished the show was called something else because seeing a title called “#BlackAF” gives the impression that the show is about a dark-skinned family.  A bit of a fourth opinion I am seeing online is that Rashida Jones is a biracial woman who has been able to live a racially ambiguous life and play similar roles for her entire acting career and had never played the role of a black woman.  They ask, why now? Additionally, critics of Rashida have stated that in her personal life she was never one, unlike her sister, who identified with being “black”.  So why the sudden change?  Based on what I am observing, it is clear that there is a deeply rooted negative history which comes along with how many persons of colour view themselves and much of it still exists in 2020.  I am also aware that this is not just an issue with persons of African descent but I will not veer off onto that tangent.

Have I experienced colourism myself?  Do we have colourism in the Caribbean?  Yes and yes.  For a large part of my teenaged and young adult life, due to direct derogatory comments made to me as a child on a regular basis about my having “picky hair” and not being fair-skinned, I felt I was not good enough.  I felt that I would be more attractive if my curls were bigger, my hair longer, my skin just one or two shades lighter.  These comments were made by my peers.  Throughout school many times I saw classmates berated for having a dark skin-tone and the lighter ones with the “pretty eyes” or “pretty hair” being lauded as more beautiful and “cute”.  Where were children hearing such rhetoric?  From adults who expressed similar sentiments in their own households and to their friends and family of course.  Several years before me, my own paternal grandmother chose to ignore her family’s comments about “the dye” being the only thing she would get from my grandfather if she married him because he was dark-skinned and she was not.

Does my personal experience trigger certain reactions in me when I see dark-skinned black men (in some cases, celebrities) make comments about their dislike for women who look like them in favour of lighter-skinned women because the former are “gutter” and the latter are “more sensitive”?  Or when they say that beautiful black women with “African features” do not exist?  Yes it does because while I agree that a man can have his preferences for the types of women he likes, I am bothered, based on personal experience, that a man who looks like me, who has a mother and a sister who look like me, especially one with a huge platform (whether we like or “rate” them or not) feels as though because of my features, I am ugly physically and personality-wise just because of what I look like.  It is an awful mentality that comes from our slavery past which still exists in not only men but women as well.  However, in order to move forward and find ways to uplift I can acknowledge what has happened and try to see past personal experience, which is what I will try to do here.

So, what can we do about it, because constantly arguing and turning it into a who-hates-who game helps no one.  Persons who are descendants of transatlantic slaves are a diverse group of people and we all have our individual experiences to draw from.  For those of us in the Caribbean, our history and the paths we have chosen have shaped us into people who, for the most part, place much of our focus on academic achievement and social mobility.  We no longer feel the need to leave the Caribbean “in search of a better life” because we can make an even better life right here.  Most of us leave because we choose to, not because we have to.  Many of us now are much more conscious of our heritage and we want to learn more about where we come from and our history no matter what we look like.  We are very much aware of what is going on in the world around us and we realise that we too have the space to excel in our communities, again, regardless of what we look like.

Does this mean that colourism, shadeism, hair texturism or featurism (yes, been reading a lot) do not exist?  Of course they do but I personally have been seeing a shift in how we view ourselves and that is a step in the right direction.  Additionally, I have seen Caribbean people take the reins of creating content for ourselves as opposed to relying solely on the steady diet of American fare we grew up on and I’m happy to see that and support it as much as I can.  We still have a ways to go though, I know.  We have to get to a point where we embrace our diversity no matter the shade and we do not favour our lighter counterparts over our darker ones.  We can do this.

To black Americans, I say, ok, you think that the show is not representative of what a black family looks like.  Do all black families look like the “Bernie Mac Show” family?  Do all families look like Kenya Barris’ family?  My point is, we have all seen the ongoing debate about representation in the entertainment space and why it matters.  Yes, it does matter who is funding, producing or starring in a show because we are more likely to watch if certain names are associated with it but you have to find ways to represent.  Create the content you want to see.

A few years ago no one had heard of Issa Rae, Lena Waithe or Ava DuVernay, now their names are known alongside names like Shonda Rimes.  These ladies have created so many different characters.  We are in an era where black people are no longer represented as just gangsters, athletes or maids but as doctors, lawyers, artists, super heroes and television producers.  We also know that there are many skin tones between Lance Gross and Viola Davis and Jesse Williams and Zendaya.  Make a point to show the world that there is room for television like “Insecure”, “Atlanta”, “Queen Sugar”, “Cherish the Day”, “Black Lightning”, “The Chi”, “Snowfall”, “A Black Lady Sketch Show”, “Pose”, “Greenleaf” and yes, “Black-ish“, “Grown-ish“, “Mixed-ish” and “#BlackAF”.  Every show I just listed are varying examples of the African American experience whose cast members are of many hues.  Continue to find ways to tell the plethora of stories that come from the diverse African American experience, audiences are clearly asking for more.  No one else will do it for you.

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