“Blackish” has never shied away from serious topics, but Tuesday night’s episode about colorism marked a particularly weighty moment for the ABC sitcom.
Spike Lee famously explored society’s overt preference for lighter skin and the long-simmering tension it has caused among black Americans in his 1988 film, “School Daze.” “A Different World,” which predates “Blackish” by more than two decades, also took on the issue. But as “Blackish” executive producer Peter Saji noted in a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter, it’s still a delicate topic.
Saji — who wrote Tuesday’s episode (titled “Black Like Us”) and last season’s acclaimed take on Juneteenth — said that despite having done installments about topics such as police brutality and the n-word, the colorism episode is the one that “terrifies” him the most.
“Colorism has been around for generations, but we’re only finally addressing it in season five. This is not a coincidence. Where there is shame, there is also heightened sensitivity,” he wrote. “We procrastinated in telling this story because we knew we had to get it right or, quite frankly, we would get dragged on Twitter.”
Saji said the “Blackish” writers room surveyed their colleagues and friends for their experiences with colorism, and those multicultural discussions convinced the staff that the show needed to confront the topic.
“The more people we talked to, the more empowered we felt by our collective shame,” Saji wrote. “We also found the injuries caused by colorism actually extend beyond our community, demonstrating the worth of discussing this topic out in the open.”
“Black Like Us” began with subtle nods to its uncomfortable subject. Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion” played as Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) started their day. The couple passed each other coffee and half-and-half in the kitchen, and Dre called Bow, who is biracial, his “half-Nubian queen.”
It was business as usual for the Johnson family until their middle son, Jack (Miles Brown), brought them his school photos. Bow and Dre were horrified to discover that Jack’s twin, Diane (Marsai Martin), could barely be seen because the photographer didn’t use proper lighting for her brown skin. “Oh, my God, they O.J.'d my baby,” Dre declared, referring to Time magazine’s infamous 1994 cover featuring a darkened mug shot of O.J. Simpson.
The picture debacle led to a heated family debate about colorism but not before Dre offered viewers historical context in a voice-over paired with animated images.
“Black people come in many shades, from Mariah Carey to Wesley Snipes. Because we look different, we get discriminated against differently,” he explained. “Sometimes we even discriminate against each other. It’s called colorism, the racist belief that light skin is good and dark skin is bad.”
Dre noted that colorism exists in Asian, Indian and Latin American communities but that it has been particularly harmful to African Americans, who were separated by complexion during slavery, leading to “deep-seated tension and resentment that continues to this day.”
Back in the Johnson family kitchen, Bow called the photo “thoughtless and hurtful” and suggested demanding the school retake it. Dre, on the other hand, wanted to confront the school on its “racism,” requesting “free pictures for the rest of our lives” and Kanye West tickets to smooth things over. (“I really want to see him, but I will never ever give that man any more of my money!” Dre said of the increasingly controversial rapper.)
Diane, meanwhile, dismissed the photo as no big deal, reasoning that everyone takes bad pictures. “I honestly think the photographer just messed up,” she told her parents. But then Junior (Marcus Scribner) made an offhand reference to his family’s “issues with complexion,” stopping his relatives in their tracks.
Bow and Junior, the lightest members of the Johnson family, called Dre and his mother, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), out for making constant jokes at their expense, from calling them “team light skin” to proposing that they “come from Lightskinsylvania.” Ruby declared that “light skins don’t have problems.”
“Of course, fair-skinned people have problems,” Bow interjected.
“Yeah, but it’s the same way rich people have problems,” her mother-in-law told her. “Oh, no, I can’t fit all my money in my pocket.”
"Good heavens, the butler is sick, who will apply my SPF 162 to my translucent fair skin?” Dre chimed in.
The argument turned increasingly heated as Junior bluntly confronted his father for equating light skin with “being soft” (a larger issue that speaks to Dre’s complicated view of masculinity). But tensions boiled over when Diane opened up to her family about why she didn’t want to talk about the issue.
“No one in this family is as dark as me,” she said, before citing the many ways society reinforces the idea that lighter skin is somehow better, from being discouraged to wear red lipstick or being told — by a black woman — that she’s “so pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”
Bow and Ruby argued over who should comfort Diane, leading to a confrontation over Ruby’s constant taunts about Bow’s light skin. “You say to me that you’re better than me, that you’re blacker than me, oh, and I have no struggle,” an exasperated Bow said before declaring her mother-in-law “a monster.”
“I am not a monster,” Ruby hit back. “I’ve been called that all my life. I’m not about to sit here and let you do it.”
“I guess you can see why we don’t talk about colorism,” Dre said in a voice-over. “Because after generations of pain and hurt feelings, talking about it never goes well.”
But the Johnsons continued to talk about it after Ruby opened up about her painful childhood and how she and her dark-skinned father were ostracized by her mother’s lighter-skinned relatives. Bow and Ruby apologized to each other, with Ruby calling her daughter-in-law an “incredible black mother.”
Dre also offered a heartfelt apology to Junior and concluded that the family’s tough discussion was cathartic — and necessary.
“Colorism is our secret shame, and the pain it causes keeps growing because we rarely talk about,” he said in the episode’s final voice-over. “But as I looked at my multicolored black family, I realized that because we talked about it, our wounds could finally start to heal as we learn to love ourselves out in the open. Because nothing gets better in the shadows."