Sitcoms centered around Black and Brown families do not need a prominent white character
Jamie Foxx is an Academy Award winner and grammy winner. Does he really need a non-Black character on his show to draw viewers? This token “white passing” character looks like he MIGHT be Hispanic, but still. Help me understand. I am seeing this as a booming trend. And I don’t know what’s more annoying- *obviously* and *disproportionately* biracial girls being cast with two Black parents or this trend of having a white character to “break up” all the color? Is it because the country is in an ideological civil war and they think people want to see people of different races together in an intimate setting? It invokes the same feelings I have when I see performative interracial couples in commercials. My husband is white. But as someone who comes from a Black family, we did not have white people in our house like that. And like most Black families, we lived in a Black neighborhood- even though it was Boston, everyone we associated with was Black.
I was immediately reminded of the groan-worthy moments in “One Day At A Time”, a show centered around a Cuban single mother who was a US Army veteran, her widowed mother and her children. They had two extremely goofy white guy characters who would often show up at the house unannounced, try to be a part of the family or inappropriately overstep the boundaries of neighborliness. Who asked for this? Is the story not compelling enough for white audiences? Is RITA MORENO, one of the 16 people on earth to be an EGOT recipient (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar & Tony) not enough to keep white people empathetic to the characters? Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved that show, especially the opening theme by Gloria Estefan. But why?
The biggest slap in the face thus far was the tragedy of the show Kenan. As a millennial, of course I am rooting for Kenan. It’s like we grew up together- watching him absolutely dominate on Nickelodeon’s All That and captivate us even further on Kenan & Kel, to go on to have a thriving career on SNL. At last, Kenan has his own show. This show was one of the greatest disappointments in pop culture i’ve experienced in my whole entire life. It’s like somebody took the joy out of a very important aspect of my childhood. And for some reason unbenownst to me, they throw in Don Johnson. Why? Who asked for this? Did they think that Kenan needed some kind of credibility that he didn’t have on his own?
I’m also reminded of how Will Smith’s love interest in films haven’t been a Black woman since the 90s. Hitch, Focus, Hancock…yes that casting was intentional because people thought that with a Black love interest it would be pigeonholed as a “Black movie”. Yikes. Is this the networks’ weird way of trying to uplift Black stories but make it more palatable so that white people might want to watch?
Why does this make me SO resentful when I have a whole white husband? Because it is not for Black consumption, it’s disingenuous and it’s inauthentic. Because we can’t seem to have anything in the mainstream without putting a white person in the mix with a critical role. How many sitcoms do you see that happen with Black characters? The difference in token black characters vs token white characters is the power imbalance in society. Token Black characters are there to add performative “diversity” to the show. But token white characters are there to add credibility.
Parks and Rec most assuredly tried to give their Black woman character (portrayed by Retta) a little bit of interest beyond the typical sass. They gave us “glimpses” into who she is but left the character largely mysterious. But the same can be said for the brown character (portrayed by Aziz Ansari). Whereas with all the white characters we were given insight into their family lives, significant background story and some character development. The quirks of Donna (Retta) and Tom (Aziz) remained unchanged and without growth. Mind you, I didn’t watch this show on my own accord. My husband swore to me that it was hilarious, but I was deeply turned off by the tokenism.
So is there a “right” way to do this? Of course there is. Let’s take a look back at Kenan & Kel, which was extremely important for representation for Black children in the 90s, and had tremendous success with white kids as well. Chris Rigsby was the only white character on the show. Chris was the owner and manager of a small convenience store where Kenan and Kel worked after school.
Chris wasn’t there to make the show more palatable to white audiences. He didn’t randomly show up at their house or try to be a father figure to them. Chris didn’t show up unannounced offering to help or overstepping his boundaries. He was usually seen in the store and in the store only. He stayed in his lane, unlike any of the white characters I see in Black and brown-centered shows these days.
Another show that comes to mind that got this right is In Living Color. In Living Color was a sketch comedy show and not a sitcom, however it was very clear that it was still a monument of Black excellence from the Wayans family.
In spite of its white characters, its status as a “Black show” was still in tact and didn’t make it any less of one.
Can we just have Black shows again? Is that too much to ask?