How To Get Away With Diversity on TV

It’s not revolutionary to say that black people and minorities in general need more representation in Western media – just turn on your TV and see for yourself. So when ABC – one of the United States’ historical Big Three TV networks – announced a new all black cast sitcom, it definitely caught people’s attention – including mine. The first thing that came to mind when I heard about Black-ish was: “A new show featuring a black family? Great! But wait…why is it about being black?”

I guess the talented TV guru Shonda Rhimes got me used to dramas where black characters can be the heroes even when race isn’t a central piece of the plot. By taking over ABC’s Thursday night with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and her new show How To Get Away With Murder, the screenwriter/director/producer is not only the first female African-American to produce all shows on a network’s primetime – she’s the first person ever.

Shonda Rhimes has not only given leading roles opportunities to many African-American actors, she also made America care about powerful Female, Latino, Asian, Gay, and Lesbian characters. In a country where race and gender still affect salary, education, health and justice…this is a huge deal. But just like any race-related matter in the USA, Shonda Rhimes has raised controversy as some people don’t seem to understand her vision. And by some people, I don’t mean your average casual racist – I’m actually referring to a New York Times editor.

A very doubtful article written by Alessandra Stanley was recently published on the prestigious publication, in which the author questions Shonda Rhimes’ tendency to tell stories through the lens of strong Black Female characters, while ignoring racial issues in her scripts. Even if Stanley’s intention may have been to start a debate on minorities in the media vs. real life, it’s hard not to deem her piece as offensive when it starts with this: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.” Ouch.

The writer tackles interesting issues but creates confusion by not explaining why they are interesting: “They (Rhimes’ characters) struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.” By not putting things into context – which is a not so post-racial America –  it seems like Stanley’s says it’s totally normal for Black Women to question their legitimacy as powerful individuals.

As awkward as it is, this article does lead to a deeper and everlasting question: should art be a reflection of our society, or should it be a vector for change? Shonda Rhimes’ shows may be Utopian, but if all screenwriters created content that mirrors reality, our perception of the world would stagnate.

The New York Times’ article backlash made me consider Black-ish in a different light. The new comedy is uplifting the audience by showing something you rarely see on TV: a successful African-American family. But it also addresses the issues that come with making it as a Black person in America, like the struggles of staying connected with black culture in a white world or the lack of diversity in the workplace. The one thing it might be missing is the complexity of black identity itself, but for a 20 minute sitcom that has already been compared to Modern Family, I still think Black-ish is a necessary complement to Shonda Rhimes’ achievements.

Will you be watching?

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