How The New ABC Show ‘Mixed-Ish’ Might Misrepresent Colorism [Opinion]

May 23rd 2019

ABC recently announced a new TV show in the black-ish franchise called mixed-ish, which will be a prequel to the hit series, which already has a spin-off grown-ish.

Where black-ish follows Andre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) as they raise their Black children in a white, affluent neighborhood, and spinoff grown-ish follows their eldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) in college, mixed-ish will focus on a young Rainbow and her challenges growing up mixed in an interracial family in the 1980s. The (pardon the pun) mixed social media reaction to the announcement of the new show and premise intensified when ABC released a cringe-inducing trailer for the new series. The trailer begins with three interracial children, Rainbow and her siblings, walking inside of a school cafeteria. A darker-skinned Black boy approaches them and asks, “What are you weirdos mixed with?” To this, Rainbow responds with a question of her own, “What’s mixed?” All of the darker-skinned people in the room laugh and the darker-skinned Black boy walks off saying, “WACK!” This doesn’t bode well for how the show is going to handle colorism.

First, the sheer number of dark-skinned kids in just this trailer scene for mixed-ish seems like more dark-skinned representation than we’ve seen throughout the entirety of both black-ish and grown-ish.

What’s most problematic about the mixed-ish trailer though is how the darker-skinned Black children are depicted as the bullies, feeding into the “jealous and bitter” stereotype of darker-skinned Black people when compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts. While an entire series cannot be judged based on one trailer, viewers should still be cautious of these tropes on TV when society has a habit of villainizing darker-skinned Black people in order to show lighter-skinned Black people as victims without context. It doesn’t help that the other series in the black-ish franchise don’t have a great history of dealing with colorism responsibly.

Grown-ish has faced criticisms of colorism since it first aired two seasons ago, considering that most of the main cast are lighter-skinned Black people, with no darker-skinned Black women among them. Lip service was paid to this criticism when one character (played by Trevor Jackson) spent an episode delving into his exclusive attraction to lighter-skinned women with a loose curl pattern to their hair. It was a fleeting moment of self-awareness topped off with the character finding a darker-skinned woman with a short fade to parade around to his friends to prove he wasn’t colorist. He soon ended up in a relationship with a lighter-skinned Hispanic woman.

During the most recent season, black-ish covered colorism in the episode “Black Like Us.” In the episode, Andre and Rainbow noticed how the light in his daughter Diane’s (played by Marsai Martin) school picture didn’t reflect well on her complexion. Diane confronts her family about the colorism she experiences as the darkest skinned child in the family and how colorism impacts the way she navigates as a young Black girl within a society that thrives on colorism. Her family then apologizes and comforts her. There's also a pretty good montage showing the history of colorism in America among Black people as well as Asians and Latin Americans. 

Coined by Alice Walker in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, colorism is systemic prejudice or discrimination against individuals with darker skin tones, which privileges people of lighter skin tones. For example,  A 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas found that darker skin still negatively affects men’s chances of obtaining employment. A University of Georgia study shows that dark-skinned African-Americans face a distinct disadvantage when applying for jobs, as compared to lighter-skinned applicants. Sociologists at Villanova University and the University of Iowa have found a striking pattern: the darker a Black student’s skin tone, the higher the likelihood they’ll be suspended, particularly for girls. More specifically, an African-American girl with “the darkest skin tone” had triple the odds of being suspended “compared to those with the lightest skin tone,” wrote Villanova University professors Robert DeFina, Lance Hannon and University of Iowa professor Sarah Bruch (PDF). The pattern was weaker, but still present for Black males. Black boys with the darkest skin tone were 2.5 times more likely than their lightest Black male counterparts of being suspended.

But even with sharing the historical context in the black-ish episode--and Dre spouting statistics about the lighter prison sentences and higher pay that light-skinned Black people receive compared to their dark-skinned siblings--the episode still becomes about jokes hurting light-skinned people's feelings, which comes across as hurt feelings being equal to the systemic discrimination that dark-skinned people face. Feeding into false equivalences is dangerous and harmful.

Yes, we all have our own struggles as Black people, yes, we all experience racism as Black people, but we all do not experience colorism as Black people. While hurt feelings are valid and can shape a person's life and self-image, systemic oppression operates on an entirely different scale of harm. It is a disservice to conflate these struggles and it reinforces falsehoods in our community and does nothing to help us root out colorism and address it in any meaningful way--something that the black-ish franchise seems to want us to be able to do. Our art can and should address these issues pertaining to internalized racism and colorism within our communities without misrepresenting what these struggles entail.

To showcase instances of darker-skinned Black children bullying lighter-skinned Black children outside of the context of the specific systemic privileges that lighter-skinned Black children and adults have in society diminishes the reality of systemic colorism. Hopefully, this new series will be cognizant of these harmful out-of-context stereotypes and will be responsible in its handling of the issues that interracial Black children face within the community as a whole.

READ MORE:

'Mixed-Ish': 'Star' Showrunner Karin Gist Named Showrunner For ABC's 'Black-Ish' Spinoff

ABC Orders 'Black-Ish' Prequel 'Mixed-Ish' Starring Tika Sumpter, Renews Parent Series For Season 6

Photo: Getty Images

by Shani Deason on May 23rd 2019

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