08.06.2020 in Critical
Television Culture


It is an undeniable fact that television reflects the cultural aspects of the society in which a particular television broadcaster operates. This case is not exclusion when one tries analyzing the American television, which experienced different transformations among which is the shift in racial themes. This shift affected a lot of television shows and movie genres, which is why this social and cultural phenomenon is a matter of interest in cultural studies. This paper evaluates a contemporary television show Black-ish, which obtained dramatic popularity in American television viewers. It analyzes the aspects that form racial self-consciousness of this show and various characteristics that allow viewing such shows as a separate genre based on its cultural characteristics. The analysis suggests that >Black-ish is a vivid example of a sitcom, which was the result of the increase in the interest of African-American public in racial self-consciousness and the related issues. Being the successor of the genre of African-American television, Black-ish skillfully recreates a virtual cultural space of this ethnicity, which is why it appeals to different audiences. This analysis allows the students of culture studies and sociology exploring the social and cultural properties of the American television connected with the topics of racism and racial self-consciousness.

The Racial Shift in the American Television

One suggests that the shows, which discuss the topic of racial self-consciousness, emerged because of a specific social trigger that allowed meeting the expectations of certain audiences. Scholars approve this point of view claiming that in the 1980s African-American audiences “watched 44 percent more network television than nonblacks”. One of the reasons for this was the shift of the audiences of white ethnicity to cable television and videocassette recorders, which, at that time, were too expensive for African-Americans. However, what is more important, is the participation of the African-American community in the process of formation of the television content because of the increased proportion of viewers of this ethnicity. Thus, Zook argues that they clearly preferred African-American shows, which is why the broadcasting companies started dividing their content into “mainstream” and “urban.” Thus, starting from the 1980s, the proportion of African-American shows dramatically increased in order to create the required content and balance these two categories. Therefore, the change of the proportion of various ethnic audiences and the intentions of the broadcasting companies to create different shows for specific audiences formed purely African-American television shows. Experts characterize this process as “narrowcasting” or targeting the television content to the young urban African-American community. One of such television shows that are the result of modern narrowcasting is the sitcom Black-ish.

Characterizing “Black-ish” as the example of a Racially Self-Conscious Show

Black-ish is one of the television shows that emerged as a successor of the African-American television content created since the 1980s. The genre of this show is a sitcom, which typically means that the story is set in an urban or suburban area, and a particular group of individuals is at its focus. In this case, the protagonists of Black-ish are connected with family relationship as they are a married couple with four children and their grandfather. What makes this sitcom narrowed around the topic of African-American self-consciousness is that all the members of the family are of African-American ethnicity. At the same time, the title that ends with “-ish” incorporates a specific context that validates the comic situations, which contribute the plot. This “black-ish” color serves as an indicator of the fact that the family, and the father in particular, feels disconnected from one’s ethical roots and attempts raise the interest to this topic in his family. At the same time, the genre of the traditional sitcom obliges the scriptwriters to make “a joke per page”, which is why the scriptwriters and the actors use references to ethnicity as a self-mockery trigger. In fact, such behavior is one of the features of African-American television shows, which have a specific connection with the ethic community of the audience and the related topics. Scholars approve this statement claiming that such shows have such components as a tendency “toward collective and individual authorship of black experience; improvisation,… a certain pride in visual signifiers of blackness”. These features make such shows unique and different from the ones of other ethnicities because the African-American community directs non-harmful mockery at oneself. This irony serves as a basis for improvised humor and adds freshness to the audience’s experiences following the established customs of African-American shows. In this sense, the creators of Black-ish incorporated the best traditions of the genre and supplied them with modern social realities.

The cases of self-directed irony intensify the self-consciousness of the audience and demonstrate that >Black-ish follows the modes established by this genre. For example, one of the cases of irony is that the family of protagonists is the only African-American family in the whole neighborhood. Moreover, the scriptwriters intensify this fact making almost absurd as in the case when a local guide demonstrated an African-American family to white tourists in a by-passing car. The creation of such harmful reference may seem undesirable, but it suits the genre, and the audience recognizes it as a funny moment. Also, the guide characterizes the family as outstanding, which is another source of pride in African-Americans that adds to the racial self-consciousness. This case is the demonstration of the cultural change when the public does not interpret a mockery on one’s racial identity as verbal abuse. On the contrary, the audience accepts the situation as a joke, which is a complete shift of the paradigm of African-American social self-perception. Another special feature of the movie is that despite all members of the family have black skin, the father characterizes them as blackish, or not black enough. He uses this phrase in figurative meaning indicating that the family lacks connection with its ethnic predecessors, which makes them African-Americans. Moreover, he is so attached to the idea of restoration of one’s roots that attempts performing African ethnic rituals in order to awake the son’s historical memory. Although this aspect is used as a joke, it connects the analyzed sitcom with its predecessors of the genre that incorporated a feeling of pride for being an African-American. As Zook depicts the social behavior of that time almost “anyone with a bit of melanin found themselves caught up in a rising tide of neonationalism.” However, the situations in the show do not scale to nationalism, but resolve in peaceful and civilized manner mainly as harmless references to one’s racial identity. Thus, gradually, the racial and ethnical accent shifts from the reference to the color of one’s skin to one’s identity and self-perception. There is one episode that demonstrates a reversed usage of this situation. Thus, one of the son’s friends, who represent a Caucasian ethnicity, uses the slang that is of a wide usage in African-American suburbs. From the one hand, this verbal behavior puzzles the father of the boy, but such situations demonstrate that the modern community disregards the skin color because of self-identification.

Furthermore, another issue of Black-ish that allows characterizing it a product of and for African-American culture is the range of its modern cultural attributes. For instance, in the past, such attributes were mostly clichés identifying African-Americans as rappers and gangsters living in the “hood” and demonstrating violence and masculinity. In contrast, the protagonists of the characterized sitcom are members of an ordinary peaceful upper-middle-class family, who live their lives almost as any other family in their community. At the same time, such attributes as haircuts, clothes, music, jewelry, tastes and other are predominantly the features of African-American citizens. As a consequence, the analyzed family still demonstrates the peaceful associations with African-Americans, but in the positive and humorous context. Nevertheless, some its episodes have references to rap, gangsters and other. For example, there is a moment when one of the son’s wears sports clothes and heavy golden jewelry demonstrating the appearance and the behavior of modern mainstream African-American rappers. Despite the created image has a connection to negative context the plot omits it, and the protagonist acts as a peaceful individual. Similarly, in an episode when all African-Americans took their guns and put them on the table demonstrated a reference to gangsters in a workplace situation. However, in this way, the creators of the sitcom mock at the most typical racial prejudices demonstrating their ridiculousness.

Last, another issue that makes Black-ish a popular product that stimulates racial self-consciousness is its social concern with a regard to the ethnic identity of the protagonists. For instance, the family discusses the President Barack Obama, police brutality, African-American criminals and other social issues. As a result, the created situations directly connect the actors and the plot with the African-American audience discussing its most relevant social issues. One aspect that allows the actors successfully validating these topics is improvisation, which is one of the critical issues of African-American television. Indeed, in Black-ish, the one can observe some indicators of the actors’ improvisation including their slips of the tongue, ad-libbed dialogues and other. Thus, the improvised dialogues lead to the fact that the actors incorporate current cultural realities in the script and make it more relevant towards the problems of African-Americans. The identified aspects allow creating a cultural space in a television format, which directly related to the social and cultural issues of African-Americans. As a consequence, such television format gains popularity in the African-American audience. Moreover, one suggests that Black-ish is popular in other audiences because it is a socially-concerned product that contains jokes revealing racism as an inappropriate social phenomenon by means of humor. Along with different ethnic and other attributes, scholars identify this as culturally “specific aesthetics”, which allows Black-ish represent a separate genre of African-American television. Therefore, modern African-American sitcoms follow the tradition of their predecessors and produce the content that triggers the racial self-consciousness of the African-American audience.


Summarizing the presented information, Black-ish is an example of African-American television show that initiates and supports the racial self-consciousness of the African-American audience following the traditions of the genre. Thus, African-American television is a cultural phenomenon that was triggered by the shift in the ethnic populations of the network television. Its main properties include references to skin color, mockery on this basis, and ethnic pride of being African-American, the interest of the roots of the ethnicity, improvisation and other. Moreover, improvisation allowed modern sitcoms being relevant to the issues of the African-American community. As a consequence, the example of Black-ish demonstrates that African-American audience admires the characterized genre because it supports their racial self-consciousness. At the same time, its humor allows breaking the predominant racial stereotypes of the American society making it favorable in other audiences.

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