'Mixed-ish' is Giving Us a Superficial Discussion of Race
Cults, biracialism, and the ‘80s. These three things have nothing to do with ABC’s Black-ish, but everything to do with its newest spin-off Mixed-ish. The new series is meant to explore the childhood of one of the show’s most popular and positive characters, Rainbow, but her optimistic spirit transfers a little too well on to the Mixed-ish script, keeping meaningful conversations about mixed race from being able to emerge.
The premiere episode begins with Bow sitting on the couch with her Black-ish family, reflecting on her unique childhood, which cuts to a scene of hippie-like people dancing and laughing in what is supposed to be a post-racial, utopian society, also known as a commune. Then suddenly, the “perfect society” is raided by police agents and her family is forced to transition back into the race-obsessed, capitalistic real world.
Within the first five minutes of the show racial identity is already being oversimplified in a blissful depiction of what it’s like to be black in a commune. Since the trailer first dropped, people have called out the fact that the show seems to be selling an image of a community where race doesn’t exist; even now with the show being a couple episodes in, it still hasn’t made any attempt to further develop the nuances of race dynamics in communes.
Ira Wallace, an advocate for commune living who eventually started her own community, explained the difficulty of recruiting people of color to join communes.
“There are many hidden cultural things that make it hard, and I gave up going against the tide,” Wallace said. “Sometimes when you have something that addresses a certain set of problems — living there together, owning land and so forth — to make a significant difference would mean changing pretty much everyone who came in.” She adds, “And a lot of people would have to be committed to that,” she told the Huffington Post.
The goal of many communes was racial harmony and equality, but in practice it just wasn’t the case. The writers’ portrayal of Bow’s amazing upbringing shows an idealized version of communes and in doing so, glosses over the intricacies when it came to race relations in these communities, setting a precedent for the superficial way they go about discussing other components of Bow’s childhood as well.
While Mixed-ish is maintaining the light, comedic energy of Black-ish, its attempts to talk about race in a real way seem to be falling short. Later in the episode, Bow makes a point about the idea of biracialism being a new concept in 1985 since interracial marriage had only been legalized just 20 years prior. Even though it wasn’t legal, however, does not mean the mixing of races wasn’t happening.
History tells us that light-skinned and mixed black people have existed for decades due to enslaved black women being raped by their slave masters; a few mixed people were even able to pass for white. Bow and her siblings, however, possess features that would make it extremely difficult for them to blend in with the white students, a detail that the show seems to ignore.
The number of mixed kids was definitely lower in the ‘80s, but the black kids’ reaction to Bow and her siblings showing up to school is still hard to believe. The mere presence of these new light-skinned kids most likely wouldn’t draw the type of confusion and contempt attached that the darker black kids are shown to have.
Of course, biracial people are forced to grapple with the fact that they have two racial identities to explore, but despite coming from two different races, most biracial people who are mixed with black are seen simply as black. Sure, Bow’s younger sister can choose to dress like Madonna and eat lunch with the white kids, but the show fails to mention that no matter how she dresses, her, Bow, and their brother will never be seen as white. So why is the show creating a metaphor for choosing the white kids or the black kids as if it’s a simple either/or decision in their new world?
The only voice of reason seems to come from Aunt Dee Dee, who delivers a comedic reality check to Bow’s parents, who both claim to be “above race”, telling them that not only is that a very “white” statement, but also their children don’t get to decide if they want to be black or white because America already decided for them. Her message rings true, but her credibility is lost when she casually jokes that their Kumbaya foolishness back at their ”little Jonestown commune” won’t work in the real world.
While the comment was short and in passing, it further demonstrates the superficial discussion on race the show has been going with, in addition to it being simply racially insensitive.
The joke, which was in reference to the Jonestown massacre, one of the largest suicide-massacres in American history where nearly 900 (mostly black) people died of cyanide poisoning, was probably intentionally given to the humorous black female character who is supposed to be the most cognizant about race in order to soften the harsh reality of it. But the fact that the show so far has reduced Aunt Dee Dee’s character to a stereotype, alluding to the fact that her personality matches that of a typical TSA agent, only makes it more offensive.
So far the show seems to veer toward staying light with surface-level definitions on terms like affirmative action, which should be common knowledge at this point, rather than go further and explain a joke that was probably only approved because of who was delivering it.
The show has its moments where the messages aren’t offensive or being sugar-coated, though. For example, when Bow’s mother finally pops the imaginary bubble her and Bow’s father have been trying to maintain since leaving the commune. She explains that her return to the working world is not changing who she is; instead, she is adapting to her environment because both her and the kids will not be treated the same as he will as a white man.
Her struggles at work, including micro-aggressions (which, by the way, are very real and very frustrating) from her white, male co-workers are also highlighted. Many people still don’t know what micro-aggressions are, or at least how they manifest, and those scenes expose the subtleties of them at play.
When it comes to the kids experiences at school navigating race, however, the writers can’t help but resort to dragging out Bow’s oversimplified decision to choose sides, attaching racial stereotypes along the way. One scene in particular shows Bow in the hallway alone when she sees a fight break out between a white student and a black student.
When a teacher asks her to reveal who started the fight, a scenario is shown where Al Sharpton’s voice booms through the overhead speakers, outcasting her from the black community in the case that she blames the black girl and conversely, an announcement from Ronald Reagan, rejecting her from the white community if she blames the white girl. While the scene is funny, it makes it seem like Bow’s black features hold no weight, as if her being half black has no effect on which side she chooses. As if racial politics don’t also exist within the walls of a school.
While both Black-ish and Mixed-ish are supposed to be comedies, Black-ish has now mastered the balance of sparking honest conversations about race with relatable and funny delivery. While it’s still in its early stages, Mixed-ish will have to provide more nuanced content to balance its airy, cheerful overtone in order to match the success of the original. The good news is that there’s a whole season ahead for it to prove itself.