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Say hello to 'black-ish'

Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Pilot” | Aired Sept 24, 2014

The premiere of black-ish felt a little like I was watching a taped conversation with my family. At first it was actually jarring, because, sadly, we don’t see enough of black families talking (for the most part) like actual black families on television. But you know what? I hope black-ish stays around for a long time.

The premiere episode introduced us to the Johnson family. Andre (Anthony Anderson) is the everyman of this story. Or, I guess, the everyblackman. Even though he considers his father, “Pops” Johnson (Laurence Fishburne), to be the dinosaur of the family, Andre is just as behind the times when it comes to race relations and how much things have changed for the younger generation. That younger generation is made up of his children—Zoey (Yara Shahidi), Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner), Jack (Miles Brown), and Diane (Marsai Martin). Andre’s mixed/”omniracial” wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is also much more easygoing in the race department than Andre; her background gives her a different perspective, not to mention the fact that she handles the racial encounters she deals with as a doctor with an “it is what it is” attitude.

Andre has to advance to the 21st century when a promotion at the advertising agency he works at comes up. He knows he’s up for the promotion, as does everyone else at the office (especially the few black people in the office’s employment). Because he’s a black man in contention for a position that would have normally been given to a white person, he feels like he’s representing all his other black colleagues in a very positive way. He’s breaking the glass ceiling, if you will. But what he doesn’t know is that the promotion he’s about to get is for the “Urban Division.” As any self-respecting black man probably would be, he’s pissed that he’s assigned to the “urban” position, since “urban” usually means “black.” And not regular “black,” but “stereotypical” black. Now not only does Andre have to deal with the “urban” title, but he has to deal with it while working with Josh, who is constantly offensive.

Andre feels that being appointed to the position is just another way to stereotype him; it sets him down a slippery slope toward a pity party. What makes it worse is realizing that Andre Jr. wants to play field hockey instead of basketball, wants to hang with his white friends, and would rather be called “Andy” than “Andre.” Andre Jr. wants to be seen as just one of the guys. Andre Sr., on the other hand, is afraid his son is reneging on his culture and heritage. In simpler terms, he’s afraid his son is acting white to fit in. Speaking from experience, wanting to forgo your culture just to fit into your mostly white school is a challenge a lot of minority kids have to deal with. I’ve totally gone to school with many Andys before. You’ve probably gone to school with many of them, too; you might not have realized it, though.

The icing on the cake is when his children, little Jack and Diane, in particular, don’t realize that Barack Obama is the first black U.S. president. Also, strangely enough, Andre is ticked off when Jack and Diane, who are so small and new to the world that they don’t talk in terms of race, describe one of their classmates—the only other black person in their class—by all of her weird attributes instead of by her race.

Having had enough of this newfangled way of living, Andre decides to demand that his family “keep it real,” as in, talk like his family did growing up. The young children are only to describe people by their race, a.k.a. “keepin’-it-real identifications.” Andre Jr., who wants to have a bar mitzvah like his friends, is forced, according to “keepin’-it-real” standards, to have a made-up African Rites of Passage Ceremony. And as for Andre’s first assignment as SVP of the Urban Division—a commercial for the firm’s L.A. tourism account—he decided to turn in a pitch that shows the complete worst, most racially divisive side of the city.

Rainbow tried to rein in Andre’s racially based spaz attack, particularly after the ill-advised African Rites of Passage Ceremony. But once she learns about Andre’s failed pitch and that he’s a stone’s throw away from getting fired, Rainbow snaps. She lays out the rather true point that Andre would be just as mad about getting passed over for a white person, and that he shouldn’t be angry about actually getting the promotion he wanted. As he’s licking his wounds, Andre realizes that his son, Andre Jr., might have taught him a little something about being a black man in today’s world without realizing it. As it turns out, Andre’s fears about his son were unfounded. Andre Jr. doesn’t want to eschew his whole identity; he just wants to be able to hang out with his friends and be on par with the jocks. As Andre Jr. says, he just wants to get his foot in the door.

Andre decides to keep his own foot in the door by turning in an appropriate and snazzy pitch for the L.A. tourism account. Andre’s boss never wanted him to be a caricature of himself; when he told Andre to “put [his] swag on it” and “keep it real,” what he meant was to “be smart, honest, and you.” And, as Andre discovers, “urban” doesn’t have to mean the stereotype it’s turned into. It can mean being “hip, cool, and colorful.”

And yes, Andre Jr. does get his bar mitzvah—in the form of a “Hip-Hop Bro Mitzvah.”

What did you think about the premiere of black-ish? Give me your opinions in the comments section below!

Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30C on ABC.