Shows Like “Black-ish” Implicitly Ask Us: Are You Christian—or Christian-ish?


In this article, I—a black Christian—want to make you aware of a TV show called Black-ish and how we as Christians might learn from it.

I’m somewhat anxious to write about this show because one of my favorite, more cranky friends has recently discipled me in the ways of how sitcoms portray black culture. I won’t mention any names, but it’s definitely Thabiti Anyabwile.

Thabiti has encouraged me to consider the goals and effects of black sitcoms over the years—from Sanford and Son to Good Times to Sister, Sister to The Cosby Show. Beamed into our living rooms, these shows amplify conversations about race, ethnicity, and class—ones often had (or avoided) in our living rooms—to a broader, national setting.

And Black-ish currently rules the nation’s airwaves as the leading black sitcom. Depicting life for the only black family in an all-white suburban neighborhood, the Johnsons are a hilarious, self-discovering proxy for all things black, white, and everything in between. Testifying to the inherent ambiguities of what it means to be “black” in 2016, the show’s title dons a simple yet potent suffix: “ish.

This suffix suggests that an ethnicity like “black” bends and molds since it depends on time and space. In other words, “ish” implies “blackness” isn’t just one monolithic construct or experience. Though stereotypes may tempt us to believe otherwise, the “ish” adds a question mark to the idea of blackness—an insecure “kinda?” or “basically, I guess?”

In short, the suffix asks more than it answers.

But in asking, well, whatever it asks, Black-ish can help Christians wanting to do the difficult work God calls us to—loving others made in his image—because the show models how (and how not) to navigate the difficult waters of race and ethnicity in a non-threatening way. It gently guides the viewer by enrobing the race and ethnicity conversation in something that eases most of us: humor.

Productive Humor

Consider the second season’s fifth episode, “Churched.” The Johnsons attempt to skirt an invitation to their neighbor’s all-white church, which, culturally speaking, differs drastically from the Johnsons’ all-black church (which they rarely attend). The show sketches caricatures of both churches such that viewers familiar with either can’t help but shake their head with a grin, if not a few belly laughs.

Guffaws aside, this episode provides a window from one world into another, and invites us to look through the panes of both. Looking through these panes, we realize how silly some of our fears of the unknown are; we find healthy motivation not only to look through our own windows but also to leave our homes and worlds to experience someone else’s.

Such a departure from our world to another’s is an immense aid to mourning with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15), to loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and to embracing a humble mindset that doesn’t assume it has all the answers (1 Pet. 3:8). Such a mindset is imperative in the local church when the pangs of racism and bias abound in our fallen world. I would know. Recently, a white man accosted me and my wife with the n-word.

Consider watching Black-ish’s episode simply called “The Word.” It kicked off season two, and through it the show tackles the question of who should and shouldn’t be allowed to say the “n-word.” It examines this difficult issue through the situations many of us experience each day—the drive with kids to school, watercooler conversations at work, conversations between siblings. As we see these situations staged with humor, we can take the next step in having important conversations ourselves.

Such motivation is needed in a world that despairs when it comes to race. As Christians, however, we are filled with hope (1 Cor. 13:13)—a word that, incidentally, served as the title of Black-ish’s most recent and most sober episode. It focused on parents talking to their children about police, minorities, and justice—a relationship that’s become strained in America.

I wonder what thoughts and emotions names like Eric Garner evoke in you? How do you deal with those thoughts and emotions? Would a show like Black-ish, no matter how much you agree or disagree with it, affect your response at all? Would your response to Black-ish and its themes be Christian—or Christian-ish?

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
Isaac Adams