Can you imagine watching a television sitcom in India that showcases the prejudices of the upper-caste communities and religion of India under the guise of a comedy show?
The critically acclaimed American show Black-ish stands apart from its peers for its sheer guts. The award-winning sitcom is about a well-to-do African-American (actor Anthony Anderson as Andre Johnson), and how he, along with his wife (actress Tracy Ellis) and parents, try to instil a bit of his “black” heritage (and prejudices) in his children.
Yes, you may have seen episodes from various shows (Citizen Khan, Mind Your Language, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) that deal with racism but nothing like this.
In the show, we often get a glimpse into the fun side of racial stereotypes—why black men cannot swim or how black men make bad fathers—and yes, in showcasing these black stereotypes, you also see plainly the “reverse-racism” of a black man towards the whites. And the lead is not let off the hook by the writers of the show, often forced to face his own flawed prejudices by his children and wife.
Interspersed in between each episode—based on the theme of that episode—will be actual news footage of events ranging from the Tuskegee experiments where blacks were infamously left to die untreated for syphilis in the name of research by the United States government, to the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan that sadly still roams America today.
It is not the fun episodes that I remember, however, when I think of Black-ish.
No, I remember the episode “Hope” where the whole family sits in front of a television awaiting the verdict of a case of police brutality where a young black man was killed. Real victims of police brutality are name-dropped throughout the episode to show the various moments where the law fails.
The episode was not one-sided though; various characters in that room speak for and against the black man as well as for how things were in the past, and what awaits the young children in the future. When the controversial verdict results in riots in the street, the family is torn between staying indoors in the comfort of their house or having three generations of the family join the protesters.
The episode “Lemons” was the first episode after Donald Trump was elected President and, rather than being subtle, the show bulldozed right into the topic showing the fears of millions of African Americans with the rise of a leader aligned to white supremacists, and how Andre has to tackle friends who voted for Trump.
In “The Word,” Andre has to deal with the repercussions of his small child facing expulsion from school for using “the N-word” leading to a very debate on how the word meant different things to different racial groups and ages.
The premiere of the fourth season takes on one of America’s biggest holidays, questioning the reason behind celebrating Columbus Day when the whole world knows him as a blood-thirsty mass murderer and why “Juneteenth”—the day black slavery was officially abolished—is not given prominence.
To make a show like Black-ish involves walking a very fine line—how far can you layer the truth of prejudices past and present without the majority race of a country feeling they are being accused?
In today’s India, where we struggled to pass Padmaavat—a movie based on a centuries old “possibly real” queen—simply because a group of Indian extremists (supported by leaders across parties, either directly or by virtue of silence) decided this queen was their pride, and so they had to have a say in the screenplay, there is no way we will ever see a nuanced show focusing on the prejudices of generations gone by and those that still exist today.
There simply isn’t scope where (following the exact same carbon copy of Black-ish) we could have a knowledgeable but prejudiced protagonist who engages in regular debates about caste and religious differences, forcing viewers to see both sides of the story through these debates.
As an Indian, you know of the prejudices that minorities face in our country. Debating these injustices invariably leads to the “What-about” deflection, away from the primary topic towards unrelated incidents from the past, suggesting that a crime against person A is justified because an unrelated crime occurred against person B elsewhere.
Whether we take it from a religious point of view or a caste-based point of view, you know the words—lynchings for carrying cow meat, killed for drinking water from the same well as upper castes, killed for loving someone from another religion or caste. Here’s my question—what are their names? No, not the ones from the last three years but the infamous ones from all the decades gone by? What was the outcome of the court cases based on their deaths and brutalities?
You don’t know. Neither do I. And what is worse—we don’t want to know their names and fates anymore. We just want retribution. An eye for an eye. Not even against the actual perpetrators themselves but from anyone from their community. An innocent man walking down the street deserves to be beaten up because someone from his community in another state hurt someone from mine.
That is where we fail today as a country. And sadly, not just us but so many countries still choosing to give power to castes, sects, and religious supremacy over basic humanity.
We refuse to have the important talks anymore, choosing instantly to hate someone based on political, cultural, and religious biases, and automatically labelling them as being the same as the worst of their type. True, the generations gone by may have done some pretty awful stuff to one another, but does that really justify teaching this generation and the next to hold on to the burning charcoals of hatred and never consider re-integrating as one nation?
Is the concept of India forever doomed to be united only in supporting a cricket team? Or can we actually talk about the horrible things done in the past and even today, and reach a common ground, agreeing never to let it happen in the future instead of using 200- and even 2,000-year-old events as justifications for revenge?
Black-ish is unique because it uses racism not as a means of hatred but as a mirror to both sides of society—the transgressor as well as the persecuted—forcing both to look beyond what they are taught about each other. It forces both sides to accept what went wrong, and then—most importantly—move forward, learning from the past to ensure the future is better for all.
Sadly, there will never be a Muslim-ish, a Dalit-ish, or a Christian-ish on Indian television. Not in a country where the supreme court of India has to step in to force state governments to prevent thugs from stopping the release of a Bollywood movie.
Someday, I hope there will be an Indian-ish, though, that looks back on all the mistakes we did and lets the next generation understand that discrimination is never an answer.