Barris and Anderson handled the situation well, joking with Ryan while assuring her that the name came from talented Black folks who had created a new kind of TV family. But I could also tell they had heard such trepidation before—not a great sign for a new series struggling to prove it could be a great companion to ABC's hit sitcom Modern Family.
Black-ish helped rewrite the rules for how TV comedies talked about race, culture and families of color; daring to walk that tightrope just as some television networks were trying to get serious about showing diversity onscreen. And it wasn't always an easy path, especially when Black audiences weren't quite sure if they were ready to trust TV producers to get their culture right.
The difference between Black and Black-ish
Anderson's character—put-upon, upper middle class dad Andre "Dre" Johnson—delivered the show's mission statement in 2014, during the very first episode. "Sometimes I worry that in an effort to make it, Black folks have dropped a little bit of their culture and the rest of the world has picked it up," he fretted.
"Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are R&B gods. Kim Kardashian is the symbol for big butts. And Asian guys are just unholdable on the dance floor. Come on!"
What Dre was really describing, of course, was a collision of culture that marked the modern moment—a social landscape way different than the terrain navigated by, say, the Huxtables—the popular, upper middle class Black family who deftly reflected respectability politics and avoided such issues on The Cosby Show.
This was a world where Dre's oldest son played field hockey and his oldest daughter thought nothing of her white friends using the n-word. It's also a world where Dre's sneaker collection was better than his sons' and he was constantly worried that his streetwise, too-cool-for-school father would see him as a wealthy sellout.
In other words, it was a place where Blackness wasn't set in stone. The show's characters could display a fuller range of Black attitudes and ideas within one family, because they were all navigating the waves of an increasingly multicultural society in different ways.
Television, particularly on the broadcast networks, often struggled to depict how race can sometimes be the most important thing for a person of color, and at other times, move to the background. In Black-ish, ABC had a sitcom which put that idea in the title.