When I watch `black·ish, I do so knowing that I’m not the primary audience for the show. It is, after all, black-oriented humor, the story of Dre and Rainbow struggling with their success in a primarily white environment and trying to enjoy that success without letting go of the things that define them as being black in the first place.
I appreciate the show because it isn’t mean-spirited, featuring humor centered not only around black and white stereotypes but around the stereotypes about how we deal with each other. When it goes to places that make me uncomfortable, I generally deal with it like a grown-up, because I’m certain that there are points that make nearly everyone feel uncomfortable: that’s the nature of humor.
I’m also keenly aware that as an old white man that suffered from wealth for a brief period of my life, Dre and Rainbow would view me as part of the problem they are dealing with. I’m not supposed to feel comfortable for an entire episode.
When I saw that they were planning a show where part of the plot dealt with Zoey doubting the existence of God, I had a glimmer of hope that they might be able to deal with the subject in an intelligent and thought-provoking manner. After all, my atheism is not an aspect of my life that provides me with privileged status: I’m secure in the notion that I will never be elected to any office, much less President. I endure friends and relatives that assure me that their God loves me anyway, knowing full well that if I stand up against them I will be ostracized.
When 9/11 came, my President went on TV and told me that only “people of faith” could work together to solve problems, with me being apparently expected to stand to one side while worthwhile people went ahead with rebuilding. When some maniac shoots up a school, I get to listen to those same friends and relatives bemoan how not forcing my daughter to pray to their God every morning in school is the reason there are school shootings, and that the answer is to “put God back into school”.
The government scribbles Christian slogans on its money, even going so far as to insert “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance to make it clear to everyone that people like me weren’t really a part of the America that everyone should be proud of. When it finally gets to the Supreme Court, the entire Supreme Court held a little prayer meeting to show everyone how it was Constitutional after all. No, my old white maleness may help me out in most everything, but my atheism puts some absolute barriers in place.
I looked forward to the episode. After all, the writers have no qualms about portraying Ruby’s ham-handed Christianity in a less-than-positive light, so maybe, just maybe, they could portray Zoey as an atheist without turning her into a baby-killer, or, more commonly, as someone that is so “out of touch” with her “spirituality” that it causes her permanent stress. Atheism in a character is often played so the audience will view them with condescension and pity.
Norman Lear has done it before, with atheist Michael Stivic occasionally managing to score some points on that front against Archie Bunker. Perhaps I could look forward to episodes where there would be friction between Zoey and Ruby where Zoey could at least tie, if not win.
Alas, it was not to be. Zoey remained an atheist for about six minutes. Instead of accepting Zoey’s position as reasoned and principled, the family panicked, even Rainbow, the one character whose tendency would be to support Zoey. Then, at the first sign of trouble in the world, Zoey reverted to Christianity, and we were all supposed to be relieved that Zoey had seen the light. The happy ending was that Zoey’s moment of personal growth was short-lived instead of becoming a part of her character, and the audience at home could stop feeling sorry for poor Zoey and how she had lost her way.
Think for a moment how offensive that episode would have been to everyone if anyone but atheists were taking the brunt of it. What would the reaction have been if Zoey had converted to Judaism, but the moment there was a fear about the new baby, Zoey had immediately become Christian again because only Baby JesusTM was powerful enough to make a little baby’s hearts start beating again? Or, if we were all supposed to be relieved because Zoey didn’t become Muslim? People would have been up in arms about the insensitivity and bias. But no, because it was about atheism, rejecting it was treated as a heartwarming moment that all people, black and white alike, should feel good about.
It’s a shame that a show dedicated to using humor to help everyone see the good and bad around us managed to screw up so spectacularly. It’s even more of a shame that the people that are normally so dedicated to fighting bias just let it slide.
Kevin Wayne Williams has been an engineer for much of his life, beginning with GTE in 1980. He rose through the ranks and eventually became an executive in Silicon Valley. In 2004, tired of it all, he fled the country with his wife, Kathy. They opened a hotel on Bonaire, a small Dutch island north of Venezuela. In 2009, for reasons he still doesn’t quite understand, they returned to the United States.
He has since resumed his engineering career, but writes novels to help dull the pain. His first published novel, Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, follows a group of young black and Hispanic children attempting to survive the apocalypse on their own.