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Racially diverse media struggles to balance message and viewer comfort

Collin Mims

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The ABC show “Black-ish” is in its fourth season as of the time of writing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily here to stay, at least not on ABC. Over the weekend, rumors have risen that Kenya Barris, the creator of the series, may be looking for an opportunity to leave ABC, specifically with the option to join Ryan Murphey and television powerhouse Shonda Rhimes on Netflix.

These rumors have arisen, interestingly enough, following an episode of “Black-ish” that was dropped due to “creative differences” between the writers and the studio. The episode in question was to deal with several modern day issues in America, including the NFL kneeling protests. This, combined with ABC’s reboot of the very, very white “Roseanne” making a rather snide comment about the show and “Fresh Off the Boat,” makes it not hard to see why there would be at least some tension involved. So one has to wonder, is America mature enough to deal with complex issues of race on television?

Here’s the thing, shows dealing with issues of racism are walking on a constant tight rope about what is acceptable and what is too radical to be seen on prime time television. There’s a lot of wonderful things that “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” have been able to cover, which address inequality and racism on both day to day levels and structurally.

These are things that need to be talked about, definitely, and the fact that it’s done on shows that are consistently funny and entertaining is just an added bonus. You mean we can learn about systems of inequality and also find humor? Incredible!

Yet, while these shows are fighting the good fight and are serving to provide good representation and teaching, they’re still going to have to grapple with a society that is geared towards racism. This means that they must be gentle, considerate and tactful with their conversations or else they run the risk of making the general audience uncomfortable. This is because they might interpret a conversation about racism as an attack on them, people who subconsciously are aware of their racism, but haven’t quite yet come to terms with it.

It’s a difficult balance to maintain: obviously these shows concern the experiences of families of color in America, but they can’t be too honest without alienating people or getting in trouble with their studio. So, while America needs to have these kinds of shows, they’re also forced to jump through all sorts of hoops in terms of content to ensure that everyone can be happy, which is both unfair and unrealistic.

This is especially true in the given political environment, shocking as that concept may be. People have felt emboldened to embrace their racism, rather than address it, something which the revival of “Roseanne” has exacerbated. Its emphasis on white, middle-class America is clearly aimed at a conservative audience, and ABC’s willingness to simultaneously run progressive media while also reviving the Trump supporting “Roseanne,” is very indicative of their true feelings about racial issues.

At the end of the day, if Barris decides to leave and work for someone who will allow for more creative freedom, all the more power to him. Narratives focusing on people of color are necessary, but they should be allowed to be honest, not castrated for the sake of their white viewers.

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Racially diverse media struggles to balance message and viewer comfort