Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black-ish isn’t afraid of sounding too black

Illustration for article titled Black-ish isn’t afraid of sounding too black

Happy Black History Month! It only seems appropriate that we welcome Black-ish back into our lives during the blackest month of the year. Black History Month is an educational time, so it’s fitting that Black-ish returns with a lesson in cultural bias. “The Name Game” covers important cultural territory, but keeps the growth of the Johnson family at the core of the episode. While “Lemons” and “Being Bow-Racial” showed the best of what the show can do when it takes on heavy topics, “The Name Game” proves the show is perfectly capable of dividing its attention between a traditional family sitcom and a cultural statement.

We finally learn the gender of the new Johnson baby—it’s a boy! While there’s a slight mislead, the episode’s focus becomes clear the second Dre embraces Bow and names their son “DeVante.” Bow is clearly uncomfortable with the name, and shockingly, she ends up on the same side as Ruby. While Bow says the name is too “unconventional,” Ruby comes right out and says it: DeVante is too black. Ruby wants a name that “won’t give away that he’s black on the phone.” Just nothing too “ghetto, y’all.” Within the walls of the Johnson house, it might seem like outdated paranoia, but the truth becomes clear when he shares the news with his office.

Dre’s white colleagues immediately comment on how black the name is. But it’s not particularly shocking that a bunch of white guys would look down on the name DeVante. Charlie’s response is more interesting. He admits he’d get off a plane if he heard the phrase “Captain DeVante Johnson,” but he’s also completely unaware of the cultural history lesson Dre provides (even if he does say he’s seen Roots). Bow drives home the same point when she shows the discrepancy in job responses between “DeVante Johnson” and “Michael Johnson.” By internalizing the issue in three black characters, Black-ish proves just how pervasive this form of discrimination is within society.

Dre is right: Names that are seen as “ghetto” or “black” are attempts to regain our cultural identity in a society that tries to whitewash our past. Even though black people are celebrated for their artistic efforts like jazz and hip-hop, it’s as though signifiers of black culture that exist outside of the enjoyment or usefulness of white people simply aren’t taken seriously. Maybe someday a popular young-adult novel will feature a protagonist named DeVante. It’d be great if the name could replace Aiden and Katniss as “white baby names of the year,” but in the meantime, the Johnson family has to accept that in the year 2017, a black man named DeVante will certainly face discrimination.

Dre’s point that names like Matthew, David, and Kevin don’t mean anything to him is fair. He wants to name his son after the actual culture and people he grew up around, and he hates the fact that when “something is black the world thinks that it’s bad.” Appeasing white culture with a name that has no cultural signifiers creates the type of internalized hatred that causes characters like Ruby and Charlie to respond so negatively to black names. Because even growing up, it’s not rare for black parents to tell their children exactly why they gave them these names. Why did my mom name me Ashley? She didn’t want me to have a hard time getting a job or getting into college. From an early age, it made me associate anything that made me seem black as something that would cause me difficulty. Again, Black-ish brings into focus a nuance of black culture that’s rarely examined.

While this plot is important, it doesn’t eat up the entire episode. Jack, Diane, and Junior are finally given enough attention and space to really grow this episode. Jack and Junior pair up to prove just how much Jack has grown (he is giving dating advice and has stopped wearing Pull-Ups). Junior, on the other hand, is still on the verge of realizing his potential, but it’s probably better that way. Meanwhile Diane seems to be losing a bit of her edge as she begs Zoey to spend time with her, and she even gives her first hug.


It’s nice to see the younger Johnson children grow up a little. We already saw this with Zoey in “The Leftovers,” where she becomes a clear guardian to her siblings, but Jack and Diane still feel like the show’s little kids. The introduction of a baby can be difficult for a show, but aging up the other Johnson children is necessary for DeVante’s arrival. It’s no surprise that Black-ish is laying this groundwork with skill and tact that’s sure to pay off.

Stray observations

  • “Devon’s tea?” Thanks, Augustus.
  • I really need to hear Dre’s Jodeci rankings and his argument for each member.
  • Dre and Bow stealing from the homophobic bakery was a great bit. I also loved that they were willing to overlook a blatant hatred of French-Canadians.
  • Diane trying to join in with the older girls was so sweet. I loved the desperate “Boy, bye!” I would love to see more episodes with Zoey and Diane bonding. I also loved her moment with Junior.
  • “You got the itis?”—Do not ask this question if you’re not black.
  • “She will get down with you.”—I really need to see this web episode where Charlie and Diane are getting into bar fights together.
  • I also need a clip of Charlie saying, “You know I did, black man. I did not, black man,” so I can tattoo it on my heart.