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

Colorism and interracial dating bring the “ish” in Black-ish into focus

Marcus Scribner (left) and Annelise Grace
Marcus Scribner (left) and Annelise Grace

This Black-ish review is late. It’s incredibly late because this was a complex episode to approach. As soon as the cold open ended with Bow’s disdainful expression as she saw Junior’s white girlfriend, my phone started going off. My mom texted, “Wow, they’re really gonna do this?” From a distance, “Being Bow-racial” may seem like a problematic, racist, weird episode of Black-ish. Why would Bow—an educated, wealthy, tolerant doctor—care that her son is dating a white girl? But, in reality, the episode addresses some of the most guarded, internal secrets within the black community—colorism, interracial dating, the black man’s fear of white women, and everyone’s fear of black women. “Being Bow-racial” is Black-ish finally addressing the “ish” that looms heavily over its title and the results are stellar.

“Being Bow-racial” is an episode that feels incredibly personal to me, which might make it difficult to be objective, but it’s truly a story I’ve never seen given such attention on broadcast TV. The second Junior introduced Megan, I found myself making the same face as Bow for the same reasons—she’s white. This isn’t because Bow and I are racists, in fact, the episode does an amazing job of pointing out that Bow’s issue is an internal issue that stems from her own conflicting feelings and uncertainty around her blackness. Yet, If you’re not familiar with colorism in the black community or tropes like the tragic mulatto, you might not understand how deeply these factors actually affect black women.

Bow lays the groundwork in a brief history lesson—mixed people were given preferential treatment in our white-privileged society, leading to a disconnect between dark and lightskinned blacks until the civil rights movement, but uncertainty still exists today. It’s a neat, concise version of history and the complexities of the truth certainly wouldn’t fit in a 30-minute sitcom. Yet, there’s an important distinction between Bow and a large number of lightskinned people in the black community—Bow’s life as a biracial woman was started through love and consent. Her parents fell in love, got married and had a child they both loved and cared for. This is beautiful and it’s what allows Bow to have a moving conversation with her father at the end of the episode. The fact that Bow’s whiteness comes from a source of love is key to understanding why she’s so conflicted about where she fits in. She loves her white father, her black mother and doesn’t think she should have to choose. Yet for this same reason, we can’t conflate Bow’s experience with all mixed or light-skinned people. In Bow’s history lesson, she hints at slaves being raped by their masters, but largely, sticks to the narrative of loving interracial couples.

And this is where it gets personal, because for a lot of us lightskinned black people, there is no conflict. While many have asked which one of my parents is white or what I’m “mixed with,” I’m not mixed at all. Both of my parents are black, but a few generations ago, whiteness was forced onto my family. Unlike Bow, my light skin doesn’t come from a place of love or consent, but is instead a constant reminder of the violent transgressions my ancestors faced. I never had a kind, white family member to turn to with my questions, I only had skin that allowed me some privileges over my dark-skinned family members and, unlike Bow, I hated being a living reminder of white privilege and colorism within my own community. It’s an important distinction because even though Bow and I came to our color differently, we still share the same experiences and sense of alienation.

Like Bow, my light skin felt like a barrier that kept me from fully being embraced by the black community. Like Bow, I tried to overcompensate and go “hella hard” to prove I was a ”real” black woman. So, when Bow’s face dropped at the site of Megan, I knew exactly what she was feeling. It wasn’t hatred over Megan’s skin color, but an internal alarm questioning Bow’s stature as a black woman. Bow’s father addresses this concern when he says mothers expect their sons to date versions of themselves. And, well, if Bow is such a proud black woman, shouldn’t her son be with a proud, black woman? Obviously, it’s not that simple, but Bow’s feelings towards Megan are at once a reaction to her own blackness being doubted and the feeling that her son’s relationship with a white woman is a rejection of black women as a whole.

Why would Bow think Junior dating a white woman is a sign that he’s rejecting black women? Well, Black-ish employs one of the best “Dre’s Office” scenes in the show’s history to draw this parallel. When Dre mentions to his coworkers that his son is dating a white woman, they congratulate him. They ask him for dating advice, but he says he had nothing to do with it. Dre grew up around black women and is entirely uncomfortable even speaking to white women. In fact, Bow’s father is the first and last white man Dre has ever hugged. This is an understandable reaction when you remember that black men were murdered and lynched for even looking at white women within Dre and his parents’ lifetime. But, on the other side, there’s Charlie. Charlie is “Snow.J. Pimpson” and walks around with two John Mayer tickets in his pocket at all times so he can hit on white women. Charlie represents Bow’s fears—when Wanda Sykes demands they start working, he deems black women too aggressive and unattractive and explains that’s the reason why he “keeps some snow.”


I was thrilled when Sykes returned and she’s excellent in the episode. While she is aggressively asking the men to get their work done while flipping them off, she is their boss—a factor Charlie ignores when he writes all black women off because of her perceived difficulty. But, black women are routinely seen as the least date-able and least attractive among us. You only need a brief knowledge of say, the racist sexism Michelle Obama faces, to understand that being a black woman means constantly having your beauty devalued as masculine or aggressive in favor of white beauty standards. These standards are internalized by black people like Charlie, and Bow is also worried that Junior may be internalizing these same thoughts when he brings home Megan. My mom had these same concerns when I brought home a string of white boyfriends before finally breaking down one day to ask if I even found black people attractive and if I’d ever date a black person. (Her final plea—“What about, like, Denzel?”––still makes me laugh.) Well, I would date black people and Junior probably will too, but internalized anti-blackness is a real concern that makes it hard to just write Bow off as racist or bitter about white women.

The final conversation between Bow and her father helps this episode reach a beautiful conclusion. Despite all her internalized fears around her own blackness and anti-blackness, Bow is a black woman. As her father says, it’s not Bow’s choice—society made the choice for her. In the end, race is a construct and no matter how light Bow and I are, we know we’re black women when we’re followed in the store or someone asks to touch our hair. There is no secret key or hip-hop rhyme spelling out your name that can secure your blackness. Bow is a black woman, even if she can’t tell that her hair is being cut in the middle of the night. It’s a reaffirming message and highlights the importance of why shows like Black-ish need to exist. Where else can narratives like this be handled with hilarity, care, and true understanding? Black-ish has never been afraid to take on black politics or issues in relation to whiteness, but in “Being Bow-racial,” the show has created an episode that carefully and proudly examines internalized complexities in the black community that are hardly ever given attention.


Stray observations

  • That was so many words, but like, this episode was truly well done and moving. As my mom texted me after, “I never thought they’d go there!!”
  • I love that we finally got an episode where Bow narrates. I’d love to see more people in the family taking charge of the story.
  • Jack, Diane, and Zoey have their own storyline this week as Zoey updates their room. It’s light and fluffy, but is a welcome distraction from how heavy the rest of the episode is.
  • I am all for Ruby and Bow’s brother making it happen.
  • I loved Dre explaining how his game was similar to some comedians––it only works on black audiences. I also loved his defense of Steve Harvey.
  • “Can you make it 8:30?”
    ”It was probably going to be closer to that time anyway.”
    Never change, Charlie.
  • The O.J. verdict scene was a little predictable, but it’s the Year of O.J. and it’s an easy to recognize moment, so I didn’t mind it.
  • High-school Bow hit way too close to home. I also went to an entirely white school and played roles such as “Goat Mammy” and “Indian Ghost Maid” in my school’s theatrical productions.
  • College Bow also hit too close to home, although I gotta say, the microbraids I begged my mom to pay for before freshman year definitely stunted on Bow’s look.
  • “They tried to offer my Dave Matthews tickets, but I’m not looking for a woman that white.” Charlie may have had the best lines in the episode.
  • Ruby: How can you have a problem with that? You’re a white!
    Bow: Have you been cutting my hair?
    Ruby: A black woman would know.
    Ruby’s “what?” in response to Bow’s question was such a wonderful acting moment. I thought this was a great use of Ruby and Bow. Sometimes their hatred for each other can get tiring, but Ruby was rightfully putting Bow in her place.
  • I hope we get to see more of Megan and Bow interacting. It’ll be great to see how Bow rectifies her feelings with Junior literally finding his perfect, Dothraki-speaking soulmate.
  • Dre: You are a grown man with bangs.
    Johan: These are tendrils.
    I haven’t really been enjoying Johan’s presence this season, but this episode grounded the character within the family more.
  • “This is something we can do together as we grow old. Some couples, they have golf. We can mistrust white people together!”