Black-ish Recap: 400 Years of Instinct

Laurence Fishburne as Pops. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC
Episode Title
Who’s Afraid of the Big Black Man?
Editor’s Rating

This episode is an improvement, even if the season continues to suffer from some overcrowding. Ruby's absent tonight, so we get neighbor Janine instead and Josh is back at work. Johan is also still in the house, trying to teach a stubborn Dre to let go of outdated ideas.

At work, Dre backs away from a lost little girl alone in the elevator. She's a cute toddler, blonde and blue-eyed, and Dre knows that if he tries to help her, all anyone will see is a big, black man with a little white girl. People will immediately jump to the wrong conclusions, complete with Chris Hansen from To Catch a Predator showing up. Mr. Stevens and Josh think Dre is being paranoid and that he's playing the race card, as usual. Even when Charlie and intern Curtis reveal they, too, refused to help the child, the white men can't accept the black men's concerns.

Pops thinks Dre did the right thing, but Bow calls him a monster. She tells Dre to stop living like he's still in the N.W.A. '80s and get with Drake's Summer Sixteen. Dre's so accustomed to making himself appear as harmless as possible to the white people around him — both at work and in the neighborhood — that he's not sure he can let his guard down. Johan and Junior try to convince Dre that things have changed, that the kind of racism Dre experienced growing up no longer happens. A white woman enters an elevator with Dre, Johan, and Junior. She leaves her purse open, cash within easy reach, and makes a phone call. She gives out her address and credit card number, and even goes so far as to say she lives alone and the security cameras don't work. Dre can't believe it. Johan and Junior are smug because they think they've proven their point.

Unfortunately, the episode misses an opportunity to examine more fully why Bow, Johan, and Junior think racism isn't so bad any more. All three are light-skinned with loosely-curled hair indicative of mixed-race heritage. There's a certain privilege in that, not to mention their slim frames. Bow and Junior are pretty corny, and therefore nonthreatening. Johan, despite his "woke" spoken-word poetry, has been living in Paris. Bow and Johan have hippie parents. Their experiences navigating whiteness are very different from Dre's, a darker-skinned black man from Compton with a little meat on his bones.

Bow even tells Dre that "if you don't change, they won't change." She mocks Dre for thinking the enemy is around every corner, but if he makes an effort, the white neighbors won't be so leery of him. Bow's advice is a little too close to the idea that if black people pull up their pants/stop using the word nigga/stop using vernacular/wear suits/wear their hair certain ways, white people will stop discriminating against them. If a person is racist, there's very little you can do to stop any mistreatment. 

Bow, Johan, and Junior finally convince Dre to let his guard down and he goes to a Homeowners Association meeting in the neighborhood. Janine gets a little drunk and wants the HOA to keep the Persian neighbors from adding columns to their home. It'll look too Persian. No one wants to drive casually racist, drunk Janine home so Dre volunteers, with Johan and Junior riding in the backseat. Police pull them over and Dre starts to freak out, imagining all the scenarios that will leave him in jail or dead, with Charlie and Josh lining up to hit on a grieving Bow. He runs away from the scene and Junior soon follows. Johan gets left behind and the police rough him up, making him realize Dre was right. Maybe things aren't so different after all.

It's all wrapped up a bit too neatly, even for a family sitcom, and I'm surprised by how lightly Black-ish handles Johan's experience with police brutality, especially after last season's stellar episode that tackles the same subject. Maybe series creator Kenya Barris didn't want to go heavy again. Either way, the missteps of this episode point to the show's inconsistencies. What's the purpose of an episode where Junior learns about racial bias in America if he winds up telling Dre that things aren't that bad? It doesn't make much sense.

During Dre's lesson about modern racism, Bow tries to spend time with the kids since things will be different once the baby comes. Zoey, Jack, and Diane don't want to, so Bow turns to Pops to figure out how to get their attention. He gives her his pimp advice: Make them wait and make them jealous. After making the kids wait for dinner, which Pops eats, Bow makes them jealous by looking at Facebook photos of their cousins. Pops's plan works and the kids soon crowd under Bow for her affection. The best part of this B-story is the face Tracee Ellis Ross makes while listening to Pops's advice. She really is a remarkable comedian.

There are great little moments throughout the episode, like when Dre tells Mr. Stevens and Josh that white men get away with stuff black men can't. He cites The Honeymooners with Ralph Kramden constantly threatening to commit domestic violence as his catchphrase. Seeing Dre as Ralph and Bow as Alice in a black-and-white cutaway scene made me want a tribute episode. Dre's frowning reactions to Johan's and Junior's spoken-word poetry are worth a few laughs as well. Broad, comedic moments tend to be the foundation of family sitcoms, but the quick and quiet moments work too. Maybe we'll see more of those as Black-ish regains its footing.