Here Are The Shows Getting The Black Student Experience Right And The Ones That Have It Oh, So Wrong
The stereotypes aren't cutting it.
September 14, 2021 at 3:54 pm
We’ve all done it. Typed "Black shows" or "Black student/college TV shows" into the Google search bar and quickly found ourselves less than impressed. Deep sigh.
You’ve probably discovered that not only are there limited options, but something usually seems off within the first few episodes of most student-centered shows. There’s the unrealistic or overblown character development, inauthentic dialogue, tokenizing, sidekicking, stereotypical dialogue, overacting and worse: the exploitation of Black trauma. They hardly ever paint these young characters as multifaceted, complex badasses. Many showrunners also seem to forget that, realistically, having to navigate predominantly white spaces as a Black student is a plotline of its own.
Yes, we all have our favorite binge-worthies, but are they getting it right? We’ve compiled a list of the series getting us right and those getting us oh, so wrong.
Doing It Right
Grown-ishThis Black-ish spin-off follows Zoey Johnson, played by Yara Shahidi, the eldest daughter of the Johnsons’, and her journey through adulthood and college life at fictional school Cal U along with her six core friends. Grown-ish is the Gen Z version of A Different World set at a predominantly white institution. Zoey has dreams of working in fashion and is majoring in the sociology of fashion, and each season represents a different school year.
Entering into its fourth season, viewers have watched Zoey experience her first boyfriend, love triangles and even dropping out of college to pursue her dream as a stylist. The Freeform series displays the challenges Black students face in white spaces while trying to maintain their identities.
Zoey and her group of friends go through many obstacles common among young Black adults, from inner-clique tension, to love triangles, substance abuse, parental approval and money issues. Black-ish is not only getting the Black Cali student experience right, but showing the multifaceted nature of Black students, and to that we say, bravo, Grown-ish.
Unlike other teen series that involve storylines around sex, Sex Education is a series that helps dig deep into each character’s struggle with dating, desire and relationships while their life is in teenage limbo. Otis Milburn (played by Asa Butterfield) is the son of a sex therapist played by Gillian Anderson, and he has learned more than he needs to know about sex and its quirks. Otis’s best friend is Eric Effiong, played by Ncuti Gatwa, who comes from a religious Ghanaian-Nigerian family all while embracing his sexuality proudly without offending his family.
In season two, both Black characters, Eric and Otis's love interest, Ola Nyman, fall in love with their white classmates. While sex and sexual identity are addressed, the subject of race is often overlooked.
Although Ola’s Black girlhood seems to be cast aside in most episodes, the producers have revealed that the new Black cast member, played by Dua Saleh, and Eric’s love life will be the main focus in the next season. We salute Sex Education — although seriously lacking diversity, its depiction of the Black closeted experience, the taboo nature of sex in Black religious families and navigating teen romances are pretty spot-on.
All AmericanInspired by a true story, All American tells the story of a straight-A student and all-star receiver Spencer James, played by Daniel Ezra, playing football and navigating school life at South Crenshaw High. Spencer’s life is quickly turned upside down as he goes from the inner city to an affluent neighborhood.
Spencer’s immense talent catches the attention of the Beverly High School coach Baker, played by Taye Diggs, and he is quickly offered a spot on the team. The only caveat is that Spencer must move in with Coach Baker and traverse a complicated relationship with the coach's son. The show explores the hardship of the expectations placed on Spencer and the pressure he feels to stay on the team and provide a better life for his family.There’s pressure from both sides as his former school and his current school becomes rivals. Spencer navigates expectations, hoping for better opportunities while staying true to who he is. Fear of becoming a sellout and not quite fitting in at either school are in play as Spencer navigates what it means to be a Black kid in a predominately white space. All American properly depicts what it’s like to attend an inner-city school and then transfer to an affluent neighborhood and attend a school with more resources and funding.
Doing It Wrong
The reboot of Gossip Girl keeps sinister preppy vibes alive, but now with more diversity. Unlike the original series that exposed who was behind the Gossip Girl blog toward the end of the series, the reboot shows the creation of the new Instagram account that spills all the tea of the students attending the Upper East Side private school. The teachers have created a rift between the school’s Queen Bee and Instagram influencer Julien Calloway, played by Jordan Alexander, and new student Zoya Lott, played by Whitney Peak, who happens to be her half-sister with some unfinished family drama.
Between the teachers harassing Black students online, and Calloway’s friends not embracing Zoya, slowly we watch their once budding sisterhood crumble to competitors. Unlike her peers, Zoya is attending a private school on scholarship and is having difficulty navigating the wealth disparity, her peers not acknowledging their privilege, and making social issues known. Zoya’s difficulty adjusting to the private school sector is what many Black students experience while attending affluent school settings.
Compared to the first series, Gossip Girl puts the effort on diversity in sexuality, race and gender and ties current social justice events to the storyline. Gossip Girl’s aim is to overdramatize the Gen Z New York socialite experience, and while we think a Black girl’s experience in a white-dominated social club would be similar and some of the microaggressions are on the nose, Gossip Girl is still guilty of being on the verge of a modern-day soap opera.
Dear White People
Based on the 2014 film Dear White People, the show centers on Black students attending a fictional Winchester University and exposing the issues on campus relating to race. The Netflix comedy-drama series expands on singular characters and how the Black experience intertwines with attending an Ivy League school. The students are constantly faced with cultural bias, social injustice and faux wokeness from their white peers.
Season four, airing in late September, will be the first-ever musical series. The final season will be centered on the seniors putting together a varsity show that will roast the experience of Winchester. Each episode will break into song and dance, solely inspired by '90s music and Black culture. While Dear White People gives it a good college try, their depiction of Blackness seems overdone, cheesy and at times pandering to the stereotypes of what it means to be an educated Black student. The dialogue is extra, like a layer of cheese we just can’t digest.
Euphoria is a teen drama loosely based on the Israeli television miniseries of the same name. The series follows several high school students who are dealing with drug addiction and exploring their sexuality, trauma and friendship. Zendaya plays the lead, Rue Bennett, a mixed-race teen who is struggling with multiple disorders and in the midst of battling a heroin addiction, as well as dealing with a tumultuous relationship with her transgender girlfriend Jules.
The season ends with Jules and Rue finally reconciling and planning to leave town together, until Rue abruptly backs out. The first season touches on every teen issue, including eating disorders, unplanned pregnancies, transgender youth going through transition and identifying traumas, but has been deemed controversial by critics and fans. However, fans agree that this battle with vices is set to a very white-centered backdrop, and often uses Black trauma for character development. Euphoria is unique in that Black student life at a predominately white school is looked at from multiple perspectives and angles of identity, but it only skims the surface of racial discrimination. We vote no.
Genera+ion focuses on a group of California high schoolers exploring their sexual identity at school and in life. The fight and need to be seen among their peers is something the show pays close attention to. We follow each character as they switch in and out of failed and complicated love relationships and pair up with various members of the group. What some have said is a major setback and turnoff is the lack of conversation around racial identity, especially as it relates to the Black characters, Chester, Arianna, Joe and Sam.
Although the cast is fairly multicultural, the show neglects to address the main character’s biracial identity or the fact that despite his outward sexual expression, he lives with his conservative white grandmother. In addition, the show seems to play more to the nuisances of the white-passing character’s development and less to that of the Black characters. Black identity and culture seem to take a backseat in this show, and some credit that to Lena Dunham’s production and 17-year-old writer Zelda Barnz’s inability to fully capture what it means to be a Black kid in California. That's a "no," Lena.
Now, go ahead and chime in. Tell us which shows are making you feel seen and which have you saying, "That ain't it."