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At long last, black-ish is gifting us with a spin-off dedicated to Bow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), the beloved matriarch of the Johnson family. While Bow and her bi-racial identity have often been the butt of Dre (Anthony Anderson) and his mother’s (Jenifer Lewis) jokes, mixed-ish will take us back to Bow’s childhood and explain how she became the woman we know and love on black-ish.
The spin-off kicks off in the summer of 1985, when Bow was 12 and the leaders of the commune she grew up on were “detained” for several dozen ATF violations. The break-up of her community, the only world she and her two younger siblings have ever really known, forces Bow and her family back into suburban living, where most people have never seen kids like Bow and her siblings, let alone understand them.
As explained in the pilot episode, young Bow (Arica Himmel) and her younger brother and sister are among the first wave of the children of the Loving generation as interracial marriage wasn’t legal in the United States until the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mildred and Peter Loving in 1967. Bow’s parents were among the first interracial couples in the United States to get married and have children. As such, Bow has to deal with other people’s perceptions of who she is at the same time that she’s trying to figure out who she is for herself. As a member of the second Loving generation, that’s something I relate to so hard.
I didn’t grow up in a commune, but my dad was in the Army for the first eight years of my life. Due to the traveling nature of military service men, often being deployed in foreign countries and having a more integrated community on base, interracial marriage wasn’t the phenomenon in the service that it was in civilian suburbs. I never questioned my racial identity because it genuinely never came up when I was younger. Later, my dad retired and moved the family to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Confederate flags still flew proudly in any official building we walked into. Somehow, I still made it to 10 years old before anyone asked The Question.
For Bow and her siblings in mixed-ish, it’s “What are you weirdos mixed with?” For me, it was, “Is your daddy black?” from a fifth-grade classmate as we exited school one afternoon. Like the Johnson kids, the question bewildered me. The Johnsons didn’t know what the kid was asking. I understood my question, but it was the first time I’d ever had to think about my dad’s race, let alone my own. For all of us, it was the moment we realized that our journey to self-discovery would be more complicated by the opinions and judgements of others than our peers.
Once you’re asked The Question, you then have to grapple with The Choice. Bow’s siblings, Johan (Ethan Michael Childress) and Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris), wasted no time in picking sides of their racial identity in order to fit in with their classmates. Johan went black and adopted a B-boy break-dancer persona, while Santamonica decided to go white and channel her inner Madonna. Bow had a harder time choosing, acknowledging the consequences of potentially denying one side of her existence over the other. I was less astute at her age, and went with the path of least resistance, but mixed-ish right off the bat delves into the core dilemma of being a biracial person in America.
Despite it being 2019, mixed kids are still forced into boxes that they don’t wholly fit into. Those boxes are not only limiting, but ineffective. The pilot points out that there are role-models like Drake, Meghan Markle, and even a president to look up to, but are they living inclusive biracial lives? Barack Obama was raised by a white mom and his white grandparents, but he’s still credited as the first black president of the United States. It’s important that he be noted as such because it was a groundbreaking moment in history for him to be elected. To say that he was the first biracial president almost feels like diminishing his momentous accomplishment, or worse, denying a long-oppressed group of people an idol to uphold. However, someone who is biracial isn’t black, and they aren’t white. They’re both.
It took me years to understand that the two halves of my identity weren’t two separate pools I could jump into at any given moment, but that I was a blend of the two cultural perspectives and narratives, as are Bow and her siblings. There’s strength, resilience, and pride that comes from being a person of color in America, but also an unconditional compassion inherited from our white parents that literally loved our light brown skins into existence. That dichotomy is complicated and nuanced, but it is what I hope mixed-ish leans into unabashedly in its first season.
From the first episode, it looks like mixed-ish, in the same vein of its predecessor black-ish, has all the ingredients to tackle those difficult grey areas in a smart, articulate, and funny way. What’s most exciting is that they have the runway to explore issues through a unique lens that we haven’t really seen on television yet, especially not on broadcast. It’s something I, as a mixed race person, am so excited to see. Everyone else should be, too.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
mixed-ish premieres Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 9/8c on ABC.