Dr. Jessica Johnson: Opening up about your feelings on racism


Dr. Jessica Johnson - Guest Column



Before its season four finale, “Grown-ish,” the Gen Z college-focused spinoff of “Black-ish,” aired two episodes that centered on police shootings of unarmed Black men.

The Aug. 5 episode is titled “A BOY IS A GUN,” and the follow-up, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” delves into the sensitive topic of white fragility, a theory by scholar Robin DiAngelo. At the end of this episode, Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi), the main character of “Grown-ish,” is seen reading DiAngelo’s 2018 New York Times’ bestseller, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”

Both storylines were filmed back in April during Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd.

With a primarily young cast of color, “Grown-ish” has intensely focused on social and racial issues from a Gen Z perspective with a heavy dose of smart-alecky humor. Zoey and her friends are quick to “check” each other when one of them says something “outta pocket,” which in Gen Z slang means acting in a way that disrespects others.

In “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” Zoey and Jazz’s (Chloe Bailey) bond with their white friend and roommate, Nomi (Emily Arlook), is tested after two back-to-back fatal police shootings of a young Black man and a Black teenager. Although Nomi supports her friends by marching with them during a peaceful protest on their college campus, her remarks about disagreeing with the looting of businesses prompts Jazz to assert that Nomi is exhibiting her “white fragility.” Nomi takes deep offense to this comment and accuses Jazz and Zoey of using “inflammatory language” to attack her character, but Nomi later apologizes after a conversation with her mother reveals that perhaps she has some racial blinders.

After watching this episode, I kept thinking about Nomi’s initial view of the context of inflammatory language and how I actually agree that white fragility, and also white privilege, fall under this category. In saying this, I’m not disagreeing with notable academics such as DiAngelo who claim it is difficult for some white people to address racism or admit their personal biases. I just feel the terminology she and other scholars are using is a bit harsh.

For example, both of these “Grown-ish” episodes include quotes from John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr., but these esteemed leaders used rousing instead of inflammatory language to unite Whites and Blacks in the just cause for civil rights. In “A BOY IS A GUN,” one of the freshman activists makes a snarky reference regarding Lewis by inferring that cheese and wine is the new “good trouble” because her brother’s best friend is throwing a party instead of posting about the police shootings on Instagram.

But think about how Lewis phrased good trouble.

He simply stated, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something! Do something! Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble!”

Lewis never framed his words through a divisive racial lens, and he particularly emphasized this when he said, “I believe race is too heavy a burden to carry into the 21st century. It’s time to lay it down. We all came here in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.” Lewis and King concentrated on brotherly love through God as the core for their belief in nonviolence as the best method to fight for racial justice in America. Zoey used one of King’s most famous quotes — “a riot is the language of the unheard” — to explain to Nomi that no one was condoning looting but that it is often viewed as the last resort by oppressed people to bring attention to their suffering. While this is true, since King is referenced here, it would have been effective if this storyline could have transitioned to the concept of King’s beloved community towards the end.

In reflecting on some of what I have observed of Gen Z activism, I have not seen a lot of focusing on redemption and reconciliation, and how King urged us to work toward a community where we do not “live with bitterness and friction.” King truly believed we could achieve this by imploring God to help us get to a place of “brotherhood that transcends race or color.” If we could reach this sacred place, I believe more White people would open up about their feelings on racism.

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Dr. Jessica Johnson

Guest Column

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. @JjSmojc

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. @JjSmojc

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