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Black-ish & Speechless: The Night Primetime TV Got It Right

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Despite the seemingly limitless TV programming options that exist for our entertainment pleasure, very few target the identities I have in a manner that are affirmative and validating.  However, this month, two shows managed to meet this feat.  Black-ish and Speechless aired episodes that touched on difficult topics that rarely are discussed as candidly as they should – race relations and inspiration porn, respectively.  

Being that the nature of both episodes resonated with me profoundly, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the significance of both, and why we need more shows to be authentic about the experiences and thoughts of marginalized people.  

Black-ish’s “LEMONS”

Watching the “Lemons” episode two weeks after it originally aired, and one week after the presidential inauguration, allowed for a different reaction to transpire regarding how relevant it is for me right now.  Watching the ho-hum, depressed demeanor of the pitch team the day after the election were similar sentiments shared by me and my friends.  I decided to not watch the election late into the evening because of the fear of what I thought would take place – Donald Trump winning the presidency.  Seeing the expressions on Dre’s and his co-workers’ faces and the lack of hope that remained is honestly how I felt since that day.   The ability to possess some kind of faith about the direction of our country has died a horrific, traumatizing death, and there is little that can be done about it.  

Later in the episode, Dre’s speech about Black America’s volatile relationship with this country reminded me of what my aunt has uttered repeatedly for the past two months:  “we [Black people] are used to having little and doing without; whatever happens [during Trump’s presidency] won’t be new to us.”  In Dre’s monologue, and my aunt’s musings, both reiterated the notion that this country has always placed Black people at the bottom, and being disadvantaged, abused, and forced to deal with uncertainties are commonplace predicaments for us.  Through all of the trials our people endured since we were brought over here as slaves, we still somehow persevered and made a way out of no way.  “Making due” is a survival skill that Black people innately have, and we will continue to make due in a country that continuously seeks to strip us from being carefree, safe, and whole.  

In 2017, our community understands the threats on our mere humanity and quality of life; these circumstances are not unfamiliar to us.  We have been down this path before – just new players and faces.  Being reminded of the past offenses committed on us in this country as we watch what unfolds that will impact our future was sombering, but as it was stated… we will make it through.  

Speechless’ “H-E-R-HERO”

Taking a different approach on a topic that is relevant to a community I am a member of was the episode “H-E-R-HERO.”  Speechless decided to tackle inspiration porn, and did so beautifully.  I am sure for those outside of the disabled community, it may have been their first time hearing the term, and it was explained and demonstrated perfectly.  Inspiration porn is something I have written about, and have encountered more times than I could actually count throughout my life.  There is a difference between respecting a person and finding them inspiring, and this episode displayed the stark contrasts correctly.

What made the episode great was the fact that it accurately told who inspiration porn benefits – non-disabled people.  To paraphrase a statement I made from an interview:  “your feel-good or well-meaning actions do not supersede my humanness or comforts.”  Saying that I am your hero because I am living my life is not uplifting to hear.  What I do day-to-day is not some spectacular act to be praised.  I am living and surviving – let me do that in peace without having fanfare in the background.  We as disabled people do not want your applause or your opinions about how good we make you feel – we do not care.  Point blank.  

JJ illustrated this resistance to inspiration porn when he demanded that his experience and likeness not be exploited by his brother or anyone.  Witnessing that was powerful because it can be uncomfortable to tell someone to not use or speak of you in this manner, and know there is a strong likelihood they will take offense and not truly accept or respect your wish.  Though such comments may seem polite on the surface, they actually are not – they are dehumanizing and reduces us to simply existing to tug at the heartstrings of non-disabled people.  

Why These Episodes Matter to Me as a Black Disabled Woman

To have a show validate my emotions about the presidency as a Black woman and another discuss why inspiration porn is gross were amazing.  A dear friend suggested that the shows do a cross-over episode of sorts, and I feel that that would be awesome if it occurred.  Now, more than ever, the realistic portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people are needed.  These depictions display for the majority the injustices, prejudices, and “well intended but still problematic” behaviors we encounter every day.  To have shows on TV that are so unapologetic about the realities of groups whose lives are constantly misrepresented and disregarded is empowering.  We need more of these shows to educate, affirm, and confirm who we are and why our stories and voices matter.  This is what good representation in media looks like, and should be the standard, not the exception.  

Final Thoughts

Television shows have always been used to reflect what is taking place in our society.  It is imperative for television to be the medium where the truth is disclosed about how marginalized people feel in a world that is built without them or their humanity in mind, and the consequences encountered.  Shows like Black-ish and Speechless are leading the way for programming that hit at the hard topics that individuals like myself deal with daily in our communities.  Though the facts may be harsh to hear for those who are oblivious, they must be told, and these kind of episodes do that with zero regrets.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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