What Grown-ish Says About Being Black In College

Photo: Freeform/Kelsey McNeal.
Now that it’s premiered, I’m relieved to report that I like grown-ish. I was nervous that Yara Shahidi, reprising the role of her black-ish character Zoey Johnson, would be forced to carry the load of a show that refused to offer depth to the broader experience of being an undergraduate. Thankfully, this has not been the case. The young woman who dominated the social hierarchy at her high school when she still lived at home is struggling with the responsibilities that come with being on her own in a new environment. Drugs, alcohol, relationships, and friendships come with higher stakes now, and Zoey is feeling it all, with a string of amazing hairstyles. Grown-ish has its own merits as a show, but I found myself looking for another link that connects it to its parent series other than the oldest Johnson daughter.
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Black-ish is a critical examination of race in America via the challenges, identities, and lives of the upper-middle class Black Johnson family. Would grown-ish continue this exploration via Zoey’s experiences at school? In the same way that black-ish addresses the Black family experience, can grown-ish do the same for a Black student experience? The answer, it turns out, is yes, but not in the same way.
FreeForm, the network on which grown-ish airs, is known for regularly addressing some serious topics, but race is not one of them. Shows like Pretty Little Liars, Famous In Love, and even the Bold Type lean into an idea of multiculturalism that doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to cultural differences between groups of people as much as they do meeting diversity quotas. It’s not the platform for a show as explicitly race-focused as black-ish is.
Still, watching the first two episodes of grown-ish, there were moments where I felt intentionality around race. The best example of this is the characters that Chloe and Halle Bailey play, twin track recruits named Jazzlyn and Skylar, respectively. The two athletes grew up not only trained in sports, but trained by their father to always put on a show that downplays their origins and gives the facade of a united front. They keep their bickering between themselves in private moments where no one else can hear. Like thousands of other Black woman, they have mastered the art of code-switching between their “hood” dialect and the language that is more acceptable on campus. The pressure they feel to succeed in college is not just about familial expectations and standards. They feel like they would be letting down their entire community should they fail.
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“No one wants to see two ratchet ass girls on a box of Wheaties,” the two of them were once told by their father. Recounting these learned respectability politics to their friends, Luca (Luka Sabbat) suggests that their father might be wrong, and that it may help promote what Wheaties sells. This a commentary on the commodification of Blackness that happens at the corporate and cultural level. And Zoey agrees with them. So while she enjoys her racially diverse group of friends, it’s clear that she’s woke around her own identities. She also sleeps in a headscarf at night, a small detail that goes a long way to acknowledge the realities of Black girlhood.
There were other, more questionable details, too, like the diverse crowd at the Black Student Union (BSU) party Zoey attended. I went to the whitest of PWI (predominantly white institutions), and our BSU parties were... well, Blacker. But overall, grown-ish has something good going, and I’m here for it. [Insert brown fist emoji]
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