On Wednesday's episode of grown-ish "Strictly 4 My..." the gang takes stock of whether temporary resident of historically Black dorm Hawkins Hall Vivek (Jordan Buhat) is guilty of appropriating Black culture. Is Vivek's passion for hip hop, Gucci threads, and Crown and Coke just an indication that Black culture has inspired popular culture — as Aaron (Trevor Jackson) argues — or is Vivek doing something fundamentally wrong in adopting the culture of people he'll never share the same experience as?
Cultural appropriation has become a hot-button issue in recent years, and many stars have been called out for borrowing from a culture they have no true ties to. Heavy backlash from Kim Kardashian's Kimono shapewear line caused her to apologize for appropriating Japanese culture. Stars like Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande have been accused of appropriating Black culture with their personal style. For grown-ish — a series that boasts a diverse cast and has already explored tough subjects like sexual assault and colourism — tackling cultural appropriation just makes sense.
Over the phone, Refinery29 talked to executive producer and writer Jeni Rice-Genzuk Henry about the episode and why she's thrilled she has a platform to discuss these issues.
Refinery29: What inspired this episode?
Jeni Rice-Genzuk Henry: "We always try to explore current- and hot button topics for people. The conversation of whether Vivek, as a character, was committing cultural appropriation was interesting because, in that discussion, there were some people who felt he was guilty of it. I, in particular, felt very strongly that [he wasn't.] We went into a deeper conversation about the ways that popular culture in general has become synonymous with Black culture. Some things longer feel off-limits because it's something that has become popular: the music, the style of clothing, all of that. We wanted to get into what triggered people, what made people uncomfortable with Vivek in general."
Aaron says at one point that Vivek "can't" appropriate Black culture because he himself is a minority, of Asian-American descent. Why did you choose to put Vivek at the centre of this conversation?
"[We thought] it was so interesting that it wasn't talking about a white person who was guilty of cultural appropriation. The conversation became more complicated and nuanced because then you have to introduce the idea that Vivek is also a minority, so what does that mean for cultural appropriation? Does that give him the green light to behave in the way he does? I think Nicki Minaj did like a layout where she dressed up like a geisha for her last album, and people were upset about that. She didn't get her a pass because obviously she hasn't walked in the footsteps of [Japanese] culture.
"Why cultural appropriation is so offensive when you're talking about someone who is not a minority is that people can just put on the clothes and listen to the music, but they don't have to walk in the footsteps or live that experience. The reality is, as a minority, you can't take your outer shell off to hide who you are. That's where it becomes more complicated, because [other minorities do] participate in a struggle. Ultimately, where we landed with it is that it is a slippery slope and, although there are some things that you have to chalk up to being popular culture, you do have to be sensitive to the fact that [Black culture was created from a culture] that was stripped from us."
Do you think having a diverse writer's room helps you tell these stories?
"Absolutely. I don't think you can tell authentic and personal stories unless you've lived through those experiences. If we had a room full of men or a room full of white writers or, conversely, if we had a room of Black writers or all women, we just wouldn't be telling these stories [authentically]. We have gay writers, we have bisexual writers. We have people from the East Coast, from the West Coast. We are sitting in there day in and day out, and we are telling our personal stories. If we don't have those experiences to pull from the audience is going to pick up on that."
grown-ish has done many episodes where it's mostly the characters just really diving into a deep discussion on a controversial topic, do you have any more planned?
"Kenya Barris [the show's creator] calls his shows an anthropological dig. Whenever we are straying away and getting too much into just character stories, we always have to shift ourselves back to make sure that we are having those important, real, honest conversations because otherwise, we feel like any show can do that. We call those moments within the episode our roundtable moments. We have to detour and redirect ourselves to ask, have we said something here? Have we really dug into a topic?
"We are using our character Aaron to guide a story [about Black mental health] and to uncover the fact that Cal U doesn't have a lot of representation for Black students. [We're exploring how] Black culture in general deals with mental health issues, and we have a cool episode [coming up] that emotionally tackles some stuff that I'm proud of. And then this year we are [exploring] college debt and predatory loaners — those companies that target these students."
Halle Bailey, who plays Sky, was just cast as Ariel in the live action version of The Little Mermaid. Are you excited about her new role?
"I'm just so excited for my daughter. She's a four-year-old Black girl who is obsessed with mermaids. [The casting just brought] tears. My daughter will be able to grow up to see this character."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.