On My Block's Diversity Is Anything But Basic

Photo: Courtesy of John O Flexor/Netflix.
Another day, another Netflix original popping up to give us the content we need and deserve. Last week, the streaming platform quietly released On My Block, a dramedy about four teenagers getting ready to start high school in a gang-riddled part of Los Angeles. Critics from Buzzfeed and Vulture have already praised the show for its diverse cast and compelling storylines. The four teens at the center of the show — Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray), and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) — are an interesting mix of Black, Mexican, and Afro-Latina. One of the show’s creators, Lauren Iungerich, complained to BuzzFeed News, “The YA [Young Adult] world is so white.” On My Block was her solution to this problem, and the result far exceeded what I have come to expect, even from other YA series that tout people of color. The Netflix original goes beyond non-white representation in order to bring viewers a show that acknowledges the multiplicity of experiences and identities from those on the margins.
It’s true that, as of late, shows for young adults have been careful to include more characters of color. The CW’s Riverdale features a multicultural cast that includes a Black aspiring pop star that could only be dreamt up because of the Rihanna's and Beyoncé’s in the world, and a rich Latina who gives the “sassy” stereotype some girl-next-door charm. The controversial 13 Reasons Why also included a smattering of non-white characters in the form of an Asian jock and a Black rape survivor. These shows avoid the “so white” trap by putting people of color in the thick of whatever action their creators dreamt up. But are they actually helping to create a fictional world in that young people of color can relate to as much as their white peers can? The answer is usually no. These minority characters often end up speaking and acting just like the white people around them. They’re essentially whitewashed until they can blend in seamlessly with everyone else. On My Block is refreshingly connected to not only teens of color, but communities of color.
For Monse, Ruby, Jamal, and Cesar, their coming of age does include universal themes like fresh pairs of boobs, sexual exploration, and nurturing goals different from the ones that our parents had for us. However, the quartet navigates these hurdles while contending with gang violence and police harassment. These specificities don’t bog down the series, they help to make it better. The four of them make a game out of guessing what kind of gun they hear shots being fired from. Cesar has joined his brother’s gang, and his three friends get into hilarious predicaments trying to save him. On My Block is funny because it embraces even inner city kids laughing at their own pain. Retrospection does not belong exclusively to those with an all-American upbringing.
Their tale of four kids in the hood doesn’t rely on stale stereotypes about tough kids and petty crime, either. For all intents and purposes, Ruby, Monse, and Jamal are nerds. Jamal doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps as a football player and finds it hard to keep secrets. Ruby flops whenever he has to engage with the fairer sex. Monse has no interest in sexing up her personality or look for the attention of men. The three of them reject the idea that their social surroundings are an inevitable end, and mainly rely on each other to survive the ordeal unchanged. Black and Brown people from big, urban areas are not a monolith, and On My Block takes care not make them one.
Today’s YA programming offers diversity through a liberal white gaze that flattens out the cultural differences amongst us in favor of simple multi-colorism. This only gives young people of color the opportunity to see themselves as proxies to whiteness. Under this rhetoric, they are not normal unless they have assimilated. But On My Block not only reimagines the genre for people of color, but uses the diversity within communities of color to give the show its flavor. Inclusivity is not won by representation alone, and this show knows it.

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