Culture/TV

How This Is Us tells the story of being black in a white world

Rarely has racism's mental and emotional toll been depicted in such a refined way on network TV.

February 1, 2018

Warning: This article contains light spoilers.

This Is Us is the network show that’s universally become known as the tearjerker — its Twitter hashtag even boasts a Kleenexbox emoji. But on the show, it’s Randall, the adopted black child of the all white Pearson family that offers a nuanced portrayal of what it means to be twice as good in a white world, capturing a unique aspect of the minority experience that’s so rarely depicted on TV.

We first meet Randall at the doorstop of his father, a former heroin addict who is now in recovery. He’s adamant about telling his biological father that despite being abandoned by him, he has grown into a man of success, with a white-collar job, a beautiful wife and family, and a fancy car to boot. But early on, we see the cracks in this narrative and become aware that much of Randall’s life is consumed by constantly have to prove his value.

Early on, Randall becomes keenly aware that his experience differs greatly from that of his white family. He often feels alone existing in a world where nobody looks like him. Later on, we see Randall on a family outing, after catching a glimpse of other black people he promptly whips out a notebook filled with tallies marking the occasional moments he’s spotted other people who are also black.  

This endearingly precocious habit reveals a deep-cutting truth about the isolation that often accompanies the road to success for minorities in homogenous communities. Soon after, Randall transfers to a gifted school where he’s the only dark speck in a sea of white. His adopted father Jack worries about him until he is faced with frank advice from Yvette, the black mother of Randall’s friends who tells him that a child like Randall can’t afford to give up an opportunity like that.

Yvette’s hard-hitting truth communicates a prescient reality for many black people, that in order to achieve success black people have to make a choice, swallow the bitter pill of racial segregation or have the cultural familiarity of not being the only one. In the end the Pearson’s choose the latter for their son, a choice that isn’t inherently right or wrong, but becomes one that alters Randall’s experience.

[This is Us] also underscores a more subtle institutional reality: society is set up for white men like Kevin to thrive, and for black men like Randall to succeed only if they can beat the odds stacked so high against them.

Randall later admits this after reconnecting with his biological father William, after William has an encounter with the security guard in Randall’s mostly white neighborhood. William then accuses Randall of not knowing what it’s like to be in the shoes of a black man, particularly one who’s poor, disenfranchised and written off as problematic.

Calmly, Randall explains that he does understand, however he’s learned how to let go of the many experiences where he feels “othered” otherwise he’d feel angry all the time. This sharp candid moment allows Randall to effectively depict what it’s like to shoulder the burden of being black in a country whose colonialist history is built on the fact that that identity is less than.

The moment is especially poignant because it not only speaks to current social themes that dominate the zeitgeist—like Black Lives Matter and an American administration that has been quiet on issues of racial injustice—but it also takes an intergenerational approach at highlighting how  little things have changed. In the 70s, William fought to desegregate schools as a young activist in his prime. More than 30 years later, Randall is an affluent professional, cemented in America’s racially fraught social climate, yet as black men they both share similarities in their experience.

This brings us back to Randall’s childhood and how his identity as the sole minority in his family became a prominent feature of his relationship with his brother Kevin, a fiercely handsome quarterback whose privileged white ideas informed his rivalry with Randall. The underlying resentment carries into their adult relationship where eventually in a fight with Randall, Kevin reveals how angry he is to be replaced by another black man.

This ugly colonialist sentiment, contingent on the idea that a blond, white alpha should be number one shows how white privilege works even within family dynamics. It also underscores a more subtle institutional reality: society is set up for white men like Kevin to thrive, and for black men like Randall to succeed only if they can beat the odds stacked so high against them.

This in turn leads Randall to develop one of his innate qualities, a compulsive need to be perfect. We see it in the success of the material possessions he’s accumulated, we see it in the way he dresses in a palatable, appropriate way every morning, we see it in his unwavering dedication to parenthood and his need for flawless performance at work. It’s also evident in his reaction when he’s unable to achieve perfection. In season one, Randall’s inability to live up to his own bloated expectations leads him to a breakdown.

 

Calmly, Randall explains that he does understand, however he’s learned how to let go of the many experiences where he feels “othered” otherwise he’d feel angry all the time.

Rarely has the mental and emotional toll that racism has on the psyche been depicted in such a refined, compelling way on network TV. But in one of the show’s many moments of brilliance, This Is Us nails it through descriptive storytelling leading up to a potent emotional display where we understand completely what has lead to this moment, an intricate retelling of just how hard it is to be the “only one” in a white world.

In the show’s second season Randall gets a spontaneous opportunity to foster a young black teenager. In a candid conversation he’s able to rectify his experience by saying the words that he always wanted someone to say to him. “My whole childhood I felt split inside.. like a ringing in my ears…there are [times] where it felt so loud, I just [felt] alone…but here’s the thing my life turned out pretty great…if I’m seeing me in you…[then] I think it’s going to happen for you too.”

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