Noir*stalgia: How To Maintain Your Black Identity While Having Three Very White Friends

[Originally published June 2015 on Racialicious.com]

The 90s nostalgia burden is real, and it manifests itself in a variety of unique ways amongst most 20-somethings. Whether we’re rereading a favorite Scholastic series or giggling over a popsicle stick with googly eyes on YouTube, the burden of rose-colored glasses lives with us all. My personal burden is the reality of existing as a 27 year old woman who watches Girl Meets World in earnest.

When I claim that Girl Meets World is a good show I fully expect my opinion to be taken with a grain of salt. If you know me at all, then you know how much I love the show’s precursor, Boy Meets World, and I’m comfortable admitting that were it not for an extreme case of 90s Nostalgia Syndrome I would not be watching (and rewatching) episodes of a Disney Channel Show aimed at the white tween girl demographic.

That demographic categorization isn’t meant to be an insult, just a statement of what it is. I should reiterate: I genuinely enjoy Girl Meets World. Nothing tempers my innate, bitter cynicism like the weekly reminder that Cory Matthews and Topanga Lawrence managed to stay married and reside happily in a huge apartment in the East Village with their two kids — one of whom is perpetually in undone suspenders. I generally find tween stars cloying and unrelateable, but Rowan Blanchard and Sabrina Carpenter, who play Riley and Maya (the titular Girls meeting the titular World) have grown on me since

the show’s 2014 debut. While, yes, I had to literally get up and take a walk around a park to gather myself and my emotions after Shawn Hunter’s return during the first season, I also enjoy the episodes that focus solely on the girls and their Disney-appropriate middle school adventures.

But the fact remains that despite the second season addition of ‘Zay’ (a new student at the middle school who sounds like he came up through the Hollywood Shuffle School of Black Acting, which could be more a fault of the Over-Acting Teen Aesthetic Disney employs than the scripts themselves. Time will tell.) Disney’s Girl Meets World is an incredibly white show.

Even aside from the obvious choices — take The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or Living Single — the 90s were chock full of shows with full or majority Black casts. I would sooner revisit the slightly goofy The Parent’hood (Director Robert Townsend’s 1995 sitcom vehicle, not to be confused with the NBC show Parenthood) than Boy Meets World if I were looking for for deep 1990s meditations on race relations in America. With a revolving door of vanishing Black supporting characters, Boy Meets World was hardly the most diverse show of its era either. Cory and Shawn had a Black friend, Ellis, for a few episodes during season one, and a Black teacher, Eli, during season three. Both were short lived and in typical 90s fashion, diversity focused solely on the presence of Black characters rather than exploring the vast diaspora of people of colour.

And yet, despite the fact that I watched Black led shows like Sister Sister, it’s Boy Meets World’s seven seasons that remain the most beloved television of my childhood. And it was Angela Moore, the girl that managed to jam that revolving door of blackness in season five, who I used as a point of personal validation of my own existence through high school and college.

Angela Moore (played by Trina McGee) joined the core three characters, Cory, Shawn, and Topanga, as a recurring character during their senior year of high school and main cast for the final two seasons. Angela was the only recurring person of colour on the show for those final three seasons and was often times the only person of colour who would speak during a 30 minute episode. She was also Shawn Hunter’s love interest.

Played by Rider Strong, Shawn was the uncontested Tigerbeat era heartthrob of Boy Meets World. He did this thing with his hair a lot, making him incredibly appealing to those of us in the tween set of the time.

And Shawn Hunter was dating a Black girl. A Black girl with perfect skin, hair I envied, and clothing I coveted who bagged the hottest guy at John Adams High and took no sh*t for it.

Angela had her own problems, of course. For instance, her insecurities about being abandoned by her mother mirrored Shawn’s about his own mother. In middle school though, I was more focused on the fact that despite being the one person of colour in this impenetrable group of friends Angela was always sure of herself. She didn’t seem to suffer from the anxieties about not being “Black enough” because of her white friends and boyfriend that always lurked in the back of my mind. She joked about her group of friends, writing papers entitled “How To Maintain Your Black Identity While Having Three Very White Friends,” or making off the cuff remarks like:

Shawn Hunter: My soap opera name is Patrick Trailer Park.

Angela Moore: Well, mine is Shawnene Martin Luther King Boulevard.

[Everyone stares]

Angela Moore: Gosh, I gotta get some black friends.

Angela was my original Carefree Black Girl.

In a time before pairings like Iris West and Barry Allen on The Flash were common on television (or, at least, less of note), Shawn and Angela were downright novel — especially when it came to realistic television aimed specifically at teens that wasn’t Degrassi. Their relationship followed more of the Iris and Barry model rather than, say, Olivia and Fitz (Scandal) in that race was rarely a factor mentioned. Bucking 90s sitcom tradition there was no Very Special Episode About Interracial Dating. Instead, Shawn and Angela dealt with their individual abandonment issues, insecurities brought about by socioeconomic status (Shawn lived in a trailer park for much of the show’s run), and got to do a Very Special Episode About Teen Drinking And Alcoholism.

I appreciated this, and still do on my many rewatches because Angela’s life looks a lot like mine still does.

As much as I appreciate my Black Heroes of the 90s who overtly reminded us of their Blackness time and time again, Angela was equally important. Mine was not a sitcom household when I was young, and I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of shows like Fresh Prince anyway. My list of ‘real world’ role models was low, with many of my personal favorites existing on space ships and mansions filled with mutants rather than school hallways.

Existing in the common mythologies is important, but so is existence in the common realities. And, at least for me, Angela’s character and her six white best friends/co-stars made me feel better about my own reality. My friend group in middle school and 9th grade weren’t quite as undiverse as Cory, Shawn, Topanga, Eric, Rachel, and Jack, but the racist class assignment system my public school district employed made it fairly close. The process of leveling students into classes by their supposed levels of intelligence (which, oddly, seemed to match very closely with their race) was more instrumental in building insecurities around my Blackness about being ‘the smart Black kid who acted white’ than actually being a smart Black kid was. Angela and her casual ease of existence in a sea of whiteness was reassuring. And while Angela and Shawn didn’t get Cory and Topanga’s committed ending, we at least knew that she graduated from Pennbrooke University (yet another space of almost complete whiteness) happy and went on to start her life in Europe.

Tonight, Girl Meets World is planning on giving us the resolution I’m not sure I entirely want. Angela returns to the show in episode nine entitled “Girl Meets Hurricane,” seemingly stepping into a budding relationship between Shawn and Maya’s single mother. It’s just the sort of relationship I’d expect on a show aimed at that Tween White Girl Demographic. Angela has been mentioned, but unseen, and given my nostalgia for the Shawn/Angela pairing it’s been difficult to accept watching him with anyone else. Is that fangirl-ish and petty? Perhaps. But I put a lot of stock in that pairing and Angela as a character. Even if she walks away from the episode emotionally satisfied, it’s going to hurt to watch the most important ‘ship of my childhood get dealt a death blow.

I’m still glad she’s coming back. I don’t watch any other tween programming, but as I revisit Boy Meets World through Girl Meets World I find myself wondering who the Black girls of this generation are watching. Who is the realistic carefree Black tween idol of 2015 and is she on the Disney Channel? I had Angela Moore; girls coming up 5 or 10 years older than I am had the cast of A Different World, among others. Are The Powers That Be giving Willow Smith or Amandla Stenberg their own shows? Parents, I’d love to know what your tweens are watching and the options beyond Zendaya’s K.C. Undercover — a show I may attempt to give a chance this summer.