‘This Is Us’: Why So Many White Folks Don’t Like Randall
There aren’t a lot of Black men on television, especially when it comes to prime time dramas. Worse yet, when Black men are featured, the portrayals tend to be based upon negative stereotypes:
Deadbeat dads. Drug users or dealers. Players who do nothing but cheat and break hearts. Prison inmates. Thieves. Criminals. Gangbangers. Thugs.
According to the National Research Group (NRG), “two in three Black Americans don’t feel they see their stories represented on-screen.” My suspicion is that Black men, in particular, feel even less represented.
There’s a serious need for better representation on television and that includes Black characters from every economic background, more content from Black directors and writers, along with more stories that depict Black people in everyday life.
As I’ve written before, diversity or inclusion isn’t enough when it works as an extension of “othering” Black people. Mattel is not really being inclusive when it creates a separate, limited-edition line of Black Barbies that cost more than the “standard” white ones. It’s not even true representation when they offer a Black alternative to the white “Baby Doctor” Barbie or white “art teacher” Barbie, and then label it “brunette.”
True representation means placing Black lives front and center. Not “other.” Not alternative. It means making Black main characters normal. And it means doing away with the whole white default (aka the white standard.)
Hell, even the man behind the wildly successful L.O.L. Surprise! dolls outed himself as racist when it came out last year that he’d stolen a Black activist’s look for one of the dolls and then called her a disgrace.
For those of us who have long appreciated what seemed like a commitment to true diversity, it was disappointing to see the MGA Entertainment CEO show his true colors.
To a certain extent, though, I think we’ve gotten acclimated to TV shows with BIPOC sidekicks. But it’s been difficult to truly branch out and make Black characters (especially the men) more prominent because our biases are so deeply ingrained within us.
White is still standard. Hair products, makeup, dolls, entertainment, books, etc — all of these things already cater to the white experience and it’s very hard to see that as white people simply because we don’t have to. We don’t have to go hunting for representation in the media. And most of us won’t even begin to realize that unless we are a part of another underrepresented and marginalized group. Those of us who are fat, disabled, or queer, for example, are more likely to acknowledge white privilege even if we don’t perfectly grasp how it’s benefited us.
The whole thing about representation is that it opens doors. It gives people who see themselves in those stories something that they need — and something that white people traditionally take for granted. It also opens doors for empathy and understanding among society at large. The hope of improving representation is that more voices will be heard and more people will begin to learn how to consider other lives and experiences beyond themselves.
This Is Us, an American drama on NBC, has made headlines for its efforts to be more inclusive. From the start, series creator Dan Fogelman brought in Black directors and writers. In fact, This Is Us boasts a 30% Black core writing staff when the industry standard is just 5%.
One of the three siblings, Kate, is morbidly obese, while another sibling, Randall, is a Black man with significant anxiety. Even the conventionally attractive and outwardly successful Kevin is crippled with self-doubts, relationship woes, and addiction issues.
It’s not a perfect show, and I can’t begin to speak for Black men and the way many feel about Randall’s character and the performance by Sterling K. Brown, but what I do know is that every time I glance at a Facebook post from the show’s page, I’m absolutely disgusted by the comments of one white person after another.
It’s gross but crystal clear — many white viewers don’t like Randall.
To understand why they don’t like Randall, you have to know a bit about the show. Kevin and Kate were white triplets, but their other sibling died during the labor and delivery. The obstetrician thought their devastated parents should adopt a newborn Black baby who’d just been abandoned at a fire station.
Real-life legalities and logistics aside, the Pearsons do adopt the Black baby, name him Randall, and try to do right by all three kids. Throughout the series, we see that Rebecca and Jack really tried to be great parents. They did their best to be supportive, kind, and loving, but like all parents, they weren’t perfect, and the Pearson children each went through their own tragedies.
Initially, the show focuses a lot on Jack’s sudden death and how that impacted “the big three” — Kevin, Kate, and Randall. For a while, it seems like their dad’s death was the only trauma that truly gripped each of them, and I suspect that each character really did think that way early on.
As the seasons progress, however, everybody begins to have their own personal journeys where they see — and we see — that many of their issues were already there or beginning before Jack died. The show does a phenomenal job at exploring everyday trauma. And illustrating how everybody has been hurt or broken in one way or another.
Each one of “the big three” is imperfect with lots of room for growth, but Kevin is easily the most immature, selfish, and irresponsible among them. When the show starts, Randall is already a husband, father, and a financially successful weather trader.
Through flashbacks, we see that Randall has virtually always been an overachiever despite battling severe bouts of anxiety. He’s also the one who essentially becomes the man of the house when Jack dies.
Randall’s character — like every main character on the show — has depth. He’s not a stereotype of a Black man and he’s not a token character. You can’t pigeonhole him and Sterling K. Brown is such a joy to watch on screen. You might have seen him in Black Panther, on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, FX’s The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, or heard his voice-over work in Disney’s Frozen II.
Over the years, he’s done an exceptional job at bringing Randall to life. And I daresay his portrayal has helped some people expand their preconceived notions about Black men. Most importantly, his portrayal affirms Black men in America as valuable, smart, worthy, and good. As full human beings with real lives and genuine emotions.
Of course, not everyone will develop more empathy or understanding for Black men just by watching a television show. As it turns out, there are lots of viewers who are sick of Randall’s character and the current season (number five) seems to bring out more hate than ever simply because Randall finally confronted his loved ones — and himself — about the realities of being a Black man raised in a white family.
This Is Us handles the issue superbly, in my opinion. The season has addressed police brutality, white privilege, and the racism against Black people that is alive and well today. And some of the conversations Randall has with his siblings, mother, and therapists are really difficult and painful. Randall loves and adores his family, yet he realizes that there are needs in his life they simply can’t meet, so he seeks out a Black, male therapist and begins truly dealing with the trauma of his youth.
There’s a lot for Randall to unpack that his family can’t understand. From being abandoned at birth, to being duped by a woman claiming to be his birth mom, and finally meeting (and eventually losing) his bio dad who Rebecca kept hidden for years — it’s a lot.
Then, while he’s processing his experiences as a Black man in America with a white family, he finally learns the true story about what happened to his birth mother and why she didn’t come for him.
It’s this enormous journey, but the show isn’t just about Randall, so at the same time, Kate and Kevin are going through their own stuff, and their mom Rebecca is dealing with dementia. The show does a wonderful job of balancing the story lines so everyone gets airtime along with some really powerful moments on screen.
Unfortunately, a lot of white viewers don’t see things this way. All season long, they have complained on social media. About Randall.
Here are just some of the complaints that happen in response to a benign post like this:
So, as you might have noticed, the complaints amount to the same damn thing — a whole lot of white viewers think Randall is overdramatic and ungrateful.
And it’s bullshit.
If you never watched the show but read these comments, you’d expect Randall to be a real jerk who doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself. In reality, though, he’s long been “the fixer” and the rock in the family who everyone else turns to. Only more recently has he truly begun to consider and implement boundaries that allow him to take better care of himself.
Um, boundaries aren’t selfish. They’re a mental health necessity — even with our families. But this season, folks are really having a problem with Randall’s newfound boundaries now that race is a large part of the conversation. That’s right. This Is Us had the nerve to take on BLM, George Floyd, police brutality, and therapy for Black men in the latest season. Naturally, white viewers are upset.
The sad truth about the above complaints is that white people are so caught up in their own privilege they don’t even realize how messed up these comments are. White people (and I count myself here) don’t like to hear about racism. We don’t want to believe it still exists. And we certainly don’t want to be accused of racism ourselves.
But what else is it when white folks start clutching their pearls because they think a Black man is getting too much air time on television? What else could it be when viewer after viewer lectures a fictitious Black man on how to be better to his white family?
It’s all so absurd. These viewers are loud and proud about their hate — except, of course, they don’t actually believe that it’s hate. They honestly think that an adopted Black child must grow up so appreciative of his white family that he never brings up race. Talk about some white savior shit.
These conversations remind me of the responses from privileged white people who can’t grasp why #BlackLivesMatter is even a movement. They might as well just be honest and say they don’t care what traumas the Black community has endured. All they really want Black people to do is shut up and “be grateful.”
I wish that wasn’t true. I wish that white people were better than that, but collectively, we’re not. In a million different ways and for a million terrible reasons, the bar has been set so low. When we talk about race relations, many (if not most) of us really think that "Blacks should be happy with whatever they’ve got" and that attitude is never more obvious than when white people bitch about Randall Pearson.
For fuck’s sake, you can deny racism all you want but when white people are whining that their favorite show dared to semi-focus three of the first six episodes of the season on the Black man, you’d think that something terrible had actually occurred.
It’s embarrassing that so many white people could be so self-absorbed. Part of me thinks, “It’s 2021. Surely we’ve progressed beyond telling people to ‘go back to Africa.’” But sadly, we haven’t. The same folks telling Randall to “be happy” are the same ones telling the Black community to “be grateful” for everything America has supposedly done for them. These are also the ones who go so far as to say that Black people benefited from slavery and therefore, shouldn’t think about reparations.
What a mess.
This Is Us has done something that few television shows have done. It’s turned stereotypes and stigmas on their heads and given us authentic, well-rounded Black stories. We get to see Black characters who are fully alive in the everyday world, and who are more than their circumstances or mistakes.
And that shouldn’t be a rare occurrence on television, but it is. Last season, when another Black character played by Omar Epps encouraged Randall to start therapy, it was such an important moment in television history because there’s so much stigma for Black men to go down that road. And the show never shies away from showing the sort of stigmas, microaggressions, or trauma that Randall has endured. From his sister’s friend who wanted to kiss him because he’s Black, to other Black characters basically calling him an “Uncle Tom,” the show keeps it real. Lately, we see Randall grappling with his identity not just as an adoptee, but as a Black man in America, and the real reason so many white viewers dislike Randall right now is that he’s finally taking care of himself before his white family.
“While this show has never shied away from portraying the difficulties Randall experienced growing up as a Black adoptee in a white family, the Season 5 premiere showed what happens when that Black adoptee reaches the natural conclusion of his experience: the fuck-’em plateau. The fuck-’em plateau is an emotional state reached when a Black person lives every day in their body while constantly dealing with microaggressions, institutional barriers, fear of bodily harm, pain when that harm arrives, loss when another one of us is wrenched from our community, and the added pressure of having to function in a white-dominated society despite these feelings, and realizes that one more second spent focusing on other people’s perceptions is one second he doesn’t have to waste.
The fuck-’em plateau is the space where Randall’s priorities shifted from ‘appearing okay because minding white people’s emotions is his thing’ to ‘taking care of himself at the cost of other people’s feelings, because fuck ’em.’ Elements of his transformation came early in the episode, when he reacted neutrally to seeing Kate, Toby, and baby Jack joining the thousands of people who protested police violence after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Sterling K. Brown’s expressive face spoke volumes while he watched his white sister join the bandwagon of allies who appear to only recently have noticed that Black people exist at the mercy of racist cops. Her good intentions were meaningless to him when weighed against the decades he spent growing up Black alongside her, and he finally, finally confronted her about it in the episode’s strongest scene.”
Traditionally, for white folks, we’re uncomfortable with rage fatigue. We don’t like the way it leaves us feeling our white guilt. We want the Randalls of this world to tell us that we’re good people and not racist. We want to hear that whatever we’ve been doing about racism is good enough.
But it’s really not good enough. It’s not enough to “not be racist.” In a world where racism still thrives and the Black community has faced one unnecessary hardship after another all because of society’s worship of whiteness, “not racist” will never be good enough.
We need to be anti-racist, but we also need to grow up and quit expecting Black people to make us feel better about the evils white people have put them through. We need to accept how we’ve contributed to their rage fatigue and quit expecting them to educate or entertain us, to pat us on the backs — all of it.
We need to quit adding to that exhaustion.
Characters like Randall Pearson are so important because they can be doorways to empathy and understanding without further burdening the Black community to carry our conflicted feelings or deal with our emotional shit. We definitely need more characters like Randall, and by that, I mean more well-rounded Black characters with their own flaws, strengths, and authentic backstories. I’m not talking about lazy copies or more stereotypes.
And for the white folks who feel like they’re “sick” of Randall? The ones who believe he shouldn’t be sad yet they’re oh-so anxious to see what happens with Kevin — the most selfish and frustrating man-child in the entire show?
Perhaps you should ask yourself exactly what bothers you about Randall that doesn’t bother you about Kevin. Because, Randall has been the glue holding the Pearsons together for a long, long time. He’s the most responsible. He’s the one who’s tried to fix things as much as possible for everyone else in the family, even to his own detriment. He’s the one going to therapy and facing his demons.
Kevin is the one who can be a real jerk. He’s the one who consistently acts in his own self-interest regardless of the consequences. He’s the one who throughout the series flashbacks has displayed real disdain and even contempt for his Black brother.
So, when you complain about Randall, who’s on a journey of self-discovery and is doing the work in therapy, what you’re really saying is that you don’t want to see a Black man on screen with depth. That you don’t care about a Black man’s struggles — especially not when they stir up any of your white guilt.
It’s not normal or healthy to tell grown children that their trauma doesn’t matter. Or that they’re babies for having a reaction to trauma at all. But that’s what so many of you are doing with Randall. You’re saying that Black trauma isn’t important. And you’re saying that Black lives don’t matter.
If tuning into Randall’s journey makes you uncomfortable, it’s your job to find out why. It’s not the writers' jobs to change the course of the whole show just because it makes white people feel icky. If anything, your discomfort is a sign of your need to grow. White culture has long demanded that Black lives serve us however we see fit. Our demands didn’t end with the abolishment of slavery — they merely changed. And the same reason white people don’t like to see Black athletes take a knee is the same reason you don’t like Randall’s story yet keep clamoring on about Kevin.
You’re still racist.
For further reading:
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