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Breaking Down Roseanne's Complicated Racial Politics

Did Roseanne undo its legacy of equality this season, or start a new one?

Malcolm Venable

Earlier this season, Roseanne stumbled into a trap of its own making with one joke. You know the one, wherein Roseanne responds to Dan's (John Goodman) comment that they missed "all the shows about black and Asian families" -- a clear jab at black-ishand Fresh off the Boat-- with, "They're just like us! There, now you're all caught up." Many folks, including Fresh off the Boat writer Kourtney Kang, saw the quip as dismissive or even a dog whistle that winked at an increasing backlash against diversity nationwide. Others, like black-ish star Anthony Anderson, shrugged it off, telling TV Guide, "You could say that about our show," applauding free speech and the dialogue that speech creates. "That brings us to the table," he said, "where we can try to understand each other."

Putting aside that black families like black-ish's Johnsons are much more abundant on TV than their Asian-American counterparts, Roseanne's joke hit a nerve for many reasons -- some that have nothing to do with Roseanne itself and some, of course, entirely within its control. Twenty-five years ago, Roseanne seemed progressive in in the ways it dealt with discrimination, prejudice and racism -- most memorably with "White Men Can't Kiss," in which Roseanne reprimands DJ (Michael Fishman) for refusing to kiss a black girl in his school play. But today, in light of sweeping revolutions in how the public thinks and talks about race, inclusion and white privilege, Roseanne's uncomfortable joke seemed like the perfect metaphor for its now awkward handling of race and ethnicity overall. And with the added baggage of Roseanne Conner being a Trump supporter, like Roseanne Barr herself, Roseanne invited new, legitimate scrutiny about the show's real feelings about and treatment of minorities. Some, like Light Night writer Amber Ruffin, flat-out called Roseanne racist; others like Anderson have found it benign. Whichever side of the aisle anyone sits, one thing can't be disputed: Roseanne's racial politics are complicated.

The Roseanne Cast Defends the Decision to Make Roseanne a Trump Voter

If anyone had been waiting for Roseanne's first rebooted season to have a conversation about race worth listening to, the penultimate and final episodes offered up a complex answer. "Go Cubs" is the show's biggest statement on prejudice, perhaps ever. It starts with Roseanne spying on her Muslim neighbors, concerned about their unusually large supply of fertilizer, which is a key component in homemade bombs. As irrational, prejudiced fears go, it's one that's been heavily conditioned into Americans post 9/11, making the distrust so potent in the Conner household even the liberal Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) buys into it for a second. Jackie comes to her senses though, attributing Roseanne's paranoia to Fox News, which snaps the episode's point into focus. Roseanne's prejudice is the joke. Her ignorance is undone by the third act, complete with a change of heart and an allyship with her neighbor Fatima (Anne Bedian) that's either an act of colorblind goodwill or "white savior" activity, depending on whom you ask. An empathetic read on the situation might honor the breaking down of walls after Roseanne realized the error of her prejudiced ways, and became an ally for her neighbor. Isn't that the ultimate goal of conversations about race in the first place -- to admit you've been wrong and do something about it? But as Late Night's Ruffin noted, Roseanne comes to the aid of her neighbor only after Fatima did Roseanne a favor Roseanne felt entirely entitled to ask for by waking her neighbors up in the dead of night, after spying on them and calling them terrorists.

Roseanne Barr, Alain Washnevsky, Anne Bedain, Roseanne

Roseanne Barr, Alain Washnevsky, Anne Bedain, Roseanne

Adam Rose, ABC

The finale, "Knee Deep" dared to wade into an even thornier, potentially disastrous river of political incorrectness by having Dan (John Goodman) lose a contracting job to Mexican laborers, a decision that threatens his relationship with his black best friend Chuck ( James Pickens Jr.) The construction workers -- whom Dan calls "illegals" but is corrected by Chuck with "undocumented" -- in Lanford who'll work for a fraction of the cost are in effect taking food out of his family's mouth, forcing Dan to choose between hiring them or alienating his black best friend. By the end, it's clear that neither skin color nor heritage is on Dan's mind when food and the house are on the line. Poverty may not be the great equalizer in real life, since poverty affects people of color disproportionately, but for this fictional family, it is, putting the black and white and Latinx people in more or less the same boat. This episode doesn't exactly make Roseanne the progressive manifesto it seemed like in the 90s, and it has its problem spots. But for a primetime family sitcom with a white, Midwestern working-class Donald Trump supporter at the helm, Roseanne is willing to live in the gray areas around race and skin color. For better or for worse, Roseanne refuses to make things black and white.

Roseanne's sometimes confounding yo-yo between problematic and the blissful ignorance of the 90s, when pop culture just didn't even bother trying to get these things right, is one of the big reasons its attempt to live in gray has alienated some audiences and critics. Suppose we took at their word the Trump supporters who've said they're not racists, but simply bought his promise to bring back jobs and fix the suffering of the heartland's white working class. "Go Cubs," along with the season finale, shows what those people look like -- people who've been sidelined by a loss of manufacturing jobs and the digital economy. Specifically in the Conner family, with Dan's construction business at risk and a household disaster coming to fruition in the finale, Roseanne distills conflict with Mexican immigrants down to survival, plain and simple.

Roseanne Barr, Roseanne​

Roseanne Barr, Roseanne

Adam Rose, ABC

The Roseanne Reboot Wants To Make America Talk Again

While that might be an accurate representation of how the poor white working class feels in America, Roseanne can falter in giving people of color the same level of empathy and insight. It's troubling that Mary (Jayden Rey), Roseanne's granddaughter, got plenty of affection from her grandma but next to no speaking lines. Roseanne devoted a whole episode to Mark (Ames McNamara)'s gender fluidity but no such spotlight for Mary. What was her school experience like? Does she have any interests or talents? Who's doing her hair? Nobody knows. In "Go Cubs," the episode she talks most in, she's merely a device to get Roseanne to interact with her Muslim neighbors when Mary needs to use Wi-Fi to Skype to her mom, stationed in Afghanistan. And then there are those phantom Mexicans Dan is in danger of losing work to. They remain a bloc of faceless interlopers rather than people we can see with names and families of their own, which is especially baffling considering that Becky (Lecy Goranson) works at a Mexican restaurant. Those things need to be remedied in its next season, and frankly should have been given stronger consideration this time. Producers have confirmed that Roseanne's Muslim family will come back next season, which at least least eliminates worries Fatima and Samir (Alain Washnevsky) were a onetime a convenient prop to assuage white guilt. Maybe next time they'll have more to do than be in service of Roseanne and experience discrimination.

This type of clumsy disconnect might explain some major behind-the-scenes changes for Season 11. Executive producer Whitney Cummings won't be back next season, citing her busy schedule. But Cummings, a woman who's very much not a Trump supporter and took the job to bring Roseanne to a kind of ideological center, told The Hollywood Reporter she felt like the "p.c.police" among her colleagues, which hardly sounds like a fun way to spend 40 plus hours a week and clues us in to the dominant POV in the room. ABC's entertainment president Channing Dungey said last week that Roseanne will put family over politics next season, no doubt to prevent more headaches like that joke and, in a bigger sense, Roseanne from becoming a thinly-veiled 30-minute rebel yell for the actual white supremacists in Trump's base.

Roseanne Barr, Jayden Rey, Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne

Roseanne Barr, Jayden Rey, Sara Gilbert, Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne

Adam Rose, ABC

Thing is, that famed congratulations call from Trump to Barr after her knockout debut may have made any attempt to separate the show from the creator from the creator's politics too late. As Barr's onetime contemporary Bill Cosby knows all too well now, people are no longer willing to see creator and creation as disparate entities; #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, proved that audiences will no longer blindly consume entertainment but instead will demand decency and accountability or shut a career down. That's why Roseanne aligning herself with Trump, whose comments about Mexicans, his violent rallies, his tacit approval of actual Nazis in Charlottesville and on and on makes any off-color joke at the expense of someone who doesn't look like her suspect. This is very well the first reboot to have people asking, Is this racist propaganda? If that sounds paranoid then, well, worrying if someone's going to call the cops on you for speaking Spanish or waiting for a friend at Starbucks will do that to you.

From the beginning, Roseanne has been bringing together a spectrum of people and treating them with compassion and sensitivity -- not in spite of their color, but because of it. If anyone is consistently presented as stereotypical, it's the Conners. At the same time, people have taken issue with comparing Roseanne's cantankerous character to Archie Bunker, king of casual bigotry, because doing so means ignoring a bigger picture about Barr's wealth and even programming decisions at ABC. But Roseanne, which Michael Fishman told TV Guide aims to deal more explicitly with the experiences Geena (Xosha Roquemore) faces as a black woman next season, consistently shows its hero as one step further than colorblind -- which is to say willing to call out discrimination when it counts, even her own.



Adam Rose, ABC

That's Roseanne's true contribution to the American discussion surrounding race and class. While it may never convince viewers of color that it's a safe space for them, it might perform allyship by providing a framework for white people to question themselves. Everyone remembers how Roseanne reacted over that kiss in "White Men Can't Kiss," but the most forceful, less remembered part of the episode comes at the end when Roseanne and Jackie are about to close the shop 15 minutes early. It's night, and dark out; a black man in a heavy coat is at the door. Roseanne turns him away -- until she realizes he's Geena's dad, which leads to a chilling confrontation between the three of them. In the end, Roseanne has to sit with the truth that she isn't as unbiased as she'd like to believe, i.e. exactly the kind of personal inventory-taking and accountability people of color are begging white people to do now, and the same truth she faces about herself in "Go Cubs."

Roseanne Finale Proves She Really Is a Typical Trump Supporter

Roseanne has never been known for tact or propriety or following rules; Roseanne Conner embodies the idea that good characters don't have to be people we'd want over for dinner. But what Roseanne has consistently done, in the past and in the reboot, is face discrimination head on, whether to defend the clothing choices of her queer grandson or stand up to verbal attacks against her Muslim neighbors after realizing she's been a fool. Her allyship may be clumsy, and it might even have to become personal before it clicks. But it does, demonstrating the show's willingness to have a white family dive into honest, sometimes unsettling conversations about race that don't have easy answers -- conversations it frankly doesn't have to do. That's got to count for something: perhaps even more for a Trump-supporting, 60-something self-described white trash grandma.

Roseanne is expected to return in fall.