Let’s Not Romanticize ‘Roseanne’ 1.0 and Its Racism Lite

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Let’s Not Romanticize ‘Roseanne’ 1.0 and Its Racism Lite

Kieran Scarlett

Sure, the original series included Black and Asian characters here and there—but only to prove how the Conners were good, progressive white folks.

I remember the original Roseanne show fondly. Which is why it was initially difficult for me (and many others) to admit that the classic sitcom had inklings of the knee-jerk, racist, and reactionary character she became in the revival: using Islamophobic language like “Talibanistan” when describing her Muslim neighbors as potential terrorists or mocking her own network’s diversity efforts with new series focusing on families of color. 

But no matter how much ABC wants us to believe it, the new Roseanne isn’t an entire departure from the old RoseanneIt’s actually easy to track, beginning with how Roseanne 1.0 treated its inclusion of Black characters from the start. Despite receiving easy praise for its facile inclusion of these “diverse” characters, the show tokenized these characters and congratulated itself for depicting its white working-class protagonists as decent, kind, post-racial before post-racial was a thing, and post-homophobia. Roseanne and Dan Conner (John Goodman) were examples of the best of whiteness without the trappings of wealth. 

Growing up among white peers in my largely white school in a mostly white Toronto suburb, I knew my acceptance depended on not bringing up my Blackness. Such has the case with husband and wife Chuck and Anne Marie Mitchell (played by James Pickens Jr. and Adilah Barnes, respectively, in both the original series and the revival). The couple’s primary narrative purpose is to demonstrate how Roseanne and Dan Conner aren’t racist. The Mitchells are a Black couple in fictional Lanford, Illinois, and have been friends with Roseanne and Dan since high school. Chuck played high school football with Dan in the 1960s and was his buddy during a time when segregation could have easily prevented such a friendship.

Anne Marie is introduced in a 1990 episode of Roseanne, “Bird is the Word,” where Roseanne Conner scarcely even remembers having attended high school with her (highly dubious given the presumable lack of non-white students in Lanford’s graduating class). Anne Marie soon becomes Roseanne’s friend and hangs out with the crew in a very surface way that contradicted (but never commented on) the notion that white people and Black folks couldn’t be friends—even in a working class, blue-collar white town like Lanford.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Anne Marie and Chuck often served as reassurances on Roseanne—reassurances that the central characters were enlightened, evolved, and far removed from what their upbringings would have likely taught Roseanne and Dan about non-white people. They attend the Conner Mother’s Day barbecues and birthday parties. Always in the background. Always smiling, laughing, and offering up throwaway lines of deferential support. They were underdeveloped compared to other friends like Crystal (Natalie West) or Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), both of whom had several episodes that focused on their inner lives—marriages, children, and failed working-class dreams. But the Mitchells function as props there to help the Conners and are not worthy of their own storylines, even for a one-off episode or two. And the original series certainly doesn’t touch upon what might have been an obvious storyline: what it’s like to be Black in an all-white town.

Perhaps you’re saying that these Black characters are more than their race and that Roseanne was ground-breaking in recognizing that. That’s an enticing and comforting belief that doesn’t hold up scrutiny.

Chuck and Anne Marie are hardly the only examples of the original series’ tokenizing approach to inclusion. There’s Vonda (Charlayne Woodard) another Black “friend” and co-worker of Roseanne. She is prominently featured in the 1989 episode “Guilt By Disassociation,” where she helps Roseanne land an interview for a job she ultimately doesn’t get. Roseanne is interviewed by another Black woman, the prickly and unpleasant Muriel (Madge Sinclair). And Vonda is right there to assure Roseanne that Muriel is in fact impossible, assuaging any guilt about what can now be viewed as a very racialized depiction of the “angry Black woman” whom Roseanne Conner resents because Muriel has power.

There’s also Iris (Lori Tan Chinn), a character introduced in 1990 and who works at a hair salon with Roseanne. Her broken English, with exaggerated accent and her frequent “jokes” about dodging gunfire in an unnamed war-torn country, make her no more than an ethnic punchline—a stereotypical portrayal of Asian Americans. We’re invited to laugh at Iris without deeper analysis.

There is an example of Chuck and Anne Marie’s race being overtly addressed in the 1994 episode “White Men Can’t Kiss.” D.J. (Michael Fishman), the clan’s youngest son, is assigned a role in a school play where he must kiss a Black classmate, and he ardently refuses to do so. Dan asks Chuck to assuage his fears that D.J.’s reticence to kiss a Black girl isn’t because of in-home learned racism—and Chuck, to the show’s credit, balks against the notion that it’s his job to make Dan feel less guilty.

But this is just one isolated moment where viewers can question the Conners’ anti-racism, though it makes an appearance in the reboot. D.J. is now married to Geena, the Black classmate (now played by actress Xosha Roquemore) and has a child with her—another plot twist that goes unexplored.

Despite all of the credit and praise heaped upon the original Roseanne series for apparent racial diversity, it more often than not opted for toothless portrayals that favored presenting its central white characters as “progressive” over actual fleshed-out characters of color.

Maybe that seems like racism lite—because at least there are characters of colorin comparison to the bold racism Roseanne Barr displayed earlier this week. On Monday, Barr tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, was what would happen if the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.” That’s an exact quote. 

But while ABC moved swiftly and canceled the show, the response to Barr’s years of disgusting remarks has been a different story—sluggish and largely silent. The list of Roseanne’s openly racist, transphobic, Islamophobic (you name it) online musings in the age of social media is so expansive that I can only cite three for space considerations. ABC ignored that Barr is a vocal Trump supporter when it greenlit the Roseanne reboot. It—and most of the United States—sidestepped the fact that Roseanne accused David Hogg, one of the survivors of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, of doing a “Nazi salute.” Or there’s the fact that Roseanne similarly compared Susan Rice, also a Black woman and former national security advisor in various administrations to an ape in 2013—long before both the Roseanne revival and the notion of Donald Trump the politician were even realistic considerations.

So I object to the idea that Roseanne’s untenable and open racism first reared its head days ago. That narrative is patently false, easily disprovable, calculated, and offensive. I object to the idea that this iteration of Roseanne Conner is an aberration. That she is somehow an illogical progression of where we left Roseanne Conner a little over 20 years ago when the original series saw its sunset.

We must draw a line between the openly racist Roseanne Conner (like the actress herself) seen in the revival and the previous series’ Roseanne Conner, who preferred her non-white “friends” be seen, but not heard. And that line isn’t as long as many would like to pretend. It is an important and unpleasant fact to acknowledge—one that evokes a wholly necessary conversation about the performative way white people like Roseanne Barr use superficial racial inclusion as body armor against critique. She does this despite her allegiance to Trump. And she did this on the original series, even before Trump.

In another controversy about the series revival, Dan falls asleep on the couch and says he missed those sitcoms about “Black and Asian families” (presumably talking about Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat respectively, which both also air on ABC). Roseanne—in a moment meant to be subversive but reflective of a rich, out-of-touch woman approximating blue-collar values—sarcastically declares, “They’re just like us. There. Now you’re all caught up.”

She’s wrong on several levels. On a more practical, simplistic level, Roseanne is wrong by one very singular metric: Both those shows are coming back next season.