“This is Us” deals with a variety of complex and difficult issues: adoption, death, substance abuse, fostering, and—as this past week’s episode highlighted—racism. For those of you unfamiliar with the premise and characters of “This is Us,” it stars a married couple in the 1980s, Jack and Rebecca, who are expecting triplets, yet only two of the three babies (Kate and Kevin) make it through the birth. Distraught over the loss of their third child, Jack and Rebecca decide to adopt baby Randall, who is black and was brought to the hospital the same day of Kate and Kevin’s delivery. Jack and Rebecca treat Kevin, Kate, and Randall, a.k.a. the “big three,” with an equal amount of love and kindness.
However, the same cannot be said for Rebecca’s traditionalist mother, Janet, who comes to town when she hears the kids have chicken pox. Despite her hugs and smiles, her deeply-rooted prejudices shine through her seemingly harmless actions and comments towards Randall. Like most grandmothers, she arrives at the Pearson household bearing gifts for the kids. A football helmet for Kevin, a dress for Kate, and a basketball for Randall. This is the third basketball she has given him. Randall, who tries so hard to get his grandma to like him and take an interest in his interests, informs her that he does not really like basketball, but that he would try it again if it meant that much to her. Janet’s response is dismissive and she claims “everyone should have something they’re good at.” This strikes a chord in both Randall and Rebecca. Randall does have many things he is good at: science experiments, math, karate, and football. But through Janet’s eyes, Randall simply must be a natural at basketball. Why wouldn’t he be?
Later in the episode, Janet is flipping through photo albums and consistently refers to Kevin, Kate, and Randall as “the twins and Randall.” Her consistent need to “otherize” Randall by setting him apart from Kevin and Kate, as well as only wanting to get pictures of the twins without Randall, makes him seem separate from the rest of the family. In her next comment, with an innocent and amazed tone, she remarks how shocking it is that Randall was the one to get into an academically-achieving private school. There is no basis for her comment, as it has been consistently evident that Randall excels in school, particularly in the STEM fields. Rebecca finally cracks under the weight of her mother’s prejudiced attitudes and calls her out for being a racist, without realizing little Randall is right behind her, listening to every word. In a heartbreaking moment, the camera pans back to display Randall’s confused and hurt expression, unable to comprehend how his grandmother could view him as less capable just because of his skin color.
The heart of the episode comes during the conversation between Jack, Rebecca, and Randall, where Jack explains that racism is not always obvious. Randall’s grandma does not have to openly express her dislike for Randall in order to be prejudiced. It’s all in the sly comments, ignorance, and assumptions that she has about Randall’s existence. “This Is Us” handles this difficult conversation carefully. Racism can take many forms, be it through laws or through microaggressions. Comments that doubt a person of color’s intelligence or ability, dismiss their value, separate them from their white peers, or assume they are good or bad at a certain activity just because of their skin color are racist. They are rooted in prejudiced beliefs about the “other” and help perpetuate racism in America through discriminatory words and actions. This revelation about his grandmother is shocking to Randall and changes the way he sees the world from that point onwards. Janet justifies her behavior as being a “product of her time,” but cannot accept accountability for hurting Randall. She fails to realize that there is never an excuse for demeaning someone based on their race because of one’s own misinformed, stereotypical, and hurtful beliefs.