Posted by Ryan Suto on May 09, 2018 in Blog
photo via ABC

Last night ABC’s Roseanne debuted Go Cubs, an episode which attempts to address xenophobia in America. While the titular character does have a positive change of heart during the show, the episode highlights the central position popular culture holds for white Americans in determining the ‘Americanness’ of minority groups. The episode further ignores the bigoted policies making the encounter itself increasingly unlikely.

The episode features a new family next door: the Al Harazis, refugees from Yemen. Immediately Roseanne Conner, played by Roseanne Barr, asks her sister, “What if this is a sleeper cell full of terrorists getting ready to blow up our neighborhood?” She later wonders if the Muslim family’s Wi-Fi password is “Death to America” and shortly thereafter calls them “enemies of America,” along with other racist jokes sprinkled throughout the episode. These hateful statements are all treated with laughs from the audience. Despite her deeply damaging beliefs, the other characters react to Roseanne’s statements with eye rolls and more jokes. Would such statements have been believably treated so casually if she spouted anti-Black or anti-Semitic stereotypes? Doubtful. Legendary media critic Jack Shaheen has pointed out that “In the United States, you can say anything you want about Islam and Arabs and get away with it.”

If the episode is an attempt to humanize Arabs, it fails spectacularly. Through the episode Roseanne comes to respect the Al Harazi family and later scolds a cashier for being “ignorant” toward Fatima, the mother. Here, Roseanne is shown to have accepted the Al Harazi family and now treats the family with a baseline of civility. The attempt to humanize an Arab Muslim family through acceptance by a bigoted white person implies that Roseanne, as a white American, is needed to certify either the Americanness or humanity of the Arab Muslim family. The assumption is that the audience will only accept the Al Harazis if a white person has first come to accept them. This only reinforces, not challenges, the notion found throughout American popular culture that white people are the exemplars and keepers of Americanness (“real Americans”), whereas Arabs and Muslims are malevolent foreigners until proven otherwise (“Where are you really from?”). If ABC wishes to humanize Arabs or Muslims, it can do so by airing a show about Arabs or Muslims.

In the episode, Roseanne clarifies that she does not hate her neighbors, she simply fears them, based on the representations in the media she chooses to consume. And with respect to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim views in America, many Roseannes do exist. However, that reality does not warrant an empathetic journey wherein a bigoted person learns to no longer irrationally fear her neighbors. Indeed, 'not being bigoted' should be an assumption of basic human decency, requisite for functioning in society, not an achievement to be celebrated. Networks can represent working class white Americans on television without requiring them to be racist: look no further than The Middle on ABC or Superstore on NBC.

Perhaps most importantly, Go Cubs glosses over Roseanne’s xenophobic rants throughout the episode once she has befriended one Arab family. This is the, ‘I’m not racist, I have a black friend!’ argument, but for television: now that Roseanne likes her Arab neighbors, her bigoted views are supposed to be cleansed away. But even after Roseanne’s defense of Fatima at the supermarket, she says to the cashier, “She’s got enough fertilizer to turn this place into a smoking hole in the ground,” clinging to xenophobic stereotypes even after her apparent change of heart. Even if Roseanne can trust one Arab family, it is clear that this exception has not impacted her deeply-held stereotypes.

Tellingly, Roseanne is at one point corrected by the Al Harazis when she states that Yemen is not on President Trump’s Muslim ban list. Because both the actress Roseanne and her character are supporters of President Donald Trump, this makes light of ignorance about policies which impact the lives of millions of innocent people around the world. But the episode makes no mention of the damage done by the Administration Roseanne supports, such as the Muslim and refugee bans, the attempt to rescind DACA, and the needless ending of TPS for a number of countries, including Yemen, and the purposeful humiliation of people at our borders, all attempts to prohibit families like the Al Harazis from even getting into the U.S. in the first place. Jack Shaheen pointed out that “images help enforce policy,” which is powerful, considering the show Roseanne itself was rebooted specifically because of the political rise of Donald Trump.

While some may find it refreshing that Roseanne finds room in her heart to treat her Yemeni neighbors like humans on television, Go Cubs still relies on the centrality of White Americans in the certification of minorities as acceptable. The premise of the episode is undermined by both Roseanne’s bigotry and her support for a President who continues to encode xenophobia into federal policy. Because of Trump and supporters like Roseanne, beyond the four corners of the television, a Yemeni family would never be allowed into the country in the first place.