For years, critics have noted that Modern Family has displayed a certain tone deafness when it comes to race that would frequently go beyond mere "edginess" to outright mean-spirited bullying. The show, which won its fifth consecutive Emmy in August, prides itself on being progressive without being political correct - two of its main characters are a gay couple, it boasts the highest paid woman - hispanic or otherwise - in all of television, and even the writer of the episode in question, Elaine Ko, is a Korean-American woman who is active on issues of writing diversity. This superficial "modern" lefty appeal, it can be assumed, gives the writers a bit of cover to indulge in a variation of "hipster racism", or more specifically, "Gaycism". A concept GQ's Lauren Bans summed up quite nicely in 2012:
We're calling it gaycism: the wrongheaded idea that having gay characters gives you carte blanche to cut PC corners elsewhere. Take Modern Family, the familiar but funny ABC darling that modernly features a gay couple with an adopted Asian daughter, and not-so-modernly grounds about half its humor on Gloria's (Sofia Vergaga) Taco Bell chihuahua Spanglish, with nary a reflexive gasp from critics. (Please take a moment to imagine if Two and a Half Men featured a bombshell Colombian who mispronounces everything. There'd be critics calling for Chuck Lorre's proverbial half man to be proverbially cut off.)
Now obviously race-based humor isn't always bad (see: Louis C.K.). But lazy racial humor? The kind some TV bigwigs seem to consider permissible as long as there's some liberal tokenism in the mix? It is always terrible.
That indulgence, while never really justified in the first place (to say nothing of not being particularly funny), turned into outright gaycist gluttony on last week's episode "Marco Polo" which had, without hyperbole, the most nakedly racist sitcom bit in recent memory. Not racially problematic, not racially tone deaf or racially insensitive - just good ol' fashion, home-grown American racist.
Our A-plot finds the Dunphys crammed in a shoddy motel while their house is being emergency renovated (ignore, for the sake of compartmentation, the absurdity of why they didn't just move in with their insanely wealthy relatives) where they meet - as those slumming in rundown motels often do - a family of grinning, stereotypically bumfuzzled African tribe-types. From the opening bit, you know it's not going to turn out good:
So, there are "Nigerians" staying next door, and they have really loud dogs. Africans who, apparently, live with loud and uncontrollable dogs. Okay, we can forgive that, just a throwaway line. But here we have our "Nigerians" attempting to learn Marco Polo despite a "language" barrier:
There's only one problem: the national langague of Nigeria is English. It's spoken by a majority of Nigerians and even those who don't speak it as a first langague will often have a working understanding of it for the purposes of commerce and education. So, while it's certainly possible that the Dunphys could have run into a Nigerian family that didn't speak a word of English, the fact that the writer chose a country whose official language is English to prop up this bit shows a general laziness and appeal to prejudice that marks much of our "post-racial" laissez-faire bigotry. One can probably wager the writer's intent was not racist per se but this doesn't matter. Media imagery is a serious thing with serious consequences and passively pandering to racist assumptions to score some laughs is ethically indistinguishable from actively doing so.
Then we have the ending bit which really sealed the deal:
Lol, those literal-minded Nigerians - understanding just enough English to screw up but not enough to know better. Even given the goofy nature of the show's internal logic this was shameful. I expect, had the episode fleshed out this subplot any longer, there would have been a segment in which Phil teaches them how to use a microwave so they could reheat their roadkill.
One critic, the Onion AV Club's Joshua Alston (who, for what it's worth, is African-American) did issue a mild criticsm:
I didn’t have the mental energy to get into this deeply, but the jokes about the language barrier with the Nigerian family were awfully lazy. And it’s the type of joke about difference that feels vaguely racist or xenophobic simply because it isn’t funny. It’s kind of surprising given that while this has consistently been a complaint about the show’s treatment of Gloria’s accent, I’ve always found those jokes inoffensive because they’re usually funny.
But, my question to Mr. Alston - whose reviews are consistently thoughtful and amusing - is this: how is the joke "vaguely" racist and xenophobic? It seems specifically and unquestionably racist and xenophobic. The first and only depiction of Africans the most popular sitcom in America could muster painted them as bumbling idiots who had the social and emotional intelligence of small children. Modern Family, like most sitcoms, deals in broad characters and sometimes caricatures, that's fine - it's part of the convention of farce which is a mode Modern Family's writers (many of whom also penned Cheers and Frasier) routinely dabble in. But resorting to lame, "grinning African" tropes to squeeze out a tedious miscommunication bit can't simply be dismissed as "lazy" - indeed, the inertia of racism is, by its nature, lazy - it should be called, in no uncertain terms, what it is: racist.