Sunday morning I woke up to my TV tuned in to TV Land. A Roseanne marathon was on. I have had no interest in checking out the reboot of the show. Older and wiser, I realize all the subtly racist imagery that show promoted, elevating poor white people who got away with being bad people simply because they were white, that I missed during the show’s original run. Beyond that, I remember all too vividly Roseanne’s fuckery and vocal hatred for Obama during his ’08 run for President, so I’m way too grown and too fed up with white people to watch that shit now.
So today’s announcement that the reboot had been canceled after Roseanne sent a racist tweet calling a Black ex-staffer in the Obama White House an ape brought no sadness. Honestly, it’s been fuck Roseanne and her white feminist bullshit for me. Her show’s revival was nothing but more propaganda to rebrand white people’s subtle racism as mere differences of opinion.
But Sunday, the episode where Dan is arrested for beating up Jackie’s boyfriend Fisher because he beat up Jackie was on. I was tempted to turn but was stuck on how subtly that show pushed the idea of harmless, lovable racists and illustrated that poverty and privilege are compatible when it comes to white people. I couldn’t turn away.
The cops show up to Roseanne’s house to arrest her husband. They knock on the door and greet her and Dan, apologizing for having to arrest him. One of the cops tells Roseanne that they’ll delay processing Dan as long as possible so that she can get down to the station to bail him out. Then the other cop goes to handcuff Dan and his partner asks if that’s necessary to which Dan responds, “Let ’em handcuff me. If you lose your job, who’s gonna fix my parking tickets?” Cue audience laughter.
I remember watching Roseanne frequently enough as a child that I was familiar with the storylines. I remember this episode distinctly. I thought nothing of the scene I just recounted, despite the fact that I had been present for two separate police raids in my home when no less than 12 officers rushed in. On one of this occasions, I was 9-years-old lying in my bed watching TV and two female officers burst in and pointed shotguns of me and my then 11-year-old sister.
Still, even with my personal experience and trauma with law enforcement and how they come to make arrests, I found nothing odd about the police lamenting having to perform the job of arresting a criminal and making such accommodations for him. Dan was just a good guy who did the wrong thing for the wrong reason and didn’t deserve the kind of violent, extreme takedown I’d witnessed many times. Seasons of insidiously pushing the idea that good white people who run into trouble are still good, and more importantly, that good and white are synonymous had worked on me and no doubt most of Roseanne’s 20 million or so weekly viewing audience.
Week after week millions of Americans watched and related as the Conners endured rebellious teens, financial trouble, marital problems, health problems, homophobia, legal problems and family drama. All the while, the message was clear: White people aren’t really all that different from Black people. They weren’t insulated from all the struggles we have and so maybe, if we just looked at each other as people instead of as Black or white, we’d heal.
There was even an episode of the show where DJ refused to kiss a classmate in a school play because she was Black. Naturally, the Conners wouldn’t stand for that because, as demonstrated by the Black couple who came over to play cards or went to Bingo with them, Roseanne and Dan Conner were many things, but racist wasn’t one of them. Then when the Black girl’s dad showed up at Roseanne’s restaurant to discuss the problem and Roseanne, unaware that the man was her son’s classmate’s dad refused to open the door because he was “scary,” only to have the father come back and explain who he was so that Roseanne would open the door and assure him that she didn’t refuse to open the door because he was a Black man but because he was a man and she hated all men equally, the audience chuckled because surely those good people who had Black friends and went through the same shit regular people do couldn’t be racist.
And the whole nine and a half years Roseanne endeared poor white folks to America, we ignored how they were friendly enough with the cops that they avoided having their doors kicked in and guns drawn during an arrest. We thought nothing of how Roseanne, Dan and Jackie got high off weed they had stashed in their younger days and Roseanne, high as the head of giraffe standing on Mt Everest, joked about sending DJ off somewhere she had no clue about because she was stoned. It was unremarkable when Jackie got pregnant from a one-night stand.
None of these experiences with breaking the law, using drugs and neglecting their children or sexual promiscuity had implications to the kind of people they were. The Conners were your typical middle American family. And deep down, despite some bad decisions, they were loving and lovable.
You see, white people can be just like us in almost every way. They can be poor, uneducated, gay, victims of abuse, fat, angry, uneducated and even criminals, but they’re still white. And the privilege of whiteness is what allowed ABC to portray images of such horribly flawed parents when the Cosbys and Winslows had to be perfect to earn our hearts.
And the reboot’s reported pro-Trump stance is no surprise. Bernie Sanders and a host of other supposedly progressive politicians have attempted to paint Trump’s rabid, racist fan base as nothing but the kind of fed-up-with-the-economy, financially-struggling middle Americans the Conners were portrayed as for nearly a decade. They like millions of other poor, working class white Americans “don’t care if you’re white, Black, or purple with green polka dots.” They just want to get the economy back booming.
But most of all, the Conners frequent chances to lift themselves from poverty, like a cash windfall allowing them to open their own business on a whim or a well-paying permanent job just falling in Dan’s lap, remind white America that if you work hard and have a mother who has unexplained wealth (slave money, is that you?), you too can own your own business and have the American dream.
Truth is Roseanne was always teaching white people how to avoid accountability for racism. It was always reinforcing that so long as they have whiteness on their side, they are worthy of redemption and genuinely good people. It was always pedestaling whiteness and by virtue criminalizing and sullying Blackness. It did its job throughout the 90s and the for the brief reprisal was like hooking up with your ex in the club after years and carrying on a fling for a couple of months. In case you forgot how good old fashioned American racism works, Roseanne came back to break you off with that good good for just a lil’ bit.