"I Can't Teach My Son ​How to Be Black": Jack Learns a Lesson on "This Is Us"

Jack Pearson, America's Favorite Dad, shows how a good man and a good father can be totally ignorant, and sort of a d*ck.

This Is Us isn't sugarcoating the tough questions in Season 4, whether that's regarding Cassidy Sharp's (Jennifer Morrison) PTSD, the reality of teenage parenthood, or Randall Pearson's (Sterling K. Brown) adolescent struggles as a black adoptee in a white family.

In the last episode, "The Dinner and the Date," two difficult dinner conversations about race and class, taking place in two different decades, overlap. The episode teased out this season's surprisingly complex themes about interracial families and socioeconomic clashes. Helming the show's unique turn is writer Kay Oyegun, who continues to elevate its creative and thematic sophistication by bringing fraught conversations to the attention of the show's 12 million viewers. Namely, how can a white family help their adopted child of color figure out his identity?

In a series of flashbacks, we witness the night Jack (Milo Ventimilgia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) Pearson invite young Randall's favorite teacher—and the only black instructor at his elite private school—Mr. Lawrence (Brandon Scott) and his wife, Trish (Skye P. Marshall), over to dinner. Simultaneously, in the present, we see Randall (Sterling K. Brown) inviting the parents of his adopted daughter's would-be boyfriend over for dinner to plan their children's breakup. Deja (Lyric Ross), the daughter of a drug addict who's experienced homelessness and abusive foster care, has served as a stark contrast to the privileged upbringing Randall had and the one he's giving his children with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). Now her first love interest, Malik (Asante Blackk) is an earnest, kind, confident 14-year-old who understands Deja in a way no one in her upper middle class family has been able to—and he happens to have an infant daughter.

This Is Us 4x07 Promo "The Dinner And The Date" (HD)

So the two conflicted dinners mix the cringe comedy of socially awkward conversations with the serious gravity—and deep, deep flaws—of Jack's comment to Mr. Lawrence: "I can't teach my son how to be black."

Mr. Lawrence's response is perfect and well-acted: a mortified snort. "Oh don't...don't do that," he chuffs, before going to his car to retrieve a book of black conscious poetry that he intended to give to Randall. Instead he gives it to Jack, who takes the collection of Langston Hughes poetry to young Randall's room, and the two bond over Randall's favorite poem, which he's already memorized.

Whether or not you're like me and hate to admit you've ever shed a tear over anything short of battery acid straight to the eye, young Randall's recitation of "I, Too" is the kind of formulaic pathos and prime time pageantry that great tear-jerkers are made of. That is to say: Yes, I f*cking wept, you cretins, and if you didn't, then you are a Black Mirror robot dog.

In its totality, this is Hughe's "I, Too" poem, and what follows is why I, Jack, and most of America caught a bug in the eye or something when young Randall recited it.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

The driving force of tension at Mr. Lawrence's dinner at the Pearson's is Jack's palpable feeling of being threatened by him. During last week's episode, "The Club," Jack struggled to articulate why he was intimidated by Randall's affinity for Mr. Lawrence. Driven partly by over-protection and probably part shame, he said that Randall is getting older and asking more complex questions "about his place in this world" and that there are things he "can't show [his] son." He even made the faux pas of telling Randall, "I don't see color, I see my son," which he quickly realized was, however well-intentioned, very off the mark, as Randall replied, "Then you don't see me, dad."

So with Mr. Lawrence and his wife sitting at his table with his children, Jack continuously makes passive aggressive remarks challenging Mr. Lawrence's right to introduce Randall to new parts of culture, like the local black arts festival that Randall asks to attend with his teacher. Jack interrupts to say that the Pearsons can all go "as a family" and leave Mr. Lawrence to go "with his friends." The tension builds until Rebecca meets Jack in the kitchen to inform him of the absolute obvious: Randall is his son; Randall will always prefer him to any other male role model in his life; but if Jack makes Randall choose him and sacrifice having other important figures who could help him learn who he is, then Randall will suffer for it.

This is Us 4x07 Sneak Peek Clip 2 "The Dinner And The Date"

It's a clear cut, direct, and honest depiction of a good man and a good father (Jack is inarguably America's Favorite Dad)—being completely ignorant, and sort of a d*ck. Jack is threatened and worried that he is fundamentally lacking as a white father to a black son—not from any racial prejudice, but from insecurity in himself as a parent. He recognizes that race does matter to the world that will receive his children as adults—grievously so, in fact. He has a very human, self-protective instinct to deny and resist that reality, but he senses that doing so would be harmful to Randall in some vital way.

So really, his stumbled comment, "I can't teach Randall how to be black," is his best articulation of that anxiety and his acknowledgement of that terrible, sad fact. And he senses, in some itchy, nebulous way, that if Randall doesn't learn how to respond to the way the world will treat him, and if he doesn't learn the history of how people who looked liked him were treated, then Randall will be ill-equipped to face the world. Or, more accurately, Jack would be keeping him away from something that he needs in order to live a fully conscious life.

That's how we get to the scene in young Randall's bedroom, after he's just declared his favorite poem to be Langston Hughe's "I, Too" and recited it from memory in front of Jack, who promises that they're going to read the entire collection of poetry together.

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An Ode to Randall Pearson and His "This Is Us" Adoption Story

No parent is perfect, adoption is a lifelong journey, and Sterling K. Brown is a marvel.

On paper, This Is Us has all the staples of the perfect, corny family drama that networks like NBC love to exploit: saccharine speeches about family solidarity, impromptu monologues about inner demons, and a sappy instrumental soundtrack.

And so far, it's working. As the show wraps up its fourth season, the intergenerational, multiracial, and flashback-loving Pearson family still captures millions of Americans' attention every Tuesday. At the center of the show's pull is the magnetic Sterling K. Brown, who's garnered an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Randall Pearson, the adopted black son of white parents Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Kate (Mandy Moore). Randall and his outspoken wife, Beth (played by the lovely Susan Kelechi Watson) bring dry humor and vulnerability to discussions about anxiety disorders, child welfare, racial politics, and, as last week's episode highlighted, interracial adoption.

Brown is aware of his character's significance to those at the margins of mainstream representation, particularly those of us who aren't white or neurotypical or raised by our biological parents. "I just love there's a sort of diaspora of African American representation," said Brown. "'This Is Us' is all about family and all about connection, and the world of the show continues to expand over the years. But it really does my heart good when, every once in a while, the show becomes very focused on the African American experience through Randall's family, through these other families that we've added to the fold, and they're not the same." Indeed, last season writer Faye McCray of blackgirlnerds published, "Just Admit It, NBC: 'This Is Us' Is (Almost) a Black Show," in which she praised the (sadly rare) realistic depiction of a black family. (And that was before Randall defended himself against someone erasing his black experience just because he was raised in a white family, asserting, "Don't get it twisted, sis. I wake up every day to a headscarf and coconut oil. I'm married to a black queen, not that it's any of your business." Go Randall, you hard-working, bespectacled, anxiety-ridden nerd who became a proud man and king of dad jokes!).

Aside from giving the show incentive to diversify its writing team (the show's white creators added three black writers to the final team of 10 to "get a bigger voice in [race-related] stories"), Randall also shows that mental illness can look strong, refined, and put-together, even on the cusp of a mental breakdown, of which he's had two. Brown said of his character's battle with anxiety, "I felt a responsibility because of people in my family who have anxiety or different mental disorders, I've been witness to it, and it's important to put it out there in a way that releases the stigma of it."

That brings us to season four, when the flashbacks to the Pearson triplet's adolescence coincide with Randall's own children's adolescence. Among the many growing pains, Randall's seen his oldest daughter experience a panic attack for the first time. He silently stewed at the kitchen table while jouncing his knee, while Beth looked on with the knowledge that fidgeting is Randall's tell-tale sign of his own anxiety. When he finally spoke, he recounted to his wife that he grew up without sharing any biological connections to his family, so it's particularly difficult to accept that he's passed on what he perceives to be his worst trait to his children. After the episode aired, Brown tweeted about the importance of mental health: "Tess had a panic attack. It runs in the family as we all know and have seen with Randall," he wrote. "Let's open up a dialogue about mental health. How do you navigate the sometimes overwhelming stressors/anxieties in your life?"

The incident was also the first time Randall opened up about being an adoptee whose only living biological relatives are his own children: It's a strange inevitability for all adoptees. As Vulture's Rebecca Carroll wrote in her piece "What This Is Us Gets Right About Being a Black Kid in a White Family," "Adoptees often need to make families that are of our bodies, and we need to make people who look like us, because it's a lot to be the only one in the room, in the family, the town, at the pool, for your entire childhood and youth." As a black adoptee in a white family herself, Carroll illuminates one of the show's most daunting tasks: how to portray interracial adoption accurately without the Hallmark platitudes, without invalidating mixed race families' bonds with each other, and without erasing the reality of being a person of color in America.

After all, the unquestionable throughline of This Is Us is that Jack and Kate are likeable but flawed people, whether in flashbacks to their youth or many years into their marriage. Still, Carroll succinctly writes, "...But add to that the historic and presumed assertion that white people can, will, and should decide the fate of black people, and love is just not enough. Obviously, there are exceptions, but white parents raising black kids often think they know what it means to raise black kids — 'If I say I'm raising a black child, I'm raising a black child, and he/she is mine,' as Rebecca later intones—when it's so much more fraught than that for the children."

So what This Is Us is finally addressing, beginning in the episode "The Club" and reaching daring heights in "The Dinner and the Date," is how 12-year-old Randall first realized that his parents' love has limitations. In season four, we've met Mr. Lawrence, the only black teacher at Randall's elite private school, with whom he's closely bonded and from whom he eagerly accepts reading recommendations, like James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. When Randall tries to articulate how valuable these black authors are to him, his father doesn't understand. "Jack sees his son. He doesn't see color," Ventimiglia said. "But it's important to note that, as Randall said in a previous episode, 'If you don't see color, you don't see me.' As wonderful as it is that Jack just sees this young boy who grows into the young man that he loves ... he also comes to understand that there are things that he can't teach through experience, there's things that he can't show his son."

"this is us" randall adoption This is Us - Season 1 Ron Batzdorff/NBC

But This Is Us doesn't simplify the problem or completely absolve Rebecca and Jack of their ignorance. Jack's first impulse is to compare his past struggles with classism with the systemic racism Randall is going to have to face his entire life. After he realizes the deep flaws of that analogy, Jack decides to invite Mr. Lawrence and his wife over for an incredibly tense but brutally honest dinner. Ultimately, Jack confronts his own feelings of intimidation and insecurity that Mr. Lawrence stirs, because, as Jack struggles to articulate, "I can't teach my son how to be black." Jack's struggles to even articulate what it means to be a person of color lead him to a hint of revelation: He can't know what it's like, so what he can do is listen and learn, alongside Randall as he navigates his own self-discovery.

So for interracial adoptees like Carroll (and me), it's comforting, strange, and refreshing, however sad, to see this discomfort being aired on the fifth most popular show on TV, before 12 million weekly viewers. In fact, scriptwriter Kay Oyegun wants to bring this conflict (originally conceived by creator Dan Fogelman) to life this season. "I'll be very frank: A lot of white people feel uneasy talking about race," she said. "Black people talk about race quite often, mostly because it's something that's a part of our daily lives. I think one of the things that we wanted to do with this episode was make it OK to talk about race, was to destigmatize, normalize and begin a fluid conversation about differences, about similarities, and about where and how we can find — not even common ground, there's just ground, right?"


But all of that underlying conflict culminates in Randall's decision in the season's penultimate episode. He outright emotionally manipulates his elderly mother, who's just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, into entering a clinical trial. That means being separated from her family when she may only have precious little time left. "I've been a good son," Randall repeats. "I've never asked you for anything." This comes after telling Rebecca that he hasn't resented her for lying to him about his biological father. It's a scene so well-acted by Moore and Brown that die-hard fans of the show were divided by Randall's uncharacteristic pragmatism: He says he needs his mother to do this, regardless of whether she wants to or not.

"I've already lost three parents," he tells his therapist before calling Rebecca, referring to his biological parents and Jack. "I know that losing my mother would break me. I can't lose her. I will do anything to keep that from happening." After four seasons of Randall fortifying himself against his buried issues because he saw himself as the pillar of the family, he carefully orchestrates to whom and when he shows his insecurities in order not to be hurt again.

Does Randall's complicated past as an interracial adoptee justify the manipulation? What's the ultimate cost of Rebecca's sacrifice?

The season four finale of This Is Us airs Tuesday, March 24.