The episode, titled “Let Your Hair Down,” follows a young Rainbow (Arica Himmel), as well as her younger siblings Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris) and Johan (Ethan William Childress), as they navigate the anxiety-inducing occasion that is picture day. It starts innocently enough, with teacher Ms. Collins (Caitlin Kimball) telling her students they should stay away from weird poses or weird signs and vulgar clothing. But the episode takes a turn when she expressly zeroes in on Rainbow’s big, curly hair.
“And our hair will be neat,” says Ms. Collins as she leans forward and taps on Rainbow’s desk, emphasizing every word. “I repeat: Our. Hair. Will. Be. Neat.”
Although Rainbow tells her parents Alicia (Tika Sumpter) and Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and they give Ms. Collins a piece of their mind over her microaggression, the damage is already done. Rainbow now has a complex about her natural hair and it’s not only something she will struggle with for the duration of the episode, but also for the rest of her life — much like other black and mixed girls.
“This is the ’80s. This is a long time ago and we are still, in 2019, walking our way through a lot of this,” Tracee Ellis Ross, who narrates the comedy about her black-ish character’s childhood, tells EW of the episode’s significance. “But the landscape is different. And I think that’s what we really wanted to show…. [At that time,] we were not yet at the place — at a natural [hair] revolution and black girl magic and seeing images of mixed women and black women wearing their hair in its gravity-defying, natural glory.”
Ross’ comments align with the varying points of view expressed by Rainbow’s mother and her aunt Denise (Christina Anthony), as they go toe-to-toe about what constitutes “good hair” and when it’s appropriate to wear natural hair — particularly when Denise calls out Alicia for flat-ironing hers for her wedding photos. This complicates what could have been an otherwise friendly discussion about respectability politics and assimilation. But of course, the episode does not stop at intra-community conversations between black women; Paul is determined to make sure son Johan has the best hairstyle on picture day.
“I think what’s really important is how Paul is not excluded from the conversation,” Ross explains. “As the white dad, we get to see a white character [who] doesn’t get to decide that this has nothing to do with him but that his job is actually to learn and get educated so that he can support and be a part of making things better.”
The episode is acutely special to the actress as well, who last month launched Pattern Beauty — her own hair care line — to address the same issues that “Let Your Hair Down” seeks to explore.
“Here’s the thing, and this is what I keep saying around my products: We have been here forever,” Ross says. “The [natural] hair movement might be new for a lot of people in that it is infiltrating and penetrating all aspects of the beauty industry and beauty culture and changing people’s understanding of our beauty and our glory, but we have been beautiful and glorious forever. I’m sorry people are just catching up!” she adds, laughing.
While mixed-ish is set in the ’80s, natural hair discrimination is still a thing today. In July 2019, California became the first state to signed a bill into law — the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair) — that prohibits racial discrimination based on hairstyles in the workplace and schools.
“We are many different kinds of people in this culture of natural hair and curly hair and mixed girls and black girls and men across the board. But we [must] continue to speak up in this way, from our point of view, to change the understanding that influences policy [like the CROWN Act]. And I’ll keep doing that until we feel…not only free within ourselves, but we have everything that supports that,” Ross says. “Culture influences policy.”
Mixed-ish airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC, followed by black-ish at 9:30 p.m. ET.