THIS IS US: “STILL THERE” EXPLORES RACISM AND THE NON-CONVENTIONAL FAMILY UNIT

It’s been two weeks since Deja (Lyric Ross) came into Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) lives, and “Still There” gave us a good understanding of how things have been going so far. Randall, Beth and their adorable daughters, Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman), have shown her nothing but love, patience and understanding. And yet, try as they might, they just can’t get her to open up. She has lived an entire, unstable life before coming into their home and Randall and Beth can only imagine what she has been through. She refuses to wash her hair. She flinches when Randall raises his voice and prepares to be kicked to the curb whenever she makes a mistake. But she is still there. Randall and Beth did not “give her back”. They are still there, and they’ll continue to be there for as long as she needs them.

Whether you are the one entering a new family, or the one welcoming a new member into a tight-knit clan, it’s an entirely new territory for both parties and the grounds need to be tested first. Deja has been in and out of foster homes her entire life and, based on her reactions so far, was never made to feel like she was welcome to stay in any of them. She can sense she has found a sanctuary in the Pearson’s home but in trying to shield herself from further pain and disappointment, she cannot relax into the experience. Every now and then we get to see a glimpse of hope in her eyes as Beth and Randall continue to try and coax her out of her shell by planning a fun day at the bowling alley, or braiding her hair, but these moments are fleeting. Randall and Beth desperately want her to feel she belongs – that it’s not “the little mamas and Deja”, but that Deja is one of their little mamas too, and there should be no distinction in that.

Randall knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider within your own family. As a black boy growing up in a white family, it was only natural for him to feel a sense of otherness, but it never caused his adoptive parents to treat him any differently from their biological twins, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Rebecca’s mother, Janet (Elizabeth Perkins). Whenever she would come to visit Rebecca and the kids, she let it be known through subtle actions and wording, that she felt a clear detachment between the twins and Randall. She never referred to them as a pack – i.e. the kids – but two separate parties, and she never tried to truly get to know him, but rather, based her gifts and assumptions on the racial stereotypes she grew up with. Her presents for Kate and Kevin are thoughtful, her gift to Randall – a basketball – a lazy afterthought with a silent, loaded message.

I remember the first time my former step-dad’s mother came to visit for Christmas. We had never particularly warmed to each other. To her, a sixty-year-old woman who had grown up in the English countryside and still held on to Victorian ideals, my fourteen-year-old, pink haired, multiple-pierced self was a like specimen from a different planet. She did not know how to interact with me, nor did she try too hard – just enough for it not to be super obvious. What was super obvious however, was her choices of gifts. While my brother – her biological grandson – was showered in a sea of brightly coloured, irritatingly noisy gifts that made his eyes sparkle, I was handed one little parcel containing a pair of left-handed scissors. Have I mentioned I am right-handed?

My former step-dad made no effort to point out how much of a low-blow that was. But my mum did. The next year, the ex-step-granny sent me a hand-knitted, multi-coloured scarf so long, I could have wrapped my entire body in it. I took the length of this present as a direct measure of her guilt.

I imagine Randall felt the same when he was handed a basketball for the third year in a row, but just as I did, he did his best to hide his disappointment. Unlike me, he wasn’t aware of why he was being treated differently to Kate and Kevin, though he figured it may have been down to the fact he was adopted. I knew the reason why my ex-step-granny couldn’t accept me, or my mother for that matter, was down to cultural differences – we had completely different outlooks on life, the world and, especially, the people in it. But at nine-years-old, Randall was still too young to understand the subtle undertones of racism and xenophobia.

When Rebecca calls Janet out on her thinly disguised racism, she is met by an avalanche of excuses – “You have to understand, I grew up in a very different time,” and “it just all feels really foreign to me” – none of which can, or ever will, justify her attitudes. Rebecca knows that it is exactly this kind of generational divide that will carry on into her son’s future if no one ever steps up to educate an old dog who refuses to learn new tricks.

When you accept a child as your own, there can be no distinctions between biological or adopted, white or black, because if you do, you will never create a sense of belonging. It’s up to past generations to set a good example for generations to follow, but if we hold on to our “back in my day” attitudes they will carry into our future and prevent effective change from happening.