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That time Growing Pains taught me about racism

I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. Also, my memory works in weird ways. So it is that I remember, surprisingly clearly, an episode of Growing Pains in which Mike gets a job at a convenient store. It was one of those that came to be known as a Very Special Episode.

I’m not sure if I recall all the details exactly, but it goes something like this: Mike’s coworkers are two young men who are black and about his age. The owner of the store is an old white guy who seems nice but says all these platitudes about “taking care of our own” that set off alarms even in the somewhat dim Mike.

The convenient store is open 24 hours, but despite being the new guy, Mike notices how he’s never asked to do the “graveyard” shift. He also notices how accommodating his boss is to him, but not his black coworkers. When he tells his parents, they seem to get right away that the dude is a racist. Then, a funny thing happens. (Not funny, “haha,” alas.) Turns out, that Jason and Maggie Seaver don’t want Mike to have to do the graveyard shift because they’re afraid it’s unsafe. They’re genuinely torn about how to confront obvious racism that is resulting in something they want and that benefits their son. (I may not remember everything about this episode exactly right, but I remember their moral dilemma. Through the decades, their unease about the situation stuck with me.)

Ultimately, through conversations with one of his black coworkers, Mike’s eyes are opened to the unfairness of the situation. Meanwhile, the store owner insists he’s just giving the new kid a break. Mike eventually takes matters into his own hands and deliberately messes up at work. When the boss finds the mess Mike made, while Mike is standing right there watching him, he immediately suspects one of the black employees and proclaims that the kid is fired. Mike confesses after this proclamation, and the boss shrugs it off and says, “um, OK, in that case, no biggie.” Mike immediately calls out the guy’s racism and quits.

The moral of the episode—because there was always a moral to Very Special Episodes—was that even when something that was racist, unfair or immoral helped you, it was still racist, unfair or immoral and had to be treated as such.

Growing Pains was the kind of show that is easy to laugh at now and to enjoy only if you do so with a sense of irony, one that acknowledges that it was actually terrible television.

Was it really terrible, though?

In this era of “Peak TV” wherein our stories are all subtlety and nuance and our heroes are dark and complicated and often make morally questionable choices, where would we put a half-hour of sitcom television in which two white, otherwise thoughtful and decent parents are forced to confront their privilege and resulting moral apathy? In which it’s the teenage ne’er-do-well, not the well-educated grownups (Maggie was a journalist and Jason was a psychologist), who realizes that racism is wrong and needs to be pointed out, even and especially when it’s giving you a leg up?

Nuance in art is a thing that I appreciate. And the reason we don’t like Very Special Episodes is that they rarely offered any. The lessons hit you over the head, and the bad guys were unmistakably so. There wasn’t a whole lot of nuance to Growing Pains, or this particular episode. We knew what the right thing to do was right away, and once Mike figured it out, he did it immediately and with admirable resolve.

In today’s cultural context, there would be nuance. The racist boss would be a hard-working blue-collar guy who had been left behind by the political ruling class and wasn’t a monster out to get black people. He’d hired black kids, hadn’t he? Maggie and Jason would be parents just trying to do right by their kids—their inner conflict about doing the right thing would be more complicated, more drawn out.

But their inaction would still be wrong. No matter how much more layered and subtle the story, ultimately, that would remain true. I know that thanks to, among other things, this Very Special Episode of Growing Pains that I watched when I was a kid. Yeah, After School Specials and Very Special Episodes and the ham-handed story-telling of the 1980s were all  terrible television. But would I have remembered any of this, otherwise? Would I have learned anything? These stories hit us over the head with their lessons, but sometimes, dare I say, I needed it.

Certainly, it feels like we all need it right now.

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