7th Heaven, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was a cheesy television drama about Reverend Camden, his wife Annie, and their seven children abiding by their religious beliefs in a secular world. It aired on The WB and then The CW for a total of 11 seasons. Let that sink in.
I'm guilty. I watched the show. I was young and had no taste and the theme song (which I still know by heart) was catchy as hell. And let's not forget outspoken and spunky Ruthie Camden, the five times Gabrielle Union made a cameo, Matt Camden's luscious Pantene Pro-V commercial-worthy hair, and the chillest person on the show Harry the dog.
But if I'm being real about it? 7th Heaven is one of the worst TV shows ever. It's corny. The main character, Reverend Eric Camden (Stephen Collins), father of seven and weekly lesson-giver, seems like a standup guy but in reality confessed to child molestation in 2014. Every single plot is laughably unrealistic. Like when Reverend Camden vowed to drug test his kids after finding Matt's joint. Or when Simon hit and killed a kid with his car and didn't suffer any consequences. And the show is extremely white. Nowhere is this more visible than in three very special episodes about racism.
In season one's "The Color of God" (lol), the church of the show's token black family, the Hamiltons, is burned down by racist white people. Not once in the entire 45-minute episode are the words "white people" or "racism" uttered. Instead, the people who burned down the church were "bad guys," and the reason it happened is because they're "black." Forget America's history of white supremacy and racial violence, like the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. There's no time for that nuance.
Instead, the episode does have time to reference Rosa Parks as an explanation for why the Hamilton children don't sit in the backseat of the car.
"Do you know who Rosa Parks is?" asks Lucy Camden.
"Yes, I know who Rosa Parks is and believe me, you're no Rosa Parks," says Mary Camden.
"Who's Rosa Parks?" asks Simon Camden.
"She's a black woman who galvanized the civil rights moment by refusing to sit in the back of the bus," says Mary Camden.
"Why did she have to sit in the back of the bus?" asks Simon Camden.
"That's the same thing she asked the man," says Lucy Camden.
"What man?" asks Simon Camden.
"The point is we don't ride in the backseat" says Keesha Hamilton.
Meanwhile, the kids on the playground call Simon Camden a "nigger lover." (Yes, they don't censor the word.) He punches the kid and gets suspended. While his parents are proud of him for doing the right thing, they still think he should be punished for resorting to violence. That's not the Christian thing to do…though they don't think it's important to talk to him about why the n-word is offensive.
In season three's "The Tribes That Bind," Eric and Matt Camden are out to lunch with their black friends, Morgan and John Hamilton, when the restaurant refuses to serve them. They call the police, who threaten the owner with a lawsuit. Instead of leaving the restaurant, the four accept a lousy apology (the owner says "sorry") and pledge to support the trash business as long as they are served correctly. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that's how it works.
In that same episode, John's wife Olivia gets an inkling that an old white woman at the Camden house is racist because she literally keeps asking her to serve her as if she is the help. But all is good once Olivia confronts her and the woman tells her she was once married to a black man.
"Something you don't know about me, you couldn't. I married a black man in 1938," says the old woman. Okay, sure!
In a season 10 episode titled "Got MLK?," Alex—the new black guy at the local high school—befriends Ruthie Camden and family friend Martin Brewer. Alex wants to write his American history report on Martin Luther King Jr., but his teacher explains that he can't do that because they already talked about him earlier in the year for MLK Day. She eventually gives into his request with some encouragement from Martin, and decides to make every student in her class redo their reports with a focus on great African-Americans. This doesn't make the other kids too happy. In fact, Martin finds a racist slur (once again: "nigger lover") written on his car. He doesn't understand, because he doesn't even have African-American—he means black, no, African-American (seriously, he doesn't know what to say)—friends. It must have been a case of mistaken identity. At least in this episode, the Camdens actually use the words "racism" and "racist" and even self-identify as white. But the jokes about not being able to know Sojourner Truth because you are white, the overuse of the term "African-American," and the fact that Alex had to explain why doing a report on MLK was important when majority of the kids in his class were just recycling essays they did before was seriously frustrating.
Family dramas and sitcoms on television in the late '90s were supposed to be a little cheesy. But shows like Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—not coincidentally, shows about black families—addressed racism in meaningful ways.
So why did I even watch 7th Heaven? I was nine. It was safe TV in that parents didn't have to worry about their kids seeing outlandish things and then asking questions about it. But it was too safe in the way it tip-toed around important topics. It's almost as if they did a Wikipedia-level search on black people and racism and then decided to write these episodes because it was the right thing to do. 7th Heaven committed the worst sin: perpetuating the idea that as long as white people are kind to black people, we're going to be all right. It doesn't work that way.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.