Actor Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on the TV series ‘Star Trek.'

25 TV shows that broke racial barriers

Written by:
July 18, 2023
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25 TV shows that broke racial barriers

Storytelling is one of the most ancient practices rooted in our collective human experience. Through stories passed down over generations, we've learned of cultural practices—of mistakes that shouldn't be repeated—and who we are as a people. While our consumption of those stories continues to evolve—from oral traditions, the printing press, radio, television, and of course, the internet—the urge to pass this knowledge along has remained the same.

When it comes to the stories television has told since its invention, where it is now is most certainly not where it began. As far back as 1928's "The Queen's Messenger," the country's first televised drama, and for decades hence, most stories were told through a particular lens: the "white gaze." As defined by PBS, the white gaze is "the assumption that the default observer … is coming from the perspective of someone who identifies as white, or that people of color sometimes feel the need to take into account the white observer's reaction." Adjacent to viewing media through the white gaze is the unspoken practice of relegating some characters to stereotypes and racist tropes of the time, as evidenced in the enduring perpetuation of casting white actors in blackface rather than Black actors.

Yes, television in its early days was very much a reflection of the times, and while many of those patterns have carried on (with blackface still common on 21st-century television), there have been more than a few actors, writers, comedians, and stars who have since challenged the way television portrayed society.

According to University of Arizona scholar Stephanie Troutman Robbins, television has often served as "a primary source of America's racial education." Considering those implications, it's important to acknowledge TV shows that have bent the rules, defied regulations, and shattered the proverbial barriers regarding race on television.

With that in mind, Stacker compiled a list of 25 TV shows that broke racial barriers over its nearly 100-year history, using various archives, historical documents, and Nielsen media data, among other sources.

Hazel Scott, the first Black person to host her own show

Nat King Cole is often cited as the first Black man to host a network show during prime time. However, six years before he did so, in 1956, jazz singer Hazel Scott became the first Black person to find her way onto prime time with her 15-minute show presented by DuMont, which came on three times a week. Her lively career during the '30s and '40s in New York jazz clubs proved she was a natural entertainer; she easily wooed the audience with her charm, smile, and beauty.

However, Scott's show was almost immediately canceled after it aired in 1950 when her name appeared alongside a slew of people with suspected Communist ties in the book "Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television." Outraged at the injustice of these accusations, Scott volunteered to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee. While she defended herself well, her association with Communism damaged her career, prompting her to leave for Paris with her young son.

Scott alone was a force to be reckoned with, so powerful and talented that she had a clause in her contract stating she refused to perform for all-white or segregated audiences. Scott and many of her blacklisted expatriates returned to the U.S. in 1963 to attend the March on Washington. Her memory eventually faded from history, but it has since had a resurgence with public events and even a PBS American Masters documentary in production.

Desi Arnaz, the first Latino to co-host a prime-time English-language show

Desi Arnaz broke barriers in front and behind the camera with the groundbreaking 1951 sitcom "I Love Lucy." It was the first television show filmed in front of a live studio audience and the first to use a three-camera setup, thanks to Arnaz's efforts as an actor-producer extraordinaire. "Laverne & Shirley" actor Penny Marshall once remarked, "Bless Desi Arnaz for creating [the] three camera."

"I Love Lucy" broke barriers twofold, making Arnaz the first Latino lead to star on his own show and casting a leading lady, Lucille Ball (Arnaz's real-life wife), as more than a pretty face or side character. Arnaz and Ball's interracial relationship—which was controversial at the time—took a fairly honest look at the relationship dynamics between the two in real life. While fictionalized for the cameras, the delicate balance of cross-cultural marriages was all too real for audiences.

In more ways than one, "I Love Lucy" was running ahead of the pack, breaking a decathlon of barriers.

Nat King Cole, the first Black man to host a national prime-time series

When television was first introduced to a national audience, variety shows were the veritable toast of the town. By catering to a wide range of audiences with mostly family-friendly entertainment, variety shows filled a void America didn't know it had until television arrived. Yet "The Nat King Cole Show" broke a significant barrier in 1956 by having the widely famous singer host a prime-time variety show—something no other Black performer in the country had ever done.

What started as a 15-minute program, a practical interlude compared to its competitors, soon became a half-hour broadcast. By 1957, the show was rated highly in New York City; however, it continued to lack national sponsorship, a sad reality that prompted NBC to offer the crooner a less desirable timeslot, which Cole eventually refused, putting an end to his own show.

Considering most theaters in 1956 were completely segregated, Cole's variety show wasn't just barrier-breaking; it was Earth-shattering.

People of color appear in the future on 'Star Trek'

When it comes to boldly going where no show had gone before, "Star Trek" is definitely at the top of the list, especially considering the timeframe in which it came out. Though the topics were out of this world, the series felt monumental for its futuristic setting in far-away galaxies and for depicting Black people and other people of color in the future.

While science fiction and the exploration of other worlds had become widely popular during the great space race of the '50s and '60s, no show previous to "Star Trek," which premiered in 1966, had envisioned a world—futuristic or otherwise—that saw any place for people of color. Its cast included George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu, a helmsman of Japanese American descent and clearly in a position of power, and Nichelle Nichols, who gave life to Lt. Uhura, a composed and well-educated Black woman.

"Star Trek," and eventually its many spinoffs, chose to purposefully but carefully push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for societal norms at the time. It was the first show to envision a future with people of color and the first to feature an interracial kiss on screen between William Shatner and Nichols.

Eartha Kitt, the first Black Catwoman

Few television shows achieved "campiness" as well as 1966's breakout series "Batman," with its Technicolor kaleidoscope of spandex costumes and the cheesy "POW!" "ZAP!" and "BOOM!" that came with every exaggerated punch. The show mainly targeted teen audiences and featured a fine coating of simple but essential moral quandaries and safety warnings.

However, the final season of "Batman" introduced someone who would create an iconic figure in television history and break small-screen barriers, setting the tone for what followed: Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, a cunning character who embodies power, strength, and sexuality.

Catwoman was the only person who truly rattled Batman in a way other villains couldn't. Casting Kitt in the role when the original Catwoman actor for the series, Julie Newmar, had to step away was a bold move that solidified the show and Kitt in pop culture history.

On or offscreen, Kitt was just as powerful as her feline-inspired persona. At the 1968 White House luncheon, Kitt took on Lady Bird Johnson in a stance for Black youth attempting to get out of the draft.

Diahann Carroll plays more than 'the help' on 'Julia,' a first for Black actors on scripted TV

In the 1968 series "Julia," singer Diahann Carroll played lead character Julia Baker, a nurse, mother, and recent widow following her husband's death in Vietnam. While all of that might seem like a fairly typical plotline through the lens of our modern times, in 1968, no scripted television series had ever featured a Black actor as a professional.

Up to that point, when shows had featured actors of color, they were typecast into roles inevitably boiled down to being "the help." Through Julia and the series' 86 episodes, Carroll and the rest of the cast and staff used the platform to address racial inequalities. In one Season 3 episode, the doctor's office where Julia works is forced to downsize. Julia's boss, Dr. Morton Chegley (Lloyd Nolan), defiantly keeps Julia on staff and confronts the doctor's office about the move, which he reminds audiences was in direct defiance of the Civil Rights Act.

Caroll later won a Tony Award for portraying an American model and appeared often in plays previously limited to white actors. In the 1980s, she joined "Dynasty," and her altercations with Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins) were fan favorites.

'The Flip Wilson Show,' the first Emmy-winning network variety series with a Black star

Where would television be without Flip Wilson? The '60s were a time that saw boundaries and barriers being stretched, pulled, twisted, and broken, and Wilson was one of the actors leading the charge. Especially when it came to his variety show—the first "successful network variety series with an African American star."

Wilson was a stand-up comedian who made his way through the Black club circuit and was spotted by legendary comic Redd Foxx for his talent. Wilson's reputation landed him appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and eventually earned him his own special, the response to which garnered him a variety show in 1970.

"The Flip Wilson Show" did away with the chorus lines, singers, dancers, and all the frou-frous of the usual variety shows and focused on the host and guests. The series won two Emmy Awards in its first season for Best Variety Show and Best Writing in a Variety Show.

'Soul Train' sweeps the nation with Black culture and music

Various shows highlighted popular music on the national stage in the mid-20th century, from "The Ed Sullivan Show" to "American Bandstand" with Dick Clark. These shows introduced new, lesser-known artists to audiences while giving at-home viewers a live music experience from the comfort of their own homes. While plenty of shows succeeded with that formula, only one offered a national platform to Black culture, from the music to the fashion and the dancing: "Soul Train."

The show gave Black people the means through which they translated their art. Rarely were so many Black Americans seen on a television screen at once, especially considering the show first aired in 1971, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Host Don Cornelius and the "Soul Train" dancers spent their Saturday night bringing the nation's youth a dazzling look into the concept of "Black is beautiful" for decades. The show aired until 2006 and produced stars like Jody Watley, Carmen Elektra, and Rosie Perez, among countless others.

'All in the Family' brings uncomfortable conversations on racism to the table

Archie Bunker was a loud, rude, misogynistic racist in the '70s series "All in the Family," and it was through his curmudgeonly anger the show broke a multitude of racial barriers by forcing his peers to challenge his outdated, hate-filled beliefs out loud. Played by the beloved Carroll O'Connor, Archie's character was as conservative and blue-collar as it came, and he believed what he believed.

Archie was that loud uncle you didn't want to talk politics with at family get-togethers because it almost always ended in a slough of quasi-racist epitaphs. Yet, through the show, created by Norman Lear, and O'Connor's ability to portray Archie as a multidimensional oaf who could begrudgingly learn, "All in the Family" opened the door for uncomfortable conversations surrounding women's rights, race, and social justice, all from the comforting plaid armchair smack in Archie's living room.

One 1971 episode, "Edith Has Jury Duty," came in the middle of the country awaiting the Supreme Court ruling on whether the death penalty was constitutional. The episode includes a heated back-and-forth between Archie and his son-in-law, Michael, and pulls no punches in presenting both sides of the argument during a time when the issue was being publicly debated.

History comes to life in a painful, confrontational way on 'Roots'

Aired over eight nights, "Roots"—an adaptation of Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name—found its way into 100 million homes by the end of its run, a number that at the time equated to 51.1% of the entire TV-owning United States population.

The 1977 miniseries, which takes place at the birth of the American nation, follows the main character, Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton)—an enslaved person taken captive by force and brought to America—as he consistently refuses to adapt to the forced degradation handed out by enslavers. "Roots" shocked audiences with its violent and accurate portrayal of the horrifying conditions enslaved people were forced into. Unlike history books, the miniseries depicted the enslavers as genuinely villainous.

"Roots" earned multiple Emmys and a Peabody and is still considered one of the most important miniseries in history.

'Reading Rainbow' makes LeVar Burton the first Black host of a successful children's show

Public television has long been a way for parents to find educational, family-friendly programs to introduce children to their ABCs, 123s, and everything in between. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" gave children the confidence to use their imagination, whereas ASMR Bob Ross reminded viewers there was no such thing as mistakes, just happy accidents. Another show that carried on this tradition while breaking down racial barriers was the LeVar Burton-led "Reading Rainbow."

From 1983 to 2006, "Reading Rainbow" provided half-hour lessons introducing kids of all ages to the importance of reading and did so in an animated way by bringing books to life, all while giving parents clever book recommendations for their little ones.

While many children's TV show hosts came and went, Burton was the first Black host to lead a successful children's show that went on to win over 250 awards, including Emmys and a Peabody. The show was so beloved that it was rebooted in 2022, though markedly without Burton as host.

A Black family revives the American sitcom on 'The Cosby Show'

There couldn't be a list such as this without including "The Cosby Show" among the ranks. It would also be remiss to discuss the impact of "The Cosby Show" without mentioning the influence of its creator, Bill Cosby, who became subject to various allegations of sexual abuse and assault throughout his career.

In modern times, we have often discovered that the people we grew up with as heroes are not infallible; Cosby is no exception. Despite his personal controversies, his faults alone cannot overshadow the impact "The Cosby Show" and its ensemble cast had on its Black viewership. The show, which premiered in 1984, changed how Black families were portrayed in the media, depicting them beyond the harmful tropes and stereotypes of the time.

While "The Cosby Show" may have walked on eggshells to avoid difficult topics such as race—choosing instead to seemingly act as if it wasn't a factor—the portrayal alone of an upper-middle-class Black family in Brooklyn reshaped how viewers watched TV and set the tone for television to come.

HBCUs take center stage on 'A Different World'

The 1987 TV series "A Different World'' was a spinoff of "The Cosby Show," which followed the rebel daughter Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) as she left the nest and took off for her first semester at Hillman, a fictional historically Black college. While Bonet left the show after the first season, the remaining seasons shifted focus to its ensemble cast, including Jasmine Guy as Whitley Gilbert and Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Wayne.

Not only was "A Different World" the first series to center an all-Black cast attending a university, but it also addressed various hot-button issues that permeated the culture in the '80s and '90s. Among the tough topics included the HIV/AIDS crisis, which greatly impacted Black and brown communities but was rarely talked about on such a national platform at the time, thanks largely to producer and director Debbie Allen. (Let's also not forget it had one of the best television theme songs sung by the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.)

'In Living Color,' the first sketch show to move away from the white gaze

The Wayans brothers have long been known for their success in the television and film industry. While their movie credits climbed exponentially in the 2000s, it feels safe to say that the '90s were their heyday for television, largely thanks to their sketch show "In Living Color."

Premiering April 15, 1990, the first episode blew away all expectations, garnering 22 million viewers. More than its popularity, though, the half-hour show was a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon that launched the careers of several major stars—Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez, and Jim Carrey, to name a few—and pushed the boundaries of what television audiences typically saw on "Saturday Night Live."

What made "In Living Color" skits so innovative was their refusal to appease the white gaze through hip-hop music, dancers, and comedy that primarily resonated with young, modern audiences of color nationwide. The first season of the beloved series took home an Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series.

4 Black women set the trend for sitcoms in the '90s on 'Living Single'

A ridiculously catchy theme song. A colorful living room in the middle of New York. A television show centered on a group of Black 20-something women who become a chosen family as they attempt to survive the '90s. No topic was off limits on "Living Single"—from the characters' dating lives to the healing of old wounds to their hopes, dreams, schemes, and fears.

If this plotline sounds familiar to you, it's likely because you've sensed similar themes with shows like "Friends" and "Sex and the City," both of which have come under scrutiny and criticism for seemingly poaching "Living Single" for their respective premises but centering an all-white cast.

Starring Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, and Erika Alexander as the driving force of the series, "Living Single" was one of the first of its kind to feature that level of representation with portrayals of Black women as deep, well-rounded, bright, funny, and caring individuals. Reflecting on "Living Single" after its cancellation, the rapper said she was most grateful for "people and kids and young women, [who] can look at that show and feel proud."

'All-American Girl,' the first sitcom centering the Asian American family experience

The early '90s was a time that saw many new shows with a similar blueprint: Take a famous stand-up comedian and place them in starring roles in a series based around the jokes they'd become memorable for. Such was the case with the one-season 1994 series "All-American Girl," starring Margaret Cho.

The show was supposedly loosely based on Cho's experience as a first-generation child of immigrant parents who built their own business in the Bay Area. Being the only Asian American sitcom on air then, the show bore a heavy responsibility to represent the community, which eventually worked against it. Younger viewers were thrilled at seeing Asian Americans on television, while older generations were offended by the safe, stereotypical depictions on mainstream television. Cho's fans were similarly shocked at the sanitized version of the comedian on screen.

It would not be until a decade after its cancellation that audiences would see another Asian American family on television with 2014's "Fresh Off the Boat."

'The George Lopez Show' brings a Chicano family to TV for the first time

Like the few aforementioned on this list, "The George Lopez Show" was another series that took a stand-up comedian and gave them a starring role.

George Lopez's 2002 series was also the first of its kind to put a Chicano family front and center and show the intergenerational dynamics at play between three generations: grandparents from Mexico, parents raised as first-generation children in the United States, and the blessings and burdens passed to the second generation.

Though done through a lens of humor, "The George Lopez Show" took an inadvertent look at stereotypes often attributed to Latinos and turned them on their head in a subtle way.

The impacts of systemic oppression are scrutinized on 'The Wire'

This 2002 series' appearance on this list might seem antithetical at first. "The Wire" featured such stars as Idris Elba, Michael Kenneth Williams, and a young Michael B. Jordan set deep amid the Baltimore drug scene, viewed through the lens of both law enforcement and the community which they patrol.

What the show did, however, was take an unflinchingly real look at the impacts of urban policies, gentrification, systemic oppression, and racism, coupled with the loss of jobs Baltimore was typically known for. "The Wire" demonstrated the negative impacts these forces had on Black and brown communites that have been starved for resources, forced into homelessness, and left with little recourse.

"The Wire" painted the burgeoning drug scene as less scandal and more survival in a city whose powers that be would be glad to see them extinct. Written by former crime reporter David Simon—who spent much of his career covering the same streets portrayed on the series—the show is widely considered one of the best.

LGBTQ+ issues in Mexican families take the spotlight on 'Ugly Betty'

There are many layers to racial barriers, those below the surface and hidden beneath the obvious concept of skin tone. "Ugly Betty," which premiered in 2006, was one such show that peeled back these layers with an intersectional approach of cultural and racial commentary pertaining to sexuality.

The show stars America Ferrara as Betty Suarez, a Mexican woman who works at a fashion magazine and whose appearance doesn't quite meet conventional beauty standards. Coupled with its confronting the implicit issues of the immigration system, "Ugly Betty" tackled various topics often considered taboo or off-limits in the Mexican community—LGBTQ+-related issues being the most stigmatized.

Studies indicate that more internalized homophobia can present in the Latino community due to religion, as well as the importance placed on machismo. In Betty's nephew, Justin, audiences saw what it looked like to see a young gay Latino man being supported, even before his coming out. Even so, society has continued to grapple with these issues nearly two decades since "Ugly Betty" premiered.

'Black-ish' confronts racism and social justice head-on

Equal parts hilarious and poignant, "Black-ish" is a show with an ensemble cast that challenged how conversations around race were presented on television. The series also illustrated a Black American family that didn't play into stereotypes, with Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson portraying a couple raising their children in the upper-class neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, California.

Ellis Ross plays Rainbow Johnson, a doctor, and Anderson plays her husband, Dre, an advertising executive; the couple share five kids, similar to the bunch on "The Cosby Show" that came decades before it. Unlike Bill Cosby, who seemingly shied away from discussing uncomfortable conversations in-depth, "Black-ish" led the charge, sparking discourse on the overt racism that followed former President Donald Trump's 2016 election to the show re-airing an episode where Rainbow and Dre answer their children's difficult questions following George Floyd's murder in 2020.

Premiering in 2014 and lasting for eight seasons, "Black-ish" aired 176 episodes before its April 2022 finale. During its run, the show earned multiple awards for its cast, crew, and writers, leaving an indelible impression on the viewing public.

An awkward Black girl casts aside misogynoir and gets her happy ending on 'Insecure'

Issa Rae introduced the world to something rare when she co-created, co-wrote, and starred on the hit 2016 HBO series "Insecure." The show made Rae the first Black woman to create and star on a scripted series for a premium cable network.

Following the characters Issa and Molly's (Yvonne Orji) tumultuous but beautiful lives—their friendships, careers, and relationships—"Insecure" built its fan base for shining a light on the harsh truths of searching for love. The storylines made fans fall in love with some characters and loathe others—Jay Ellis, who portrays Issa's love interest, Lawrence, knows this all too well—but equally as important, they avoided cliche tropes while centering on an all-Black cast.

"Insecure" highlighted dark-skinned women in an industry that has consistently perpetuated misogynoir and challenged the expectations of what love was supposed to look like, feel like, or be about. The fervent fans were as emotional as the cast when "Insecure" said goodbye after five seasons in 2021, with many taking to Twitter to express just how much Rae and the show meant to them.

'Blended family' takes on a whole new meaning on 'This Is Us'

Few shows have garnered more heart-wrenching sobs from viewers than the hit NBC series "This Is Us." Airing from 2016 to 2022, the series was a powerful family drama that focused on love, tensions, and familial trauma. While this might sound ordinary for a TV show, it's centered on three siblings, known by fans as "The Big Three"—brothers Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) and their sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), who all grew up together as a blended family.

Randall, who is Black, was abandoned as a child after his biological mother died from an overdose. His white adopted family took him in shortly after his birth. The family's dynamics, moments of discomforting microaggressions, and how the outside world perceives them—be it other family members, friends, or strangers—all lead to painful and often uncomfortable topics being broached between the characters as the series progresses.

"This Is Us" introduced something fresh to the television landscape and handled the dynamic in powerful, illuminating ways. An instant hit the moment it aired, "This Is Us" ran for six seasons and earned four Emmys before coming to a tear-jerking conclusion.

'Pose' assembles the largest cast of Black and brown LGBTQ+ people in TV history

"Pose," an FX series that ran from 2018 to 2021, featured the largest cast of transgender actors to appear on a series as regulars. Additionally, the cast was primarily people of color, making instant stars out of Billy Porter, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, and Michaela Jaé Rodriquez, among others.

The plotlines centered around a trichotomy of the ballroom scene; the wealth disparity between the city's upper- and lower-class residents; and the struggle to survive mentally, emotionally, and physically in a city that could be considered dangerous—all relevant and relatable components that play a major part in the experiences of queer people of color in New York City.

Unlike many before them, the show portrayed its LGBTQ+ characters as beautifully flawed, multifaceted people who stopped at nothing to chase their dreams. "Pose" also created a humanizing view around the ball culture of the '90s and, by proxy, queer people of color—an important and necessary step in the right direction for modern television.

The show has also made history more than once. In 2022, Rodriquez became the first trans woman actor to win a Golden Globe for her work on the series; three years prior, in 2019, Porter became the first openly gay man to win the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama for "Pose."

'Los Espookys,' HBO's first Spanish-language series

Premiering in 2019, the HBO comedy "Los Espookys" blazed a trail when it first aired by becoming the first entirely Spanish-language television series to target an English-speaking audience. While the plotline itself is a bit campy—Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco) and his metaphorical goon squad build a business around creating scary experiences for a variety of clients—the show became a critical darling.

Written by Julio Torres, Ana Fabrega, and Fred Armisen, all of whom also star on the series, "Los Espookys" garnered a somewhat cultlike following that went beyond language barriers but was canceled in 2022 after its second season.

'Gentefied' puts ICE and gentrification front and center

Redlining, gentrification, and the "urban policies" that impact marginalized communities are central themes of "Gentefied," a show created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez that first aired in February 2020. The series, a mixture of drama and comedy, follows three cousins desperately seeking the American Dream—all while their family's restaurant and home are threatened by gentrification in their Los Angeles neighborhood.

The series places a sharply focused lens on the issues many Mexican families face, and it pulls no punches in broaching tough topics. In the first episode of the second season, Casimiro (the patriarch of the family, played by Joaquín Cosío) is released from an ICE detention center after three months to find out his family legacy, Mama Fina's Tacos, has changed while he was away.

The Netflix original series earned stellar reviews among fans and critics alike, with Rolling Stone calling it a "fresh L.A. story" and Vulture hailing it a "bilingual love letter." Even so, it never got on Netflix's top 10 and was canceled in 2022 after two seasons.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close.

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