Race and Class in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-96) centers on Will Smith, sent to live with his biological aunt’s family after struggling in his working class background. Although The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is best remembered for Will’s exploits, chasing girls and finding himself in various predicaments, there are episodes which deal with serious subject matter. As a sitcom centered upon a wealthy black family, it is inevitable The Fresh Prince of Bel Air would examine issues of race and class within society. The episodes listed below reflect The Fresh Prince of Bel Air‘s sincere writing quality that is usually not associated with its reputation.

4. Not with My Pig, You Don’t – Class-based Vanity

Phil and his Mother come into conflict of his embarrassment regarding his rural upbringing.
Phil and his Mother come into conflict over his embarrassment regarding their rural past.

Not with My Pig, You Don’t begins with Phil’s announcement that he will receive an Urban Spirit Award as recognition for helping “our brothers and sisters in the streets”. This leads to Will making a class-based joke about Phil’s chauffeur, which Phil denounces due to his contribution towards black working class people. Yet Will’s joke has significance once Phil’s parents arrive. Phil presents himself as a successful lawyer with elegance and taste in terms of his clothing, mansion and other accessories. Phil’s mother Hattie deconstructs by referring to him as Zeke (his childhood name) and his rural North Carolinian upbringing. Phil’s rural upbringing includes skinny dipping with his pet pig Melvin and becoming a pig racing champion, which Phil has not disclosed to the public as it is a clear contradiction of his desired image. The distinction between Phil and his parents’ attire, formal suits against casual clothing, reflects the extent in which Phil has gone to maintain an image of wealth and success.

Phil’s determination to move away from his rural background results in confrontation, once a newspaper interview goes astray. When news reporter Susan Klein believes Phil’s life story is dull, Will gives her Phil’s childhood stories. “You destroyed my image!” is Phil’s mortified response, which Hattie overhears. Hattie confronts Phil over his remarks, “that is where you are from Zeke!”. Hattie’s comment reveals Phil’s contradictory nature. Phil acts as if being highly successful and having a rich lifestyle is second nature to him, yet he has forgotten his rural upbringing which built his character. This results in Phil contemplating his thoughts regarding his image accepting his rural past. Phil realises that he “didn’t have it that hard” as his parents always loved him, thus making his rural background insignificant to his reputation.

3. The Ethnic Trip – Understanding One’s Racial History

Race and Class in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Vivian temporary teaches Will and Carlton’s History class to advocate black culture.

The Ethnic Trip reflects difficulties in incorporating black culture into an established institution, as well as understanding one’s own culture. In this case it is Bel Air Prep, an elite private school where the majority of students are white. Throughout Will’s time at Bel Air Prep, he is insistent on his own individuality. Will expresses his individuality through wearing his jacket inside out, decorating it with badges of black icons. Will says it is his individualism that has resulted in bad grades in history, due to no black culture being taught. This strives Vivian to help Will voice his opinion at a parents-teachers meeting. The committee is apprehensive about Will’s idea, claiming that there is not enough space in their curriculum. This could be read as institutional racism, as Bel Air Prep’s need for conservatism means no criticism of America’s racial history. Yet this is soon defeated by Vivian, who offers her teaching experience to Will’s history class.

However Will conveys an arrogance over his own races’ history, feeling that he will gain good grades simply because he is black. However, Vivian’s strict teaching discipline and vast knowledge on black culture regularly corrects Will’s assumptions or generalisations. For example, although Will recognises slave songs, he cannot clarify their connection to abolitionism. It takes Vivian to make Will aware of this fact. By the end of Vivian’s tenure as Will’s history teacher, he has not fully improved as a student. Vivian confronts Will regarding his academic stagnancy, who defends himself by saying he had read Malcolm X’s autobiography three times. Vivian becomes irritated by Will’s response, stating that he is trivalising black culture by only studying specific aspects rather than its whole. This realisation not only makes Will understand his own arrogance, but also the importance of understanding one’s own racial history. The Ethnic Trip shows how race should to be understood from both sides, that of established institutions hesitant in accepting change while individuals needing to fully understand their own culture.

2. Guess Who’s Coming to Marry? – Issues Over Interracial Marriage

Race and Class in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air3
Will’s mother Vi is at odds with an interracial marriage.

Will’s family comes together for his Aunt Janice’s wedding, though everyone becomes surprised as Janice’s groom Frank is white. Their shock is emphasised for the audience moments before when a handsome black man walks into the Banks residence, who is taken for granted as Janice’s groom. When Frank walks in, Phil paid him cab fare assuming he is the taxi driver. Phil’s actions embodies the families’ racial preference, assuming Janice will marry a black man. As the family recovers from their shock, Janice explains that she did not reveal Frank’s racial identity in case her family will not accept their relationship. Helen, one of Janice’s older sisters, proclaims that “you can’t control who you fall in love with” advocating racial tolerance. However, Vi initially discriminates against the marriage. Vi claims that Janice will make her life difficult by marrying a white man, to the point where she may lose friends and become a social outcast due to possible racial tensions.

Vi’s discrimination goes as far as attempting to block Will from the wedding. Vi feels that she is being disrespected, as Janice is going against how they were raised, which is a sign of Vi’s prejudice. Yet Will is adamant in attending, saying that if he disobeys her prejudice, then is he truly worthy of her love? This makes Vi contemplate her views and understand her prejudice. Vi’s prejudice is shown as destructive within a family structure, causing divides. Guess Who’s Coming to Marry? breaks down the reasoning for interracial divides and shows that society can be tolerant. Vi realises that it does not matter if Janice and Frank are an interracial couple, as long as they love each other.

1. Those Were The Days – Analysing One’s Class Identity

Race and Class in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Phil and Vivian are reunited with their activist friend Marge.

Phil and Vivian are reunited with Marge, a friend from their activist days. Marge’s presence at their home has a profound effect on everyone’s conscience regarding their class position. Marge continuously calls Geoffrey, the Banks’ butler, a “pathetic servant of capital fat cats”. This not only refers to Geoffrey’s submissive standing, but also an insult towards Phil and Vivian for their bourgeoisie lifestyle. Marge knew Phil and Vivian when they were still predominantly working class, which reflects Marge’s views that Phil and Vivian have betrayed their values. The differences in their lifestyles becomes further evident when Marge influences Will, after announcing his displease over his photography teacher’s sacking. Will’s photography teacher is dismissed after parents raised concerns regarding a planned trip to an exhibition. Marge tells Will that if he is angered by the decision, then he must act. This results in Will along with a fellow pupil staging a protest by locking themselves in a classroom. Will feels this protest is vital in demonstrating his displeasure of his teacher’s dismissal, therefore animating his views.

Will’s protest results in school suspension. While Marge believes Will’s actions is admirable, Phil and Vivian are not impressed. This causes a confrontation where Marge instigates that Phil and Vivian had lost their activists ideals, as they had become too familiar with their rich surroundings. This is fiercely contested by Phil, who reminds Marge of his civil rights activities and how they still influence him. This includes supporting working class black citizens for their civil rights, which was a primary aim for black activism. It became clear that despite Phil and Vivian’s wealth and status, they have never forgotten their activist ideals. Vivian continues the argument by saying participation in activism does not mean working outside the system. It can be working within the law by signing petitions or hosting committee meetings. This emphasises Phil and Vivian’s activist ideals, not forgetting their youthful class values despite their current bourgeoisie lifestyle.


These episodes show that The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is capable of sincerity, dealing with themes of race and class. These themes are never taken lightly, they are represented in a vivid and confronting manner. Each episode raises questions as to how race and class should be portrayed and discussed within society.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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42 Comments

  1. I recently had a few days off from work, and spent some of the time going down memory lane by watching one of my favorite childhood shows. I love this show.

  2. Watching this show years later, I can now appreciate the social commentary tucked into the show’s writing. One particularly powerful episode is season 1, episode 6: Mistaken Identity.

  3. Aaron Hatch

    Fresh Prince was not just a funny show, but also had powerful commentary on issues that are relevant even today. The episode that particularly stuck with me is the one that commented on violence, and that is when Carlton caries a gun after Will got wounded by a mugger.

  4. It’s amazing how even though this show began over twenty years ago, it was able to discuss issues that are still so prevalent in society today. Even more so, it demonstrated so many morals like family love and friendship.

  5. The stuff with Will and Uncle Phil was always great. The episode where they’re trapped in a cave with a duffle bag full of money (you know, which happens all the time), Will’s speech about only having one roller skate and Uncle Phil giving him another one was a tear-jerker as well.

  6. Uncle Phil was a national treasure. There, I said it.

    • Love how he plays the judge on other shows!! I think I have seen him at least twice on two different shows?!

  7. Donny Gentry
    0

    I watched Fresh Prince on and off, mainly in reruns. And the occasions when the show addressed issues of race were incredibly effective. The episode dealing with Carlton’s first ticket for Driving While Black wasn’t subtle, but it worked very well.

    My favorite character was was Uncle Phil. James Avery and the writers made his combination of middle aged conservatism and still-active pride in who he is and where he came from believable.

    • Yeah, that episode was the first time I ever heard about that (I grew up in a little Appalachian town) , so I still think of that whenever I hear about stop and frisk and the like.

  8. Lawless
    0

    I am kind of annoyed that this isn’t streaming anywhere – it’s the perfect thing to bingewatch while working on some project.

  9. Its Elie
    0

    This show was huge to me as a kid and still makes me chuckle today, corny as it is.

    It’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to be considered as lame as Full House, though maybe because it isn’t quite as everywhere as Full House.

    • Fresh Prince was nowhere near as formulaic or corny as Full House – outside of the Very Special Episodes (of which there aren’t really that many), it was straight up comedy most of the time, so no wonder it’s held up better.

  10. Guajardo
    0

    The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has its faults and certainly does play into some stereotypes about African Americans.

  11. There’s certainly something to be said for analyzing a bit of pop culture like this, but if you’re going to deal with such heavy themes, I’d say you need to deal with the fact that they are dealt with through humour, and what that might mean w/r/t what the showrunners and writers were thinking. Humour is a powerful statement in its own right and it is absent from this analysis.

  12. The episode where Carlton buys a gun after Will gets shot was pretty powerful.

    • That episode was pretty powerful, and my younger naive self thought “Wow, this experience has made Carlton grow up, he’s going to be a completely different character from now on!”

      Nope.

  13. HJERELL
    0

    Sometimes I want to watch an after-school special sit-com re-run at 11:30pm on a Thursday and this is it. I really love this show.

  14. One of my favorites of the 90’s, and I still like to catch the re-runs here and there…apparently MTV took over airing it, as well as Nick at Nite. The theme song is still as catchy now as it was when it aired in prime time.

  15. I really liked your article, but it makes me question why acceptance has taken this long, as class and race has always been comedic content. I’m just wondering what your opinion to tv show following the first person narrative, of a person of colour.

    The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was created in the 90’s featuring a Black American and now in present day is another show called Fresh Off the Boat featuring a Chinese American. I find it interestingly that they both are “Fresh”, yet both were set in the same time period. With Eddie’s story his book is recent, but the comedic content of racial difference has always been the same. I find it interesting that it took this long for Asian Americans to be recognized as something greater than “the other token”.

  16. The Fresh Prince is one of my favorite shows on tv. I practically watch it everynight.

  17. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was one of the best shows in tv in my opinion. Almost every episode left the audience laughing and thinking about one of the many important messages that were portrayed over the years. The Fresh Prince was able to speak to it’s audience about the importance of tolerance. This show painted a picture of a family that was the opposite of many negative stereotypes surrounding African Americans. Even now in 2015, television and films are so dominated by white people, and acts if racism are still seen and heard about. Having a show like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air remain popular is important in the building of a better future.

  18. I never saw this serie the way you are talking about it, however it is so true. Great text!

  19. This show ddid every now in then try to engage in some subject matter regarding the families affluence and race. While I think it was mostly successful, done of the wiring really comes from a privileged white point of view that comes from the writers on staff thinking in black.

    The episode guess whose coming to Marry cab be paralleled to the movie that shamed the original “Guess Who’s coming to Dinner.”
    “Guess Who” and this episode tried to exasperate the idea that blacks feel equally awkward dealing with white people and have some sort of bigotry to them. This is completely inaccurate.

    Black families speak about race often the information in the show would have been discussed long before the white lover comes to the door in most cases. What would have been more realistic is the anxiety of the pertain on the relationship and less the families actions towards the racially different.

    Joe’s would be made and support would be given. Black cultures usually see greater white society as different from the individual; this most likely occurrs because of how many positive named white portrayals there are in media, not a virtue of black people.

    A truly black interpretation of interracial dating would be more thoughtful as the minority involved would wonder if they are asking it if their friends are joking with then as they always do our is it an actual issue; possibly even grinning racism to test the white pertain and fully embracing them when they smile awkwardly our even more bravely roast themselves and/or push back witfully.

    This is not to say that it would never be an issue, it has simply been overstated because while their are black faves ibn the screen it is usually a white point of view in writing the words our a need to connect in ways white audiences would expect. This is the same issue that upset the creator of “Fresh Off the Boat” with the storylines depicted on that show. The same problem arises in the black community have with at least some episodes “Blackish”. As one of my friends put it the race card episode of “Blackish” demonstrates why it is more “Whitish” in actuality.

  20. DClarke

    I think these are great examples not just of particular episodes, but of messages that were inherent through the whole run of the show. It is interesting to see them brought out explicitly. As you have shown, a close reading of The Fresh Prince uncovers many commentaries that are still relevant today

  21. A very fun show growing up. Shocked at the content now as an adult and parent.

  22. I agree with DClarke about the messages being inherent through the whole run of the show. One of my favorite moments was in the first episode where Will is being grilled for carving his name in the desk, and the white English teacher defends him: “Where he grew up, ‘bad’ means ‘good!'”

  23. Adnan Bey

    Great article exploring the subtleties in a show like this. I liked the first episode where Phil gives his little lecture on Malcolm X but the theme song is always catchy 😀

  24. Nof

    I always watched this show as a kid, so I never noticed the complexity of the writing. It’s brilliant when shows work for a wide range of audience in age and in other aspects. I like how specific this article is, focusing on episodes, rather than the show as a whole.

  25. Fresh Prince is great in that it’s never subtle about its messages. There’s a lot to be said about the intersectionality of classism, especially regarding internal divides within ethnic or racial groups.

  26. The true brilliance of Fresh Prince was it’s ability to tackle almost any social issue (relevant at that time of course) within the confines of a a great comedy. The show’s ability to be hilarious one minute, and flip to serious just seconds later is second to none. One of the best shows ever.

  27. Excellent work! It was a pleasure reading.

  28. Munjeera

    Huge fan of the show. Watched it when it first came out and watched with both my sons who are biracial and have found it to be a great conversation starter for race, class and gender. It was an unusual show that handled sensitive issues with courage. Watching it now at 47 I am impressed by Will Smith’s humility where he takes on the role of the newbie learning from people who are more successful than him. I guess he really learned how to be successful!

  29. yes yes yes. This article is great. I remember (in the UK) The Simpsons would come on and it would be followed by the Fresh Prince. When you’re younger you just watch these things and laugh, but when you revisit them years later you realise just how much it discussed issues like race and class. Amazing show

  30. Great analysis. There are tons of other episodes that deal with these sort of heavy situation. For instance, when Will’s father comes to visit. We all know how that ended. Or when Will begins to experiment with “speed”. This show is definitely a top 10 for me.

  31. The episode with Phil’s mom always stuck out to me as being a poignant statement on remembering where you come from.

  32. scole

    One of my favorite shows! A Different World does the same thing, it’s based in a college setting as well, so, me being in college, it kind of relates to each generation in a different way. Shows like this are something to really sit down and watch and learn, if you want, about these topics being brought up.

  33. This show is always glorified for the comedian Will Smith,being able to make people laugh. However, this show gave so much light to real life situations, even the relationship with Will Smith and his father, although ironic that his upbringing was that of ruff once relocating to Bel Air, he still was able to connect to stereotypical an common situations of those in worse situations, I think that although not glorified is the main contribute to the success of the show

  34. The fresh prince is one of my favorite shows. I love this show so much I could literally sit in the house and just watch it all day.

  35. Christen Mandracchia

    What a great article The Ethnic Trip is one of the episodes which is in my memory forever. Such a profound and true portrayal. What really interested me was the way that the white students were portrayed as eager learners of the subject to the point where they knew more than Will. It was interesting how they showed white students having more knowledge but not understanding Black culture on a personal level. It really makes one think about a lot of things at once.

  36. This is a great article that supports its thesis with specific, diverse examples. I like how the episode synopses were concise and on-topic! Fresh Prince was a great show that used its collective talents well. I think the show was able to effectively ground these episodes through character-driven writing and its exceptional cast. If these social issues are considered “still relevant”, it’s because they have always been.

  37. You make great points! It was a very interesting read.

  38. authoressalicia

    The 90’s sitcoms were the best, they enlightened a generation children and adults about race relations and gender discrimination. You have analyzed The Fresh Prince of Bellaire from a depth perspective.

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