Yesterday, another historical moment in TV history was made when ABC’s hit comedy, Black-ish, took on the n-word in its second season premiere. Everyone has written, read, or voiced an opinion about the n-word and whether it should be used, who should use it and who should never use it. However, no one’s ever dared to bring the debate to a family-oriented sitcom until now.
What made the show decide to kick off its sophomore season with its take on the controversial word? The show’s creator, Kenya Barris said to Eurweb, “It’s part of our culture… and we talked about doing it (last season) but we don’t like to do anything unless we have what we think is a real honest and unique take on it. Then all of a sudden the word just exploded again. It was everywhere with Don Lemon and Hulk Hogan, and in this time where we’re supposed to be this elevated society. It’s still just as prevalent as it was during Jim Crow.”
In an episode titled, “The Word,” Black-ish asked the question: Does the n-word still have a place in 2015? When Dre and Bow’s youngest son, Jack, uses the n-word while performing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at his school’s talent show, he finds himself facing expulsion due to the school’s zero-tolerance policy on hate speech. A policy that just so happened to be instituted by his own peace-loving mother, Bow. This event causes everybody in the Johnson household to re-examine their views on their n-word policy.
Dre, the trendy father, uses the word liberally. In fact, he and Jack sang their own rendition of “Gold Digger” in the car the morning before the talent show, and n-words were flying all over the place. “Dammit, it’s his birthright. Jewish kids get to go to Israel, and Black kids get to say this,” said Dre as he defended Jack to Bow. He believes in using the word in an effort to reclaim it and strip away its power from oppressors. And like many of us, he believes the word is for Black use only. His wife, Bow, on the other hand, considers the word to be negative and derogatory and believes it should never be used under any circumstances.
Dre’s parents chime in as well. His father uses it but states that it should never be used casually or in mixed company while Dre’s mother believes it should only be used as a “judgment said only with disdainful indictment.” Dre counters that his parents’ generation “used the word for self-hate and made it negative while his generation ‘reclaimed it’ and uses it as a “term of colloquialism and power.”
Dre later finds out that his oldest teenage daughter, Zoe, doesn’t mind that all of her White friends use the word because they don’t use it hatefully. It’s just a simple word to teens. This sets Dre off, and he pushes forward to defend Jack from the school board who wishes to expel him from the school. Dre explains to the board that the word was used by White people for hundreds of years and that now it is Black people who have taken ownership and are trying to figure out what to do with it. So why penalize a loving 8-year-old boy for using it? This persuades the board to rule in favor of Jack, and he receives a short suspension. The episode ends with Dre putting Jack to bed. He tells his son that he can use the word after he is educated about its history. He informs him that the word is not to be used in mixed company, nor in school, and Jack agrees.
When I heard Black-ish was taking on the n-word, I assumed the worst. It’s a major network show. How far could they go without censorship or placing blame? I was shocked and happy to see them be able to cover the multi-generational usage and views of the word. In just 20 or so minutes, viewers got a taste of what the word means to 60-something Black grandparents, two Black teenagers, 40-something parents — one from the hood and the other a biracial woman from the suburbs — and you even hear a teensy bit of perspective from Dre’s middle-aged, White boss.
As a Black viewer, I found myself agreeing with Dre’s views and his reaction to Zoe allowing her White friends to use it in her presence. I’ve noticed that a lot of current teenagers have a different view of the word, and who can use it, leaving those of the older generation with a bad taste in their mouths. It’d be easy to judge Zoe for freely “allowing” her friends to use it, but they’re of a different generation and have their own set of rules. Much like our own generation operates differently than the one before us. And by showcasing the variety of reasons behind the usage of such a word, that’s how Black-ish did such an excellent job showcasing this important perspective.
All in all, this divisive issue was handled with sensitivity, respect, and humor, which is a miracle given the controversy and feelings that this one word stirs up. The show managed to provide perspective without placing any judgment on how the word is used by anybody.
No matter how you choose to use or not use the word, it’s safe to say that it comes with hundreds of years of baggage. I champion any form of entertainment that can open a healthy conversation or provide some backstory on the heavy meaning behind what elicits such strong feelings in so many people.