In Black-ish, the writers tackle the word from every angle and intersperse serious discussion with great jokes that don’t distract from the issue, but find humor directly within the debate. At work, Andre and his two black coworkers discuss Jack’s expulsion for using the N-word as their white coworkers get noticeably uncomfortable, wincing whenever it’s said, as if they are being physically smacked across the face. When one white man tries to jump in, his white peers try their best to shut him up. Later, the men use a whiteboard to list who can and can’t say the word. Among the cans: African Americans, Dominicans. Among the cant’s: Police Officers. (Also of note: Rosie Perez can; J.Lo can’t.) It’s hilarious, yes, (especially when “colored” is mentioned and Charlie whips out a gun), but it’s also depicting the confusing intricacies and unspoken rules surrounding the N-word and its usage, and how it’s almost on a case-by-case basis who can and can’t say it. Andre would never let a white person say it in his presence; Zoe doesn’t see the big deal in her white friends using it.
Because, as “THE Word,” makes clear, it is a personal decision. I have no qualms with my black friends who say the N-word (as a way of reclaiming it), nor should I. I have no qualms with my black friends who refuse to say it. I’m of the latter camp; my earliest encounters with the N-word were all hateful, something thrown at me to hurt me, to demote me to a lower status, to make it clear that I was not a person, but a nigger, and therefore I should know my place. It’s a word that personally makes me uncomfortable because, even when it’s not the user’s intention, it brings back those feelings. It’s a word that feels clumsy in my mouth, but I understand the need some of us have to reclaim it. Still, I always smart and go into attack mode when it’s used by non-black people, or even when they’re using coded words — “thug,” “savage” — in its place.
In “THE Word,” Andre, in his impassioned way, gets understandably frustrated at the school board when they discuss Jack’s expulsion. It is ridiculous — expelling a white student for saying it is one thing; expelling a black student for “hate speech” when it is, well, our word is dicey (though part of the humor comes from the fact that it was Rainbow who protested for the zero tolerance policy that screwed over her own son). Andre mentions that Paula Deen said it and got millions, Tarantino wrote it a million times and got an Oscar, but his own black son said it and got an expulsion. It’s a funny but real-as-hell speech that takes the idea of white privilege one step further: We can’t even say the N-word without consequences, while white people can literally get rewarded for using a racial epithet.
Finally, Andre brings it back to the personal. He tells Jack that it’s up to him whether or not he wants to say the N-word, but that he should first look up its history and fully understand all of its meanings before making that decision. In the end, the episode was equal parts hilarious and intelligent, providing even more proof of why diverse TV programs are utterly necessary. This was not a stock sitcom plot that could be found on Modern Family or The Middle but a plot that required a delicate, diverse, and hysterically funny touch — something that the Black-ish writers have perfected.