‘Black-ish’ Takes On the N-Word in All Its Complexity

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Of all the returning sitcoms premiering new seasons this month, the one I’ve most been looking forward to is Black-ish. The confident first season successfully balanced broad sitcom plots with specific elements of black culture without ever losing its edge or its comedy. Going into Season 2, the question was whether it would begin to sway in one direction or the other based on last year’s reception. (Fresh Off the Boat is in a similar position: Will it begin to go harder and get darker, more accurately following Eddie Huang’s memoir?) Based on last night’s premiere, which hilariously tackled the N-word, Black-ish is even stronger — and more necessary — than ever.

The Season 2 premiere titled, “THE Word,” wasted no time setting up its agenda: discussing the racial epithet that continues to inspire debate (most of it wrongheaded) on a daily basis, prompting divides even among the black community, and even within ourselves. (Last night, when I decided to write about this episode, I went back and forth on whether I should use “nigger” or “the N-word,” both of which make me pretty uncomfortable, even as a black person.) The episode begins with adorable youngest son Jack performing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at a school talent show and, not heeding his twin sister’s advice, opting not to do the radio edit. His usage of the word basically caused a record scratch in the auditorium, and Jack was swiftly sent to the principal’s office and expelled because of the school’s “zero tolerance” approach to hate speech.

From there, “THE Word” spins off in a bunch of wonderful directions, each one starting a conversation — and it should be noted that the purpose of this episode actually was to start a conversation, not to say something controversial and backtrack (“starting a conversation” tends to be the default phrase of celebrities and public figures faux-apologizing for controversial statements often involving race). It was not to provide a right or wrong answer, or to tell a black audience whether they should or shouldn’t use the word. It was similar to last year’s episode about spanking: It provided no answers, just different opinions that will ultimately lead to viewers coming to our own individual conclusions on the matter.

Throughout the episode, we see multiple stances about the N-word. (The word itself is used ten times in 22 minutes, bleeped out not because of ABC, but because of audience reaction at a test screening.) Andre Sr. doesn’t see what the big deal is with Jack using it and, as expected, defaults to a habitual overreaction; he even thinks it’s a birthright: “Jewish kids get to go to Israel. Black kids get to say this.” Rainbow hates the word and is aghast that her husband basically taught it to their young son through Kanye West sing-alongs on the way to school (not to be forgotten: Rainbow is biracial, with one white and one black parent, which often gives her a different perspective than that of her black husband). The grandparents don’t believe it’s a word that black people need to be using — but through flashbacks we learn that they’ve used it multiple times, both in Andre’s childhood and recently, casually. Zoe pipes in that her friends use it all the time (“They don’t mean anything by it”), but, to Andre’s horror, her friends are all white.

One of the biggest debates in the episode is between Andre and Pops’ opinions and the generational divide, and represents the biggest debate surrounding the N-word in real life. Is it simply an ugly, hate-filled word that no one — not even black people — should ever use? Or is it OK for black people to reclaim it, to use it as an endearing term of power (similar, perhaps, to how women have worked on reclaiming words like “bitch” or “slut”)? There are merits to both arguments, and neither man is right or wrong.

There is certainly something to be said about reclaiming a word that is used to make us feel lower than dirt, a word that is so harsh and negative that you can simply refer to it as “THE” word and everyone immediately knows what you’re talking about. Reclaiming it, flipping its usage from something negative to something positive and powerful — in some ways, “my nigga” is a step above even “my friend” or “my brother” and denotes ultimate respect between friends. It’s a way to let racists know that they can’t harm us by using the word because we flipped the meaning and took it back.

Then again, there’s also the argument that it’s just too hateful, too awful to use, and that it can denote self-hatred — both personalized self-hatred and hate within the black community. Pops claims it’s something he “only said to separate myself from the rest of ‘you people'”; I wouldn’t go so far as to say he used the term out of hatred or the strict belief that he was better, but on more of a case-by-case basis to knock them down a peg when they were fucking up. And, of course, there is the absolutely ridiculous argument from white people, who ignore the history and ask, “If you can use it, then why can’t I?”

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.

(ABC/Kelsey McNeal)

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.