Black-ish took on the N-Word and Nailed It

Sometimes an artistic endeavor – a book, a film, even a television program – says something important, but in a way that diminishes the impact of the statement. This is especially tricky in the case of a TV series that tries to push the envelope but must please a wide audience and maintain high ratings if it is to survive.

But last Wednesday night (9/23/15) the season opener of Black-ish took on the N-Word  and nailed it. In the show’s return episode, the Johnson family find themselves in the midst of a controversy about who can and who cannot use the word.

The program opens with seven-year-old twin son Jack performing at his private school talent show. As the scene opens, a girl in a star-spangled outfit is finishing her act by quoting her down-home grandpa about what is wrong with America – as the teacher stands poised to shut off the sound – which is “Nothing!”

Jack proceeds to perform a break dance and rap routine. He’s doing great, breaking to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.”  The crowd is clapping and swaying as he grabs the mic and raps Kanye’s lyrics –

Now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger

But she ain’t messin’ with no broke [bleep]1

The teacher shuts off the sound. Jack is expelled from school, having violated the school’s zero tolerance policy regarding hate speech (a policy his mother Rainbow was responsible for establishing). And it turns out that he learned the song when he and his father, Andre, played it and rapped along on the ride to school.

This opens a discussion about the N-word and who can, say it. Andre is of the opinion that the word belongs to black people and that they and they along can use it. But the consensus seems to be that the word is inappropriate, period. No one should say it for any reason. His wife vehemently expresses this view. The black school principal holds this opinion, as do Andre’s colleagues at the ad agency where he works.

In a brilliant scene that takes place around the conference table at the agency, the black employees rise up in outrage when the boss jokes (?) that the term for black people that he misses most is “colored.” They are placated only when he cites the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His reference to the term “negro” occasions another uprising, quieted down when he brags about his generosity to the United Negro College Fund.  But as for the N-word, it’s definitely out of bounds.

Andre’s only “support” comes from his oldest daughter Zoey, a popular high school student. She has friends who freely use the word. Who? Kids with names that “don’t sound black.”

This reinforces Andre’s opinion about the word and leads to his insightful interpretation of the issue. As he sees it, white people would like to be able to determine what black people call themselves. And what black people call themselves, white people believe they can call them, too. But the N-word has been taken over by black people and reconstructed with layers of meaning only blacks can understand. Whether white people like it or not, black people are going to use the word and white people cannot use it. It’s as simple as that. It is this argument that Andre takes to the school board meeting, resulting in Jack’s expulsion being turned into a three-day suspension.

The script for this exploration of culture manages to be both hilarious and insightful. Andre’s position is presented in the context of society’s understandable rejection of the N-word and, simultaneously, its near-ubiquitous presence in black culture and especially in rap music.

It offers a conclusion that many people will find unsatisfactory. The word has a history steeped in oppression, exploitation, and brutality. But, with the creativity with which black Americans reconceptualized the stuff of the world into which we were thrust, this term also was absorbed into the verbal and kinetic vocabulary of blackness but declared off limits for people who aren’t black.

In a brilliant scene set in the ad agency conference room, black staff list ethnic groups and occupations who can and cannot use the term. African Americans and some Latinos can (for example, Mexicans can’t but Dominicans and Puerto Ricans can – well, some Puerto Ricans: Rosie Perez can, but JLo can’t).  Police officers can’t.

And  thus the frustration of whites who perceive discrimination and unfairness when told that they cannot use the term, something we see in the crocodile tears shed by some comics (see Seinfeld, Maher, Schumer) who decry the “PC culture” that limits their access to “liberal” and “over-sensitive” college audiences.

I must admit that I share the view expressed in this episode of Black-ish. For various reasons, I don’t use the N-word . But it is part of black culture and black people will use it. Perhaps the problem is that its use has spilled out of the boundaries of the black community and into world culture through the proliferation of rap.

But that still doesn’t give anyone who is not black the right to use it, although some non-black people will insist on using it, for shock value, to prove their imagined “street cred,” or believing that they have found a shortcut to acceptance within the black world. So, one of our cultural secrets has become public knowledge.

But I am also pretty sure that some other ethnic groups have appropriated what were originally ethnic slurs and use them ironically to assert their uniqueness, rope-a-doping the dominant culture by using apparent self-denigration to affirm their strength.  Only these (sometimes well-known) terms are generally used only within the group.

And about Black-ish:  If this episode is any indication of what the second season of the show will be like, we’re in for some very thought-provoking hilarity.

  1. Kanye West, “Gold Digger,” 2005
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