ABC’s hit sitcom black-ish returns with a bang this week, with its season premiere tackling the use of the N-word in popular music and culture. The episode is expected to ruffle some feathers as the show launches its second season amidst an even more strained racial climate than when it debuted last year in the wake of protests and ongoing commentary surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. But black-ish creator/writer Kenya Barris has always offered a series that picks apart some of the more nuanced aspects of black culture. This is a show that likes to start a conversation, even when it doesn’t really come up with much new to say.
The Johnsons are thrust into controversy after youngest son Jack (Miles Brown) performs a gleefully unedited version of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at a school talent show, and the school reacts by threatening to expel the youngster. Dre (Anthony Anderson) adamantly defends his son’s right to use the word, as Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and their parents (Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis) stand on the opposite side of the argument, admonishing the word as derogatory no matter where it comes from. There are some of the expected platitudes regarding white people not being allowed to determine who says the inflammatory word and how and if it’s appropriate for black people to be so cavalier with its use.
The episode goes to great lengths to try to wring commentary and comedy out of one of society’s most hot-button topics, addressing non-black appropriation of the word while also spoofing white indignation at not being “allowed” to use the term. One of the show’s funniest and shrewdest moments is when Dre’s black coworkers try to explain to their white colleagues exactly which Latinos can and can’t say the word (FYI, “Yes” to the Terror Squad, but “no” to Menudo.) It acknowledges a certain murkiness in the deciding factors while making it clear that there are still cultural absolutes even with the surface contradictions.
And this particular subject is always timely. Everyone from Chet Hanks to President Obama has been drawn into the “N-word debate” over the past several months. This week, rapper/producer David Banner posted an Instagram video questioning non-black rappers’ use of the word.
“Have you ever wondered why white rappers, or half-black rappers, or whatever you want to call them, they always wanna say the word ‘nigga’ right? But they never say ‘cracker,’ or ‘devil’ or any other derogatory term about any other race but blacks,” Banner said in the Instagram clip. “Where do you draw the line? What can’t people call you? What can’t people pay you to do? When is it enough? What do you stand for?”
It’s unclear if Banner was referring to biracial and white rappers using the term in their music or those who bemoan the fact that they are prohibited from tossing the word about with abandon. There was a backlash against rapper Post Malone on social media this month after an old video surfaced of him uttering “Yeah, we watch ‘Too Cute,’ nigga.” Malone apologized for the video during an appearance on DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz radio show on Shade 45. “Well, it was a video, I mean but it’s unacceptable and I made a mistake,” he replied. “I just wanna apologize. I guess that’s really it. I can’t really say nothing. It was wrong of me.”
This particular episode of black-ish attempts to ask a similar question as Banner. Dre’s reaction to Jack’s situation may not sit well with some viewers, but it doesn’t seem that “The Word” is meant to answer questions—especially not for the white people who may be watching. Nor should that be this show’s aim; this is a conversation that isn’t going anywhere and it certainly won’t be resolved by a half-hour sitcom. But what black-ish is doing is a presentation of a very black conversation, and this show is at its best when it manages to succinctly capture the complex and confounding aspects of navigating black culture in white spaces.
But it should be noted that black-ish has a more-than-sizable white audience. To put that in perspective, FOX’s Empire boasted a whopping 61 percent African-American audience after its first four weeks last season, according to Nielsen—more than any show in primetime history. ABC’s Shondaland staples Scandal had 37 percent and How To Get Away With Murder had 32 percent, while black-ish had a 24 percent African-American audience as of last season. A show that can sometimes feel all-too-proud to have “complex” black conversations should be mindful of letting white characters—and thus, viewers—coast on convenient ignorance or watch with a bemused detachment that ignores white culpability in these cultural phenomena.
Among pundits, there is also a tendency to center the “N-word” debate as if it supersedes the overarching issue of racism. In instances that involve the blatant racism of white people, the racism of the statement can be obvious no matter the verbiage. Famous controversies involving notables like Hulk Hogan or Riley Cooper have become catalysts for discussions about “the word,” but the national dialogue would’ve been better served by commentators focusing on the casual racism that these “I have black friends” types of bigots exhibit when they believe they are behind closed doors. In that respect, the “N-word” has become the ultimate racial red herring—a dastardly, hot-button scapegoat that can dominate panels and symposiums as everyone pretends we’re having a ”real dialogue” instead of examining white privilege or deconstructing anti-blackness.
In her Emmy speech, Viola Davis reminded everyone that there have always been Emmy-worthy black actors—if there had only been more opportunities for them to showcase their talents in content worthy of those talents. Now, these writers are creating content that speaks to black experiences but they are doing so via white outlets—which is frustrating for those who want true black artistic autonomy but necessary given the size and reach of those outlets.
Contrary to what the Matt Damons of liberal Hollywood may believe, highlighting black faces in white spaces is only superficial “progress,” and doesn’t offset the underlying need—which is for black voices on major platforms. The voice always matters. That’s why a black-ish episode about the N-word is significant: Much of the current crop of black-oriented television shows feature content that seeks quite deliberately to be representative of those black voices. When Missy (Teyonah Parris) struggles with the decision to go natural on Survivor’s Remorse, or when Jerrod Carmichael and his family on The Carmichael Show debate Black Lives Matter, there are subtleties that speak directly to the experiences of black viewers. When Laurence Fishburne’s Pops scolds Dre for his generation’s mainstreaming of the N-word, it echoes a thousand conversations that have happened between black Baby Boomers and black Gen X. The voice is why black-ish isn’t having the N-word conversation to “explain” anything to white America in as much as it’s examining black folks’ complicated relationship with the word.
You won’t come away from the black-ish season premiere with any clarity regarding the N-word—but you likely already knew where you stood long before this Wednesday at 9 p.m. Nonetheless, there is value in having art and entertainment that reflects the questions we’re asking and the conversations that we’re having. And black art is allowed to be intricate, thorny, convoluted, and non-definitive.
Regardless of who’s watching.