The second season premiere of Black-ish aired September 23, 2015 with a controversial topic. The episode, titled “The Word,” dealt with the usage of the n-word.
In the episode, Jack Johnson performed the uncensored version of “Gold Digger” by Kanye West. After singing the n-word, he was expelled for using hate speech. The usage of the word by an innocent child with no malicious intent led to a discussion of the word by the whole family. The views varied by person and there were clear generational differences in the views. Ruby and Pops viewed it negatively, Bow didn’t think anyone should use it, Dre said his generation reclaimed it as a positive term, and Zoey didn’t mind her white friends using it. Each generation disagreed with the views of other generations.
Dre discussed the word at work where white coworkers chimed in. Clueless white coworkers suggested the terms “African American,” “colored,” and “negro”. Charles and Curtis were visibly upset at “colored” and “negro”. The latter two words are seen unfavorably, but the episode discussed how prominent black advocacy groups (The National Associated for the Advancement of Color People and United Negro College Fund) utilize the words. A character noted, “you know, that group has been sending mixed messages for a long time.”
Charles and Curtis broke down who could and could not use the word: Mexicans could not, but some Puerto Ricans could. J.Lo Puerto Ricans could not use it, but Rosie Perez Puerto Ricans could. Menudo could not, the Terror Squad could.
The episode explored racial identity in relation to the n-word in a comedic way. However, as comedic as it was, the discussion is important particularly in light of where the United States as a country is. With movements such as Black Lives Matter, Matt Damon’s view on diversity in entertainment, and insensitive remarks from political candidates, the episode added to a necessary discussion.
Showrunner Kenya Barris illustrates the importance of diversity not only in front of the camera, but also behind the scenes. Diversity allowed writers to create a dialogue of an issue faced by the black community. The healthy discussion about identity is important because as was shown, everyone in the black community views things differently. Ultimately episode concluded that the only people who should participate in the discussions of identity, especially in this case, should be black people. They are the ones who can decide how they feel about the usage of different terminology. Their identity is one they are working out on their own without the input of others. Dre argued that black people deserved a run at it to figure out what they thought about it.
What everyone should learn from the episode is that identity is not set. Views change from generation to generation and from person to person, while some may not even be sure what they feel about the word. From the rest of America, there must be a willingness to listen to others and respect their wishes. The show explores the different opinions of the characters on the usage of the word, but ultimately allows viewers to make the decision. Jack is told he can use it if he decides to when he understands the history of the word.
In a larger context, to become a country whose diversity is a strength rather than a weakness, we must engage in conversations about our racial identity (whether you are black, white, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern or something else) as well as how our differences and shared identity makes us American. It’s exciting to see a show that is bringing the discussion into homes via traditional media.
Black-ish airs on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.