Who Can Use Which Offensive Word? Black-ish Asks the Question

Black-ish season 2 premier asks the question: "Who can use the n-word?"

When I was a summer daycamp counselor, I overheard two white boys and their black classmate discussing skin color as one of the white boys informed the other what to call their third, black friend. Though they mispronounced it, I suddenly realized - horrified - that they were discussing "the n-word."

The trio of boys huddled together, none realizing the history or controversy surrounding the language in their mouths. I rushed into action, while being totally unsure of what to do, except to say, "We don't say that word."

But who doesn't say that word exactly? "We" as in white people? Or "we" as in all people? Or "we" as in "children at a summer daycamp"? 

These are exactly the kinds of questions black-ish tackled in the Season 2 premier this week. Son Jack says the n-word during a school talent show as he's rapping a Kanye song. The school's zero tolerance policy means swift punishment.

I heard a radio interview with Anthony Anderson, who plays the family father Dre, before the premier aired. He shared how the show attempts to address cultural topics from a humorous perspective. That aim is especially attractive to me, yet I still wasn't sure what to expect.

I was impressed with the care and humor used to discuss this topic on the show. I wish a similar approach was used more often to address society's controversial conversations, especially around race and culture. To that end, here are three takeaways from the Black-ish Season 2 premier for gracious conversations about race.

History is inescapable.

U.S. culture doesn't always like to acknowledge history. Partly because (especially as it relates to racial and ethnic groups) there are shameful acts we don't wish to remember. But also because our culture values individualism and the "self-made man" to the point that we have sometimes pushed history and context into the background.

But history has an influence on our words and the ways we interact with different groups in society. Black-ish addressed historical differences in their traditional format of broaching the topic with all three generations living in the home. 

Dre's father weighed in with use examples Dre labels as "self-hate." Dre asserts his generation reclaimed the word and that black people (and black people alone) should be able to use it. He soon learns, however, that his kids' friends use the word frequently regardless of race.

The n-word is not the only example where history impacts our language. Part of the debate around words like "Hispanic" (or the more derogatory "spic") stems from the history of Spanish oppression in Central and South American countries. History has also influenced conversation regarding "Native American" and "American Indians." The reality is that a complicated present is affected by a messy past, and our history is inescapable.

There is no one right answer.

Because I am a white person who has spent a lot of time in minority contexts, I am sometimes asked to de-code and explain language for other white people. In some cases, these conversations are really good and important. 

But other times, I feel inadequate. Because the reality is that some questions - especially those about language - don't have one simple, right answer. 

So often, majority culture wants these words clarified and simplified, and people express frustration about any ambiguity around words. What's the big deal? you might hear someone say. 

But there are unique perspectives even within specific cultural groups that speak to the words society uses. On Black-ish, Dre's wife Bow is adamant that no one should ever use the n-word due to its negativity and history. 

Dre, on the other hand, suggests the push to ban the word is because it makes white people feel uncomfortable. He even suggests that white people do not like the idea of a word existing that others can say, but they cannot. 

Layers of power, privilege, and control are the subtext in his words, and I was surprised but impressed that Black-ish went there. Outside of even this specific topic, I think it's good to ask questions about issues of power that may be influencing society's leanings.  

There is nuance as society evolves.

There is a pull to want race to be a conversation of the past. Slavery is illegal. The Civil Rights Movement happened. Let's just be done with this already. In fact, there are always people trolling around Facebook saying racism (and often race issues) no longer exist, except in the hearts of a few, individual, out-of-touch loonies.

The reality is that Jim Crow and Civil Rights are more recent than we care to admit. And currently, our society is still grappling with topics of diversity, including immigration, mass incarceration, and more. 

Hands down, the most powerful scene of Black-ish for me was Dre defending his son to the school leaders. What stood out was the call for nuance and grace. After one leader suggests no one be allowed to use the word, Dre responds, "Your people got it off A LOT... Don't you think we deserve a run at it for a while until we figure it out?" 

Later, he adds, "This whole country has been schizophrenic about what to call black people for two centuries. And the last person who should be held accountable for it is an 8-year-old boy who doesn't have an ounce of hate in his heart." (You can watch the full scene here.)

Sometimes I wish conversations about race were a thing of the past. But I don't spend too much time thinking about it because it's simply not reality. I hope we can approach more topics with grace, humor, and nuance in ways that affirm unique perspectives and move us towards deeper understanding and respect. I think Black-ish did an admirable job for a 20 minute sitcom. It got me thinking and conversat-ing, and we need new, fresh (and in my opinion, funny) ways to talk about these real topics. 

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