On the season premiere of ABC’s Emmy-nominated black-ish, which returned last night for a second season, the Johnson’s youngest son Jack (Miles Brown) is expelled from school for saying the n-word while innocently rapping Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” There’s a zero-tolerance policy, and even though Jack doesn’t say it in a hateful way, or even call someone else the n-word, he still gets in trouble.
His dad Dre (Anthony Anderson) asks his black co-workers why they say “THE word,” to quote the episode’s title. One responds it’s a “great rhyming word,” and the other only thinks it’s fine to use because he’s a spineless suck-up; if his boss Dre finds nothing wrong with a black person using it, then he doesn’t, either. And vice versa. Dre grows more and more confused, especially after talking to the school’s strict black principal. Can anyone say it?
If black-ish doesn’t come to any clear answers, it’s hardly alone in grappling with the question. Let’s explore how eight other TV shows mined similar “THE word” territory.
All in the Family
Archie Bunker freely used the derogatory term “coons,” but he didn’t say the n-word until season eight’s “Two’s a Crowd,” a superb exploration of where racism comes from. For Archie, it was passed on from his abusive father, who freely called black people the n-word, so he does, too. At least until he gets beaten up by a black student at school. “Did you ever possibly stop to think that your father could be wrong?” his son-in-law Mike asks while they’re trapped in a closet (hey, it’s a sitcom). The question enrages Archie, who responds, “You’re supposed to love your father because your father loves you. And how could any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?” It’s a tragic admission: Archie didn’t get money from his dad; he inherited intolerance. It’s up to the next generation, in this case Mike’s, to correct Archie’s mistakes.
The Boondocks may hold the unofficial World Record for Most Uses of the N-Word In One Scene. Mr. Petto, Riley’s white school teacher at J. Edgar Hoover Elementary School, utters it no less than 14 times in a single monologue, explaining to the administration how he doesn’t think it means anything anymore, because his students, in particular Riley, repeat it all the time. “He says it so much,” Mr. Petto pleads, “I don’t even notice it anymore. Last week in lunch, Riley said to a classmate, ‘Can a n*gga borrow a french fry?’ And my first thought wasn’t, ‘Oh my God. He said the word, uh, the n-word.’ It was, ‘How is a n*gga gonna borrow a fry? N*gga, is you gonna give it back?’ I’m telling you, my inside voice didn’t talk like that before he got in my class.” Mr. Petto doesn’t use it to be racist; the poor guy’s generally confused, especially about the difference between the word ending in “-a” or “-er.” It’s based off a real incident, too.