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.
The underrated Boston Public won a Peabody Award for “Chapter Thirty-Seven,” a second-season episode that looked at how, to quote an L.A. Times article published at the time, “some black youths freely use the word not only among themselves as a term of endearment, but also with some of their white friends — and vice versa.” One of the school’s instructors, Danny Hanson (Michael Rapaport), uses the word to make a point about double standards to his students, which incenses another teacher, Marla, who’s black. The episode does an admirable job of examining the harmful history of the n-word, and how there are no quick solutions. In that same L.A. Times story, the show’s star, Chi McBride, who deserved an Emmy for his work here, offered a suggestion: “The only thing that’s going to make some people happy is everybody stop using the word right now. OK, that lasted a couple of seconds. What next?”
It’s understandable why Dave Chappelle backed out of doing a third season of Chappelle’s Show (those three so-called “lost episodes” don’t count). Would you want a legion of idiots approaching you on the street, screaming “I’m Rick James, bitch!“? And even that’s preferable to someone, particularly someone who’s white, loudly quoting one of the show’s most famous (and best) sketches, “The Niggar Family,” which satirizes Leave It to Beaver and pokes fun at social norms in the context of when they were accepted. A single letter in a single word is the difference between a family’s last name and one of the worst words in the English language. In the wrong hands, “The Niggar Family” would be a disaster. In Chappelle’s, it’s a classic.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Can a white person say the n-word when they’re calling someone else out for using it? That’s the premise of the aptly-titled Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, “The N-Word,” and the answer is, no, of course not. Larry is telling Jeff and Susie about this “unbelievable asshole” who said “n*gger” while talking on his cell phone in the bathroom. Loretta walks in the second he drops the n-bomb, and she furiously scolds him. Soon, the entire Black family, including Leon and Auntie Rae, is on the balcony, yelling at Larry, who was only “quoting someone,” an awful, hateful human being.
There were many “very special episodes” of Family Matters, but “Fight the Good Fight” was the most special. When Laura recommends that her school does something for Black History Month, she’s greeted by someone spray painting the n-word on her locker. It was a serious moment on an otherwise goofy, catchphrase-spouting TGIF show, which is why, by episode’s end, everything’s back to normal and Black History classes are added to the school curriculum.
And then never mentioned again.
Randy Marsh may be a drunk, and temperamental, and easily swayed, and bitter that his boy band career was cut short, and, worst of all, a Blockbuster video-store owner, but he’s not a racist. He doesn’t want to fill-in-the-blank for “N_GGERS” on Wheel of Fortune with that word, but he can’t think of another letter that would fit. The actual answer is, of course, “NAGGERS,” but Randy says that word, and immediately gets branded the “n*gger guy.” Other “n*gger guys,” including Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards, come to his assistance, and they successfully pass a law in Congress that says “if a person uses the word ‘n*gger,’ it must be at least seven words away from the word ‘guy.’ ” The oblivious white people cheer, the black people remain silent.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Seven-hundred and twenty-three. That’s how many episodes of the Star Trek franchise have aired on TV, from The Original Series to Enterprise (this number includes the ill-fated Animated Series). And only once has the n-word come up. Not that you’d expect it to be an every-week occurrence — the point of Star Trek is a future of tolerance and respect among cultures and races. But the racial slur pops up in an episode of Deep Space Nine, “Far Beyond the Stars,” when Captain Sisko has visions of 1950s America. While there, he takes on the identity of Benny Russell and befriends a Harlem hustler named Jimmy who tells him, “Well I got news for you… today or a hundred years from now don’t make a bit of difference. As far as they’re concerned, we’ll always be n*ggers.” The reason he’s so upset, besides the obvious, is that a story Benny wrote was rejected for publication for being too out there. What was it about?
A black space captain.