Two ABC shows have tackled the use of the N-word in school in the last week and, given the precariousness of the topic, have come up with pretty thoughtful examinations of the word and its place in modern society.
First up was the season premiere last week of “Blackish,” the situation comedy about an upscale black family that since its debut last season has frequently taken on issues of race, education, and family life in funny but thoughtful ways.
As anyone who saw the promos for the episode called “THE Word,” parents Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) are called to school because of their youngest son, Jack (Miles Brown), a 4th or 5th grader who sings the Kanye West song “Gold Digger” at the school talent show. The song’s hook includes the N-word, rhyming with “gold digger,” of course.
(The show silently bleeped each instance of the word, including digitally scrambling the mouths of characters who uttered it.)
The situation is initially played for laughs, with Rainbow wondering where her son would have heard the N-word, and then we cut to Dre singing along to the Kanye West song in the car with Jack.
But as the episode goes on, there is some serious debate about the word and about efforts by a generation of African-Americans to reclaim it, whether for a rap lyric or something else. And there is the revelation to the parents by their teenage daughter, Zoe (Yara Shahid), that her white friends with names such as Dylan, Asher, and Jacob regularly use the word in ways she doesn’t find offensive.
“I can’t believe this,” says Dre. “My generation fought to take that word back, while your sexting, insta-dumbing generation is giving it away to everybody.”
In the end (spoiler alert), Dre addresses the school board about why he thinks black people should be able to say the word.
“Paula Deen says it, and catches a little flak, but then, in turn, gets over $100 million in funding,” he says. “My son says the N-word and gets kicked out of school.”
“This whole country has been schizophrenic about what to call black people for two centuries,” Dre adds. “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,” Dre adds.
Jack’s expulsion is reduced to a suspension. And Dre tells his son that perhaps he should hold off on saying the N-word until he is old enough to understand the history of it.
Meanwhile, on “The View” on Monday, the ladies turned their “Hot Topics” discussion to a Virginia high school teacher who was suspended for uttering the word in the context of a classroom discussion of racism and the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins football team.
“The word has so much connotation and negativity,” co-host MIchelle Collins said.
“You know what?” co-host Whoopi Goldberg said. “A history teacher is teaching history. If you don’t know the history, and you don’t know why the word n***** is offensive to some people—Yes, I said it. Yeah, I said it—I don’t think you should beep ‘Roots.’ I don’t think you should not know about Huck Finn. You have to know history. These are words that were used.”
She did say the word, but “The View” bleeped it.
Not everyone would agree with the views of TV dad Dre Johnson or TV host Whoopi Goldberg on who may use the N-word. But their shows treated the issue with the depth and tenor it deserves.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.