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Black-ish recap: The Word

Whose word is it anyway?

Posted on

Kelsey McNeal/ABC


TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Anthony Anderson, Miles Brown, Laurence Fishburne, Marsai Martin, Tracee Ellis Ross, Marcus Scribner, Yara Shahidi

After a heated summer of headlines that brought important issues to the forefront of many people’s minds, black-ish returns with an episode that promises to keep the conversation going. And how: The premiere prominently features a frank discussion of a very timely but sensitive and, yes, divisive topic: water conservation.

Did you know that small measures like cutting down on lawn-sprinkler usage and taking shorter showers can make a big ecological impact? Junior does. He’s urging his family to be more water-conscious. Environmental friendliess is very important — their home state of California is in a drought, after all!

But Junior’s crusade is mostly overshadowed by the goings-on of the other, younger, dimple-ier Johnson boy, Jack. You see, little Jack is a big fan of “Gold Digger,” the 2005 chart-topping song released by future fashion designer Kanye West. (Did you even remember that he was a rapper?) So Jack performs this pre-Drake oldie at his school’s talent show and, in the true spirit of Yeezus, he decides not to censor a thing — n-word included. This is frowned-upon at Valley Glen Prep, Jack learns, and he ends up suspended thanks to his private school’s strict zero-tolerance policy on hate speech.

Upon learning of their son’s controversial new vocab word, how do the Johnson parents react? The way they always do: by arguing in the kitchen in front of a wax figure of Laurence Fishburne. Dre, for one, is outraged that Jack is being punished. As a middle-aged rap fan who forged his beliefs a generation ago, he has no problem with black people taking the slur and making it their own. (Also, this is basically all Dre’s fault — he introduced Jack to “Gold Digger” himself.) But Bow deems the word unacceptable in any circumstance, citing its “ugly, hate-filled history.” (Also, this is basically all Bow’s fault — she wrote the school’s rulebook herself.)

The Laurence Fishburne wax figure also has thoughts on the matter: “Of course every now and then it slips out! But it’s never said casually, and never in mixed company.” And unlike Dre, the wax figure of Laurence Fishburne doesn’t use the word to mean “buddy” as much as he does “dummy.” Even Dre’s mom manages to escape from wherever the family keeps her to declare her point of view, which lines up with Dre’s dad’s: “It’s only a judgment said with disdainful indictment.”

That gives us no less than three different viewpoints on the n-word’s place in modern society, expressed by four different black people — and zero white people. To amend that, the show takes us to Dre’s work, where the Johnson family’s predicament has turned into the office water-cooler talk. Hot takes abound! “You know what word I miss? Colored,” says Mr. Stevens. He ventures that maybe he can still use the word, because the NAACP. Josh is confused, too, so Dre lays it out for all of the office whites: “All you need to know is that it’s not okay for you to say the n-word.”

Who can? Let the office’s resident non-Dre black people, Charles and Allen, explain! From their helpful whiteboard:

Okay to Say:

1) African Americans

2) Doms

3) PR

Not Okay to Say:

1) Mexicans

2) Nigerians (or any other Africans)

3) Police Officers

“Doms” and “PR” is supposed to mean Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, though not in all cases. “J. Lo Puerto Ricans” can’t use the word, but Rosie Perez ones can. Big Pun and Fat Joe are good to go, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin aren’t. “Basically, the whole Terror Squad can say it,” Charles clarifies, “but not Menudo.” Bill Clinton can maybe say the word; Don Lemon definitely cannot.

So much to learn! Except for the suspended Jack, who, you might recall, is the reason this academic exercise is taking place at all. Regardless of their positions, Dre and Bow can agree on getting Jack, now facing expulsion, back into school. Dre thinks he catches a break when he meets with the new principal, the black Mr. Green. “Oh snap, look at this young Denzel, baby!” Dre exclaims. “Lookin’ like St. Elsewhere!” Dre proceeds to quote a two-word line from another Denzel Washington property, Training Day. One of those words is that word, however, and Mr. Green looks about as amused Ethan Hawke in Training Day.

This, along with some skeptical coworkers, throws Dre into a crisis. Seeing other black people have such strong, negative reactions to the term makes him wonder, “Was my precious word actually a bad thing?”

Things get worse when Zoey reveals that her friends use the n-word all the time. Which friends? “Dylan… Asher… Jacob.” White boys!! Dre is beside himself with disbelief. “It’s not like they mean anything by it,” she tells him. “It’s just a word.”

This sets Dre off. “My son should be able to use the n-word until his heart’s content, and Asher shouldn’t!” As usual with black-ish, the problem is interpreted as a generational divide — his fought to take the word back, and Zoey’s is just giving it away for free. Laurence Fishburne’s wax figure says the blame starts with Dre’s rap-pioneering generation, claiming that hip-hop culture made the word too readily available to the mainstream.

Full of emotion, Dre storms back into the school to help Bow make Jack’s case in front of the board. “The way I see it, like most rules, they only work against people who look like me,” he declares. “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.” Paula Deen is evoked.

And it works! The school board lets Jack back into the school, and all is forgiven. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions raised by the episode. Who was right today? Which side was the correct one? Whose example should we follow?

The answer is easy: Junior. We should all be trying to save the planet!

See you next episode, when Jack’s school tackles To Kill a Mockingbird in class. (Just kidding! It’s Go Set a Watchman.)


Andre: Dammit, it’s his birthright! Jewish kids get to go to Israel, black kids get to say this.

Bow: Nope! Not going to be the only black family in the neighborhood with a brown lawn.

Laura: Let’s all just take it down a notch, maybe reholster our firearms … Charles.

Dre: You know, that group been sending mixed messages for a long time.

Josh: Negro is still bad, right?

Mr. Green: Didn’t you write the rulebook?

Bow: Oh, well … just the foreward.

Pops: Public school ain’t so bad. What’s the sense of sending your children to a fancy-schmancy school if they’re going to be the brokest ones there!

Jack: I don’t want to learn a good lesson!

Dre: It was arguably Denzel’s best work!

Pops: It was aight.

Neighbor Janine: Oh, why thank you—I got them at Zappos!

Bow: The thing about zero-tolerance is that it doesn’t really mean zero-tolerance! It just sounds better than “one-tolerance.”

Bow: I just think there’s some hateful things that we should be allowed to say! You know how women say hateful things, but as a term of endearment? Oh, you gotta go? Okay, I’ll talk to you later, slut!

Josh: This feels like a horrible system.

Zoey: I do know one Tyrone! But he’s in jail.

Rudy: Mmmhph, that can happen to Tyrones.