The Story Behind Black-ish’s Provocative N-Word Episode

Dre and Jack. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC

When Black-ish creator Kenya Barris found texts on his 16-year-old daughter’s phone from a few of her white male friends invoking the N-word, he lost it.

“I was like, Hold on! Why are these people saying this?” Barris recalled during a phone interview with Vulture. “She was like —What, what, Dad? Everybody says it. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just a word. I was like, WHAT? I went off on her. Do you know this isn’t just a word? And I realized her relationship to it was just completely different than the way I was seeing it.”

It also birthed the thought-provoking and super-funny second-season premiere of Black-ish, ABC’s comedy about an upper-middle-class black family living in Los Angeles. In “The Word,” adorable Jack Johnson (Miles Brown) performs Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at school — N-word and all — and sparks a feisty 22-minute generational and multicultural debate about the use of the epithet that undoubtedly left the audience pondering some new ideas. (Read: It’s okay for Rosie Perez–type Puerto Ricans to invoke that word; but it’s not okay for J.Lo-type Puerto Ricans to do so.)

The day before the show aired, Barris admitted to Vulture that he was “terrified” about releasing the episode, but he thinks it’s the right time for our country to have this discussion. 

Why did you decide to do an entire show about this word but we never hear it? In every instance, you bleeped it.
It was an easier entry point. Hearing it is a little bit hard. The bleep in a weird way makes you hear it even louder. But it still allows you to get into the drama and the comedy of the scene without making you feel ostracized. You’re still hearing it as loud, if not louder, than ever before. That was the biggest thing — not to have a barrier to the comedic entry point.

It was impressive how you packed in all these points of view and how conflicted people are and how charged the issue is, depending on who you are. How hard was it to balance all of that since you’re doing a sitcom and don’t have a lot of time?
We really wanted to make it like a documentary — a moment in a family’s life that would just start a conversation. That’s what we try to do for the show in general — just start a conversation. In a Norman Lear–esque kind of way, we try to show the different points of views on different topics because that’s what a family is. I have five kids, and people can say nature versus nurture. But it is nature! Nurture has so little to do with it. I have five kids and there are five totally different people in my house. Whenever you put a family together they may share some points of views and morals, but there are going to be differences. The other thing you get from your family is how you deal with other people’s point of view. That’s the learned behavior — how you allow yourself to exit a conversation differently from when you enter it.

Some people might learn from the differences in the generational reactions from the Johnson family. Were you intentionally trying to teach?
Norman Lear was doing stuff 35 years ago where it was so much ahead of the curve. We’re now supposed to be this evolved society, but we’re talking about things less than ever. We get into a place where we talk about things in a faddy way. We’re able to open up about things that catch the Zeitgeist — the things that aren’t comfortable, we don’t want to talk about them.

Jill Soloway is a friend of mine. She does Transparent and she’s amazingly funny and brilliant and bright. And I love her show. But it’s interesting to me that this is the year of transgender topics. When did it not become the year for racial topics or women’s rights? Or cancer? So we go in these cycles. It’s like adopting an African baby. Or the Ice Bucket Challenge!

We take up things in this country that become the in thing to do and that becomes what we are and what we’re talking about. And I feel like we’re better than that. We should be aware and constantly having conversations about the world because that’s how you change it from the bigger standpoint rather than acutely trying to change things. We have to get into a place where we are able to have conversations, and it starts with the family. It starts within the home. If you don’t put yourself in the place in your home where you talk about things going on in the world — you only talk about what’s hip and hot — then nothing ever gets solved.

Where do you personally stand?
Oh, I am Dre! I say it. I don’t say it in mixed company too often, but I came from the generation where we took [the N-word] and made it our tribal call, our brotherhood, our global patch of saying we’ve been through this together.

And the Johnson grandparents feel very differently. Are they like your parents?
They went through it in a different way. Context is king. And their context and their relationship to it is different than my relationship to it, which is different than my kids’s relationship to it. Context and that relationship builds your perception, which becomes your reality. Maybe my mom will look at this and have a different context to the word than what she did going into it.

My biggest hope for this is that my daughter’s context builds and grows, that she understands it from a bigger standpoint. All you can do as a parent is try is explain how you see it as well and hopefully that expands their viewpoint of it so that when she decides how she’s going to continue to embrace this particular word or any problem, she’s better informed.

Did you choose Jack to be the instigator on purpose because he’s so damn cute?
In some aspects — yes. We really wanted malice not to be a part of it — it immediately took you out of the ugliness of it. He wasn’t being ugly or malicious. It’s a kid saying a word. My kids go to private school and hate speech has been given zero tolerance, and I think that’s great and really important. Once you’re able to see that he didn’t have malice about it, it opens you up to the conversation a lot more.

This interview has been edited and condensed