On tonight’s episode of NBC’s The Carmichael Show, the Carmichael family goes to an upscale restaurant owned by a white friend of Jerrod’s to celebrate his mother, Cynthia’s, birthday. When they arrive, Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael, the co-creator and star of the series) thanks his friend, who responds, “Anything for you my nigga, you know that.” Jerrod doesn’t skip a beat, but his entire family views it as a racial slur.
A more heated exchange takes place between friends in the fifth episode of Netflix’s Dear White People. The star of the episode, Reggie (Marque Richardson) responds very differently when his white friend, Addison, raps along to Future’s “Trap Niggas” at a party and says the N-word in the lyrics. Calmly, Reggie asks his friend not to repeat it, but Addison becomes defensive and doesn’t respect Reggie’s point of view: that a white person should never utter the word.
Jerrod and Reggie represent the opposing sides of a debate within the black community about who’s allowed to use the N-word, an issue that reverberated on the national stage recently when Bill Maher used it in a tone-deaf joke, referring to himself as a “house nigger” on his HBO talk show. In the following week’s episode, he was schooled by guests Ice Cube, pundit Symone D. Sanders, and author Michael Eric Dyson about the pain the epithet evokes.
It’s a conversation that’s been popping up on scripted TV more and more, as the medium’s exponential growth has made room for more diverse voices in front of and behind the camera. Nearly two years ago, ABC’s Black-ish aired an episode about the Johnson family’s reaction to their youngest son (Miles Brown) getting suspended from school for using the N-word while singing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” in a talent competition; also in the episode, Dre (Anthony Anderson) is stunned to learn that his eldest daughter’s white classmates use the word in text conversations with her. Last fall, Atlanta dealt with the question of boundaries in its pilot when a white character appropriating black culture feels comfortable using the slur in front of Earn (Donald Glover), but not in front of an older janitor or Earn’s rapper cousin. And in the eighth episode of Netflix’s 1970s-set The Get Down, released this year, a jerky, white frat boy uses the epithet and another racial slur to insult the show’s protagonist, Zeke (Justice Smith).
On Dear White People, the incident at the party escalates, a fight breaks out, and Reggie winds up with a cop’s gun pointed at his head. “There was a lot of discussion about the tone and the transition of the show and, ‘Are we saying something that hasn’t been said already?’,” said show creator Justin Simien. When he originally explained the story for the Reggie episode to Netflix — and noted that he wanted to spend the rest of the season exploring “the reality of being black and having that be fatal in this country” — the executives hesitated, even though the streaming giant has a reputation for allowing producers unprecedented creative freedom. “There was a lot of convincing and a lot of versions of it that had to come into place to make everybody feel comfortable with what we’re doing, but once we had the story fleshed out and once we had the script, everybody got it,” he continued. “This is something that’s being talked about all the time, so for us, as artists, not to talk about it would feel irresponsible. We are in an age where television is willing to take more risks. A lot of us are having an opportunity, for perhaps the first time in our lives, to put in our art what we have been talking about in private for a long time.”
The TV boom has coincided with the country’s tense and divisive political climate, which Simien believes has only helped storytellers like him. “I think the post-racial veneer is completely gone,” he said. “Every few years, America has to come to terms that it is still deeply racist. The fact that racism can be blatant now because of our president has helped, ironically, because people see the conversation needs to happen. What I am seeing amongst my liberal friends, especially, white, male, straight friends who never had to consider these things before, is that they are getting it now.”
Because there is no consensus in the black community about the use of the word by black people among themselves or in mixed company — let alone the use of the word by non-black people — the topic is ripe for the kind of multigenerational and contextual analysis used on shows like Black-ish. The Carmichaels take a similar approach in tonight’s episode, “Cynthia’s Birthday.” While on Black-ish, creator Kenya Barris bleeped the word every time it was used (“The bleep in a weird way makes you hear it even louder,” he told Vulture in an interview at the time), on The Carmichael Show, there is no barrier between the word and the audience — it is used six times in three distinct ways. NBC would only allow the full use of the word if a unique point of view was presented in the episode, according to showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel.
“It’s our instinct to go directly into the fire,” said co-creator Ari Katcher, who co-wrote the episode with Carmichael. “You want to be direct as possible because in life you don’t have to deal with someone almost saying the word. You deal with what happens when somebody says the word. Jerrod and I talked a lot about the different points of view. His is, if we can’t control people saying it, we can only control our reaction to the word, so if we’re going to be hurt by it, we’re just giving them a weapon to be used on us whenever they want. That’s legitimate, but I also see the other point of view — this is a word that represents everything bad that happened to the black community, it’s meant to be said in hate, and we should react accordingly.”
Carmichael, like his namesake character, believes that the more the word is used by everyone, the less power it has. The comedian was not available for an interview, but as a recent guest on Norman Lear’s podcast All of the Above, he explained why he sees no point to attempting to ban it. “People think it’s stopping hatred,” he said. “It doesn’t stop hatred, and it doesn’t stop painful language. What it does is preserve a word and make it more dangerous. If it’s free, if we free the word, then perhaps it will be less dangerous and you won’t feel the need to fight the person who says it.”
In the episode, Jerrod’s girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), asks him, “How can you be so nonchalant about that word? It has such a history of hate. It’s the last word that so many black people heard as they were hung from trees.” He retorts: “I don’t think the problem in that scenario is the word — it’s the hanging. If you ask me, the black community gets way too caught up on that word. It’s just a distraction. We should focus on things that matter, like voter suppression.”
During the course of his daily life and in his stand-up, Carmichael, 30, freely uses the word. That means if you work with him, you’re going to hear it. So Sanchez-Witzel says she finds it necessary to warn prospective job candidates so they are not caught off guard. “He does use it as a term of familiarity, and sometimes I think he uses it to get a rise out of people,” she said. “That’s who he is and what his brand of comedy is. He is somebody who challenges people, period, about everything, and so this is one topic that he certainly challenged the writers room about a lot. Even with everyone knowing this about Jerrod, it’s not comfortable. It just isn’t. It never should be a comfortable word for people. Nobody in the writer’s room will just use it, but he will.”
Like Anthony Anderson’s character on Black-ish, Barris, 42, told Vulture he uses the word, too, but not usually in front of people who aren’t black. “I came from the generation where we took it and made it our tribal call, our brotherhood, our global patch of saying we’ve been through this together,” he said.
Simien, 34, prefers not to use the word in his personal life, but sees it as necessary to his art. “White people didn’t exist before the 17th century as a race class in this country,” he said. “The invention of the nigger was the alternative to white. It represented everyone that was dark-skinned and from Africa. They were subhuman. That word is not just a hard word or a negative word. It has a direct link to systemic racism in this country, so it is a hard word for me to hear. As an artist, I think it’s important to use it because I have to reflect people and how they speak and because I want to talk about the word. But it’s not an easy word to use and it always hits me some kind of way no matter who says it.”
On The Carmichael Show, when Maxine herself ends up using the word to angrily defend the family, everyone agrees her way of expressing it is more hateful than the white friend’s version. “I think that’s the true thing about harsh words,” Katcher said. “A lot of times, you look at this as black and white or what’s right or wrong. But what it comes down to is intention. Did it feel wrong? Which is a hard thing to quantify.”
Ultimately, the Carmichael writers wanted to use the N-word to explore the rules and limitations that cultures impose on themselves. “In all our stories we’re presenting discussions that we find interesting and that don’t end with an answer,” Sanchez-Witzel said. “There is no answer as to who can use the word.”
To attempt to set strict rules around the use of the word flies in the face of freedom of speech, Simien agrees. But he still can’t ignore the pain he feels when he hears white people laughing in a theater at scenes of Jamie Foxx repeatedly being called the slur in Django Unchained, or when it casually spilled out of Maher’s mouth. “It was so obvious that Bill was uninformed about all sorts of histories in the way he used the word,” Simien said. “It’s just hard for me to imagine that a white person who intimately understands the history of the word would use it so flippantly. And that’s exactly why it being such a charged word is important right now. So many people, black or white, have the luxury of never considering the origin of the word and the origins of slavery.”
When he’s been in Reggie’s shoes in his own life, Simien says he’s usually at a loss as to how to react. “I certainly have had friends who use it around me in either an ironic way or to be funny and it’s always very awkward because these are people I love very much, and in the meta sense, they’re like, ‘well, why can’t we use every word in the human language?’,” Simien said. “There have been times I’ve been silent; there are times I’ve been complicit; and there are times when I’ve had an argument about it. But it has absolutely come up in my life a lot, and I think any black person who hangs out with all kinds of groups of people is going to experience that many times. What transpired in this country toward people of color and black people in particular is so horrible, it breaks my heart. I can’t separate the word from its history, especially when the country refuses to deal with that history in a straightforward way.”
On his show, Simien used the N-word to explore racism as a system instead of an attitude. Even though the white men who argue with Reggie are not racist, their defensiveness leads them to unwittingly support the system of racism.
“For me it wasn’t so much about the rules, like can you or can’t you, it was more about what happens when you,” he said. “That story was really important to me because this is the thing that comes up all the time in pop culture. We all listen to this music, we all watch the same comedians, and we watch the same TV shows. Logically, why aren’t we allowed to say the word? To me, that’s beside the point. What’s more interesting is, what are the systems that made this word so powerful in the first place, and do they still exist, and are they still in the undercurrents of our lives? I would say from my own experience, they certainly are.”
Tonight’s Carmichael episode ends with a surprise N-word utterance from the birthday girl herself, who has been arguing against anyone using the slur for the entire episode. The moment is shocking from the character’s perspective, but it’s Loretta Devine’s colloquial delivery that makes the joke soar. Even Katcher, who co-wrote it, was floored. “It had a lot of power,” he said. “Hearing it is a little more jarring than you’d expect. It was an interesting acting choice she made.” The audience on tape night laughed so loudly, producers had to lower the volume of the reaction in editing. And as soon as you are finished laughing, you can’t help but wonder if you should be laughing.