Back for its first episode of the 2015-2016 season, black-ish took on a hoary TV cliche and kind of won: they wrote a twenty-first century black-ish episode about the N-word. Fifteen or twenty years ago, undeniably this would have been an episode about a white friend or a misguided white rapper who yelled the epithet, and any earlier than that, it would have been a stone-cold bigot. But in this day and age, anyone can be targeted by well-meaning linguistic criticism. Jack sings the non-radio edit version of "Gold Digger" by Kanye West, including the rhyme that's usually subbed out for "broke, broke." And his school, prompted by Bow's crusade for tough punishments, claims that they have to expel him. Even though Jack sticks to his strengths — being cute and dancing — but those can't help him here.
While the crux of the episode is all about "THE N WORD" handwringing, and who can get away with saying it and who can't, it also throws in a few other hot-button parenting issues, like the whole idea of "zero-tolerance" policies that kick kids out of school rather than effectively change or punish bad behavior. And while the Johnson kids clearly attend an expensive private school, which would probably have quickly swept this under the rug, it's more interesting to watch it play out as though Jack really is going to be expelled, and watch as Bow struggles to convince administrators that this isn't the type of zero tolerance she wanted.
When the two themes intertwine, it's the episode's most interesting idea — how each generation of black Americans has influenced their children's interpretation of the word. Dre's parents, who were my favorite part of Season 1: Jennifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne, both insist that they "never" say the word, yet casually throw it around as an insult. Dre claims that after hearing it used for self-depreciation, his generation started reclaiming in a positive way, as a casual greeting. And Zoe's generation? They're still in flux. Pretty much the only parenting decision Dre and Bow can totally agree on? For the time being, school isn't the place to test the boundaries of language. And while enjoying rap music is perfectly legal, it is still fine to call out a white person who's just a little too desperate to throw around any aged racial terms, from "colored" to "Negro." black-ish remains a work in progress, but it does have stories to tell.
Image: Kelsey McNeal/ABC (2)