In the ’50s, NBC was the first network to ban the N-word from its radio waves. In the ’70s, NBC sitcom “Sanford & Son” used the word several times, with no shortage of controversy. This week, the word was used several times on NBC’s critically acclaimed drama “Parenthood.”
At no point was the hateful, aggressive word used out of hate or aggression. It was, instead, used to propel a storyline that explored the meaning of the word in 2012 and the complications of explaining a devastating history to a very young child. Within the context of that story, “Parenthood” also addressed white privilege in a refreshing uninhibited way.
This is ground that hasn’t been covered on broadcast TV, and a story that sticks with the viewer in the best way, making you think about history, experience, and internalized racism without a “very special episode” vibe. Any parent would do well to watch this expertly written and acted episode.
Here’s how it goes down. Jabbar (Tyree Brown) is visiting Crosby (Dax Shepard) at the recording studio while they listen to a rapper record his song. When the rapper drops the word, Crosby doesn’t even flinch or react at all — until his very young son taps him and asks him what it means. It’s the first time that Crosby, who is white, has been faced with any sort of parenting problem that involves his son’s race.
Later, Crosby tells his wife, Jasmine (Joy Bryant), who is black, about the incident. “Like with an ‘a’ or ‘er’?” she asks, then shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
Crosby explains that he told Jabbar it was a terrible word — “Like Voldemort, from ‘Harry Potter,’ he who shall not be named,” he says. Of course, Jasmine immediately tells him that the word is nothing like “Voldemort.” It’s a really well-written example of ingrained white privilege, and the way that well-intentioned white people can be made uncomfortable and even outraged by the word’s use, but can’t ever truly relate to its power and its history.
“You don’t have to be sorry. Of course you wouldn’t know how to handle it,” Jasmine says. In that moment, there is a chasm between Crosby and his son that simply can’t be bridged. “Parenthood” doesn’t attempt to be preachy; there’s no morality police here. The characters are simply allowed to be imperfect parents tackling a problem without a clear solution. Obviously, there are countless white parents with children of color, be it because their children are mixed-race or because they’re adopted — so while it’s jarring to see this addressed on television, it’s something parents deal with on a regular basis. Crosby’s complete lack of experience with racism and intolerance isn’t a character flaw, but it makes him ill-equipped to speak to his son about racism and the way that it applies to their family.
When Crosby and Jasmine discuss how to talk to Jabbar, Crosby is hesitant to “shatter his innocence,” but Jasmine is adamant that there’s a conversation that needs to be had. “I feel like you’re pulling rank a little bit because… because you’re black, yeah,” he says.
“Baby, you have to respect the fact that I have an understanding on the subject that you don’t, and the fact is, that word means something different to Jabbar because he’s black,” she replies. There’s no animosity in her tone, she doesn’t blame Crosby for his naivete or ignorance. She’s matter-of-fact, smart, and doing the best that she can as a mother facing unfortunate circumstances.
The episode explores the perspectives of both parents and allows their experiences to inform their decisions. Ultimately, Jasmine explains the history of the word and the way that it feels to Jabbar, and in some ways, also explains it to Crosby. Perhaps the most telling moment of the conversation is when Jabbar asks, “Can people call me that word?”
Crosby says vehemently, “They better not,” and Jasmine adds, “But they might.” In that exchange, they are both trying to protect their son, in very different ways. The conversation fades out as the music swells, the camera intent on Crosby’s reactions as he sees his family in a new light and feels strangely irrelevant. Later, he asks Jasmine if she’s ever been “made to feel less than.” When she says yes, his simple, “I’m sorry” is so genuine and touching — but it’s not lost on the audience that the apology, too, is ineffectual.
The actors’ performances are frank, relatable, and deft. If there was anybody left in the world who thinks of Shepard as that goofy guy from “Punk’d,” this episode should eliminate that, and Bryant portrayed Jasmine’s unique combination of determination and sadness beautifully. Jasmine came off as wise and strong in this episode.
Executive producer Jason Katims and the episode’s writer, Sarah Watson,
are both white. Using the N-word several times in the context of the
episode was a bold choice, and probably an intimidating one. Hearing the word used several times over the course of the hour made me increasingly uncomfortable — as it should have — but by the end of the episode, I was awed by the frankness with which the writers explored this uncharted territory. Not only was the context of the word explored from the perspective of the black characters, but the white privilege that informs my own uneasiness was also addressed.
It’s a quintessential example of what makes “Parenthood” one of the best shows on television right now. In addition to the N-word issue, this episode explored an on-spectrum child being bullied at school, a woman making decisions about her cancer treatment, adoption issues, a man feeling alienated from his daughter, and a young veteran unsure about how to fit back into his life after returning from war. It’s all heavy stuff. But it’s explored without judgment or reservations, and it makes not only for entertaining television, but also for responsible television. “Parenthood” understands that television simultaneously reflects and influences our culture, and it respects that.
“Parenthood” fans, I’m very interested to see how you feel about this particular aspect of the episode. Please feel free to drop in on the comments section with your own opinions and experiences!