“Parenthood” and The “N” Word: Tackling “The Talk” On TV
Season 4 of one of our favorite TV shows, Parenthood, is in full swing and the show isn’t slacking on the tough situations: Only months after having a baby and sending her oldest child off to college, Kristine is battling breast cancer; a new character fresh from a tour in Afghanistan is being counseled by Zeke, a Vietnam War vet; Max, a bright kid with Asbergers, is facing off against mean-spirited kids in his new junior high school, and; Max and Julia are in the throws of trying to figure out how to parent their newly adopted son. And this week, the show bravely went where few shows have gone before: it tackled the “N” word.
A brief recap: Jabar, son of the interracial couple Crosby and Jasmine (Joy Bryant), hears a rapper say the word “nigga” in a lyric and asks his white father what the word means. Crosby fumbles and juggles an awkward explanation, then warns his kid not to ever say it. Then, crickets. Stumped and clueless, Crosby rushes home to his black wife to warn her about the “N” word conversation and his awkward, inadequate response, then gets a little mad when Jasmine says it’s time for her to have “The Talk” with their son about race and the words “nigger” and “nigga” and their painful past. Crosby, you see, doesn’t want to shatter his son’s innocence, and plus, he’s a bit peeved that Jasmine thinks only she can have a legit convo with their kid about race.
In a later scene, Jabar’s parents sit him down and Jasmine explains the “N” word to her child, with Crosby politely listening in while Jabar asks questions only the most innocent among us can ask when it comes to that word. Jasmine does a fine job of explaining it, with Crosby staying in his lane, providing helpful smiles and moral support for their son, but looking like he’s hearing about race and considering its impact on their son for the first time, like, ever in life. Later, he admits that he felt “irrelevant” when it came to “The Talk.”
And that, right there, is what bothered the mess out of me. I mean, as an African American mother of three black children, I readily raise my hand to say that the Parenthood writers were right to have “The Talk” come directly from Jasmine, but really, even as she’s talking to her child, the entire episode seemed to focus on Crosby’s emotional journey: he felt left out of the convo, he felt they shouldn’t be talking about race to their son, he felt like he and his black son wouldn’t be able to connect on the issue of race. And I couldn’t help but to think about how lovely it would have been if, just for once, Parenthood could have actually trained the emotional arch of an episode about race on, I don’t know, the black mom. Up until now, she’s been not much more than a stereotype—a controlling, domineering, quick-to-fly-off-the-handle, strong black woman raised by an extremely religious and controlling, strong black single mother. Until now, Jasmine’s done a lot of yelling and stomping and made some irrational, emotional decisions without much explanation, which all-too-often makes her ways fall squarely into the angry black woman trope.
What would have been revolutionary is if Parenthood actually explored “The Talk” not just through the privileged white guys eyes (seriously, it didn’t occur to him that his black son would face racism, or that the fact that he’s half white really doesn’t matter as long as his skin is brown? C’mon, son), but from the perspective of the black mom. When was Jasmine’s first experience being called “a nigger” or being on the ugly end of a racist encounter? What did her mother say to her when it happened? Did she dread this conversation with her child? Did she have any mental anguish about it? How does she reconcile the ugliness of racist white folks while being married to a white man? And how would she fold that into the race conversation with her biracial son? Had she thought at all about talking about race with her white husband until that very moment? And why, after four seasons of anger, would she be so delicate with Crosby on this particular subject, without pulling his white privilege card?
I got questions.
Of course, as a black mom raising black children, I think a lot more deeply about these things—perhaps too deeply for American TV. And while I appreciate the show taking on the subject and approaching it in a subtle, gentle way, I don’t know, I just wanted more from Parenthood.
I did, however, appreciate the scene’s wrap-up, with both parents looking at their sleeping son, and Crosby intimating that while he can’t relate to the crap that comes with being a person of color in America, it would “kill him” if someone treated his child as “less than” simply because of the color of his skin. That sentiment—wanting to keep your child from all judgment, harm and ridicule based on superficial, stereotypical beliefs—is universal. The fear of every mom and dad, but one that holds special meaning for those who are parenting black children. That one line–that one look—from Crosby said it all, and made Parenthood’s exploration of the “N” word bearable. Worth it. Check it out for yourself in the video below, just before the 28 minute mark.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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Thank you for your perspective and for giving me pause to think about it like that. I didn’t have that take at all…afterall, Parenthood is about the Bravermans and their perspective will always be at the forefront of every story told. But I see your point, it would have been nice, hell deep and responsible even, if the writers had thought to delve deeper into the race story from Jasmine’s perspective. But hey, I am a black mother raising black children too, and I already know that TV is gonna fall way short of what I would do if I were a writer. I did think they handled the subject well, and I appreciated they chose to tackle it at all…a step in the right direction!
I love Parenthood, but since the beginning I think they have tried too hard to portray the Bravermans as “post-racial,” so beyond bigotry and stereotypes that it literally wouldn’t even occur to them that their biracial son could encounter racism. As a white mom of a newborn mixed baby, I can tell you, it’s something I’ve thought about since even before I got pregnant. I am a white American, my husband is African, and we are raising an African-American baby – she will encounter racism and be pegged on-site as part of a culture that neither my husband nor I are familiar with. You can bet that we’ve had some serious conversations about how we’re going to handle that, and how we’re going to talk to our daughter about these issues. And we’re going to start early – not wait until she comes home from school with questions because someone called her a name. It’s a shame that Parenthood missed the opportunity to address this issue in a more poignant and meaningful way.
I applaud what you’ve said here, because while I love “Parenthood,” I’ve always had all the same thoughts about Jasmine’s characterization, and I definitely share your opinion about Crosby’s “deer in the headlights” reaction to the situation.
Last week’s episode prompted me to write also, but I attacked a different angle: http://thesmartness.com/smartone/2012/10/the-n-word-teaching-children-about-race-relations.html.
I am not a black woman, but I agree with your take on the episode. I am parenting a black child, and I wonder if anyone associated with the show is, because… I don’t know… it seemed kind of awkward and inauthentic at times. The ending was good, and as you said, it kind of redeemed the journey to that point. I too would like to know more about Jasmine; she needs to be fleshed out better as a character.
I disagree with you on Jasmine…The fact that she’s opinionated and stands up for what she believes in is what makes her such a great character. How many females, including black females, on television are one-note? The romance is forced and whenever there is an interracial relationship it seems so unrealistic. Would you rather Jasmine walk into a room with a weave and 3-inch pink fingernails snapping her fingers in a Z-formation and saying “Mmm-hmm” everyone two minutes?
It seems that whenever a positive non-stereotypical black female is brought to the fore-front of any industry she is tore down by so many people. Gabrielle Douglas from the Olympics, Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 2, Jasmine from Parenthood.
As for the N-word, I thought Parenthood handled it nicely. I was really expecting a big dive into race and I’m glad they didn’t take that route. By that I mean that “Racism is bad folks…” type of episodes you used to see a lot in the 90’s.
The only issue I had a problem with was the issue of Jabbar’s racial mix not being addressed. According to the U.S. census more people are identifying themselves as mix raced. Not only that but the one-drop rule is a thing of the past and at the end of the day, no matter which way you look at it, Jabbar still has one white parent.
On the last note I had no problem with the show taking Crosby’s perspective on the issue. I’m sure there is a significant amount of white fathers (some even single fathers) out there who are raising mixed race and not quite sure how to address the issues. I’m sure some have even (innocently) made the mistake of using examples like “voldemort” overall great episode. I was losing faith in this season with the departure of Haddie but I’m very happy they brought this up.
I actually really liked that episode. I do see your point but I also see it from the perspective of Crosby. It actually reminded me of my husband. We are a mixed family and even though in theory he understands that racism occurs and he has seen it first hand, because of the people we surround ourselves with, our friends, our family, the neighborhood we live in, race really doesn’t come to play in our day to day existence. He sees his kids are not white, but it didn’t really occur to him what they would face until I had an experience myself and he saw my treatment first hand. He was pretty shaken by it. Mostly because he was so angered by my treatment but also because it became a reality for him at that time. We lived in this idyllic environment and I guess when those things don’t happen to you on a regular basis you don’t expect it and you think it happens outside our world but not to us. I actually felt for my husband the way Jasmine responded to Crosby. Imagine when you were a kid and life was happy and safe and you had your first experience with racism, it breaks you a little. That’s what it was like for my husband because for the longest time he knew it was other people’s reality but then suddenly it became his and his kids, the people who are most important to him… it shattered him a bit. It was sad to see that.