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.