When Insecure premiered Season 3 last summer, characters used the N-word approximately 18 times in 22 minutes, in different contexts. In one instance, girls hop into Issa's (Issa Rae) "party Lyft" and announce how eager they are to find some n---as at the club, in this case meaning hot, eligible bachelors. At another point, Molly's (Yvonne Orji) hookup buddy Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson) wouldn't get out of her apartment as she'd gently suggested, so she snaps him to attention with a single, forceful "N---a!" — which everybody who understands this vernacular knows to be shorthand for I'm very serious right now.
Appreciating Insecure, or for that matter, Atlanta, Dear White People or the other acclaimed series from black writers and producers who are leading this new Black TV Renaissance, does not require an understanding of the nuances of black American expression, but it helps, especially when it comes to how to hear and process that charged word. Up until very recently, n---er — likely a bastardization by Southern white people of "niger," the Latin word for black — had only one purpose: to verbalize the idea that black people are intellectually, socially, and emotionally inept. And though the cultural shifts that have taken place could never erase the word's ties to bondage, racial violence, Jim Crow, and systematic oppression, a new vanguard of African Americans with power and access in the television industry means the reclaimed variant of it — "n---a" — has moved unapologetically into the mainstream.
Just like hip-hop artists who decades ago swept that once-unspeakable word into pop culture consciousness, today's young black TV-makers are almost uniformly demanding to use it, unconcerned about placating shocked viewers. In conversations with the most celebrated black writers and producers in the landscape, TV Guide found that as more black creators get to tell their stories, they're also asserting their right to speak in authentic language — provoking tough conversations behind the scenes and sometimes rattling skittish network executives. As Issa Rae put it, she and her peers have basically told network executives, "The word is ours. It's ours to decide what we do with it."
This, to state the obvious, is a new development. It wasn't uncommon at all to hear the N-word on TV in the 1970s, but it was uttered with little caution or consideration, especially compared to TV today. Though writers and audiences understood it to be charged and offensive, n---er was used mostly by black people with other black people, and mostly on comedies like Sanford and Son. Yet white people said it, too, perhaps most famously in the 1975 Saturday Night Live sketch "Word Association." In it, Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor traded racial insults until Chase called Pryor a n---er; the audience roared. It's understood that Chase has just pressed a nuclear button — Pryor implied he was going to kill him — but the exchange played with closeted desires and pent-up racial hostility until the N-word was spoken, a game that absolutely would not fly today.
"It has taken interesting historical turns," Robin Coleman, author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor, told TV Guide last year. "I remember watching things like The Jeffersons and not being too startled when they did use the word." But when she revisited those shows for her book, she said, "I was like, 'Whoa! How did they get away with that on mainstream television?'" The 1970s were a period of volatile upheaval in America, and entertainment served, in part, as a response to that. "There's a direct taking on of social, political, climate issues — moments of assassinations, the Vietnam War, coming off a period of riots, and entertainment media is following that. And then the Reagan Era comes along, and those things drop out."
Amid the conservatism of the 1980s, the N-word became veritably nonexistent on scripted TV. With black America becoming more firmly divided along lines of socioeconomic status, the afros and militancy of the decade prior gave way to charismatic, polished professionalism — think Oprah Winfrey and a pre-disgrace Bill Cosby — savvy (and non-threatening) enough to appear in corporate environments and white living rooms. Black TV was now welcoming and aspirational instead of ribald and irreverent, and the decade birthed poised and graceful characters who made white people feel comfortable: Benson, the adorable boys of Diff'rent Strokes, Dominique Deveraux of Dynasty, and, of course, those Huxtables of The Cosby Show. Even Richard Pryor, who radicalized comedy by using the N-word in his act, swore off using it by the 1980s, convinced of its toxicity. "To this day I wish I'd never said the word," he wrote in his autobiography Pryor Convictions. "It was misunderstood by people. They didn't get what I was talking about. Neither did I. ... So I vowed never to say it again."
The '90s clung to this glossy veneer; the first wave of TV shows produced by and starring black Americans had arrived — The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, Living Single — and they were mostly bright and cheery broadcast shows intended to be universally appealing. If someone was saying the N-word on a popular scripted show, it was part of a Very Special Episode, like in the 1992 episode of A Different World, when Ron (Darryl M. Bell) and Dwyane (Kadeem Hardison) attend a football game at a predominantly white college and get into a fight with some racist white dudes who spray-paint the word on their car.
The arrival of Def Comedy Jam on HBO in 1992 changed everything. Not only was the stand-up showcase from Russell Simmons a platform for black comics who otherwise had no chance to be on TV, its cable home meant black comics could use the raw, unfiltered language they used in real life on TV. With black producers in creative control (and in this particular case without the suffocating limits of primetime), white Americans suddenly had a newfound avenue to hear how black people talk when others aren't around. And there was no going back. "I don't think Katt Williams and those folks are thinking about it in a self-hatred way," Coleman said. "There's some part of the speech that's just like a filler. Sometimes it does feel a little bit lazy, like they're saying 'Um.' But context matters. In-group conversation matters. I think the important thing is that there is a dialogue (about its use)."
By the time Dave Chappelle became the voice of a new comedic generation in the early 2000s, audiences had, for better or for worse, become accustomed to hearing the N-word in pop music, as well as on his Chappelle's Show. He used it as a slur, a greeting, a name for inanimate objects, and every other way in between. And his viewers took notice. Not only had a young generation of performers come to think saying 'n---a' was no big deal, they assumed they had a right to say it when and wherever they pleased. (Chappelle, for his part, became so freaked out when white viewers used his own jokes with him in dubious ways that he famously quit his show.) But his show's delight in playing with the boundaries of what was considered offensive on television normalized the N-word for edgy creators and networks, making it possible for mavericks like Aaron McGruder to use the term freely on Adult Swim's The Boondocks. The floodgates were opened.
Today's new class of creators expect and demand the power to tell stories how they see fit — and the authority to challenge white gatekeepers who might want to police speech. Conversations about inclusion are about more than just being on screen, but being stakeholders in and decision makers about the content itself. As a result, more shows have put the N-word front-and-center on TV, either as part of specific storylines on black-ish and The Carmichael Show, or in the general dialogue mix on shows like Atlanta.
"We fought really hard to say that on air," Donald Glover told TV Guide in 2017, "because that's how people talk." Ultimately, it was Paul Simms, Atlanta's (white) executive producer, who convinced FX to let Atlanta use the N-word, a statement on the complicated, confounding politics of its use on TV if there ever was one. "It ended up being a business-like conversation," Simms recently told TV Guide, "getting (network decision makers) to understand this was not for shock value or anything but just really trying to be accurate to how these characters talk. It could have gone the other way — people could have been incredibly offended — but I think people saw the show as a whole and understood."
The caution, Simms said, stemmed from the obvious — "It's a horrible word, and you don't want to go in using it blithely because it has a lot of impact on people" — but also potential confusion about who's allowed to use it and who is not. "Particularly in the Clinton/Obama years," said Coleman, "People are like, 'We want to say it, it's in pop culture.' There is something to be said about people who want to say it so desperately. To insist on doing that [speaks to] a sense of entitlement and hubris and narcissism. There's nothing that stops people outside blackness from saying that word to each other privately. What they're asking permission to do is to say it to you. There is a danger when it's outside of blackness. There's real white persecution on this word. It's not history. The devaluing of black life is packaged in that word."
Atlanta played with these complexities in its very first episode, when Earn (Glover) notices that a white radio DJ unapologetically uses the N-word in front of him, but not around other black guys, as if to emasculate him. That wasn't accidental. Glover told TV Guide he actually likes the way the N-word opens up discussions, gray areas, and tensions, how it creates sharp delineations about access and power. "Most of the black experience is in public," he said. "What I like about [using the word] is that it closes the door. You're (non-black people) are not a part of it. You can have a problem with it, but if it's from the outside it's invalid."
Of course, not every creator uses it the same way, or at all. "I don't use it a ton," said The Chi creator Lena Waithe, though she feels it has its place — like perhaps the memorable scene in The Chi's first season wherein Jason Mitchell's character, Brandon, tells a young boy to stop calling him his n---a, a nod to the splintered opinions on the word within the black community.
Count Issa Rae, though, among the people who won't be swayed to suppress it, even if other black people tell her they cringe when Insecure's characters say it freely. "It's deeply personal for the black community," she told TV Guide last year. "I use it with my friends, out of love...I respect whatever anyone thinks about it, except for non-black people."
Rae's stance is a type of defiance. Historically, black people who used the N-word with each other, typically as part of a type of black humor that mocked the pain and trauma they experienced in the outside world, did so only among other black people. It was the speech of code-switching, which by definition meant some things wouldn't be said in front of company (i.e. white people). That's why the unapologetic use of the N-word on TV a bit of a new ballgame. For some, there's a reluctance to see it used casually on such an accessible, voyeuristic medium as TV because not everyone hearing it will understand the complex ways black people feel about it. "As African Americans, sometimes there's a part of our culture we don't want to expose to folks because we may be a little embarrassed about it," said Black Lightning creator Salim Akil last year. He lobbied to use it on Black Lightning but was denied by The CW, which follows stricter standards rules than cable. "I am proud of every f---ing aspect of our culture because we built a culture out of absolutely nothing. But here's the thing: We know the line."
That's one of the ironies of the N-word's sudden ubiquity in scripted TV: Carefree as it may seem, its use is always intentional and deliberate, among even those who use it sparsely. It's not often heard in Dear White People, but when the show uses it, it's in scenes that are thoughtful, like in Season 1 when Reggie (Marque Richardson) explains why a white guy shouldn't say it even when rapping lyrics, or playfully poignant, like in Season 2 when Sam (Logan Browning) says her radio show has a "three n---a maximum" as a broadcast rule. One of the enduring themes of the series, which began by depicting a blackface party that ignited racial tensions at an elite university, is you don't have to be called a n---er to be treated like one. Characters at the show's fictional school constantly find themselves coping with complexities of being "other" — whether fetishized sexually, suspected of criminal behavior, or expected to perform blackness.
"I think my job is to tell truths about the human condition," Justin Simien told TV Guide last year. "Rather than strictly moralizing the use of the word, or conversely exoticizing it, it's more interesting to examine honestly how and what happens when it's used. I hope when people hear it, they think about the complicated ways in which it functions and has functioned." The N-word, he said, was created to "reduce a race of people in order to justify slavery and institutionalized racism for free or cheap labor."
Given the N-word's long journey on TV — from being used freely to becoming verboten to being deployed frequently but thoughtfully by black creators — it's natural to wonder if "n--a" will someday be uttered as flippantly as, say, "bitch" is across network and cable TV. But until the societal impact of racism has been mitigated, it's unlikely. In many ways, the N-word itself is just a symptom of the racism it conjures. Especially now, as economic injustice and disparities in health care and education persist and racial violence in a marked upswing, it's hard to imagine that (black) audiences would respond nonchalantly to the N-word being used casually — and harder still to imagine broadcasters allowing that to happen.
"We are still in a society where that word is used against us," said Coleman. "We as a society have not moved forward. It feels brutal when someone outside the race uses it against us. That's never going to feel OK."