Keep It or Leave It? ‘Black-ish’s’ Anthony Anderson and Kenya Barris Tackle the N-Word

Like a lot of Black people, actor Anthony Anderson has a complicated relationship with the N-word.

On one hand, the Black-ish star uses it as a term of endearment among family and friends. On the other hand, he never utters the word in mixed company and he tenses up when certain people say it.

“I’ve been to South Africa a few times and it’s the first word out of their mouths when they greet me,” Anderson, 45, said during a recent teleconference with reporters promoting the ABC sitcom. The second season of Black-ish kicks off tonight with an episode all about the epithet and how we as a people handle it.

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“The first time I heard it, it was like nails across a chalkboard,” he added. “I thought back to Richard Pryor and the first time he went to Africa and how he would never say nigger again because he didn’t see any niggers there. That’s how I felt. Getting off a plane in the motherland, and being embraced by my people and the first thing they say to me is ‘nigger’ and the way they say it, it hurt to hear that. Even though I know they didn’t mean any hurt behind it, it hurt to hear that.”

Anderson, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal as husband and father Dre Johnson, will bring the internal conflict he feels for the N-word to the episode. Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre’s youngest son Jack (Miles Brown) gets the proverbial ball rolling when he says the word while performing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at a school talent show landing himself in a whole heap of trouble.

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And just like that Dre and Rainbow and pretty much the whole family and even Dre’s co-workers are discussing the word, how it’s used and who can say it. Kenya Barris executive produces Black-ish and co-created the series with Anderson. Like his star, he struggles with whom can use the word and why.

The word became a hot-button topic in his household when he found out his 16-year-old daughter’s non-Black friends were using the word just a little too comfortably. Hearing non-Black fans say the word at Jay-Z concerts is also jarring for Barris, he said.

“We explore all of this, as much as we can in 22 minutes,” Barris said. “It’s a polarizing but galvanizing word. We hope people don’t read more into it than we meant. But this is a conversation this family would have. Black Twitter is a powerful force and we want them to weigh in.”

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The only problem is too many Black viewers might be paying closer attention to Fox’s hit hip-hop soap Empire, which also roars back for a second season tonight. Although Black-ish premiered first, Empire is a bigger hit among African-American viewers. When the drama debuted earlier this year—Black-ish debuted in fall 2014—it nabbed a third of the comedy’s Black audience. Now, only a quarter of the viewers who watch Black-ish are Black. But Anderson and Barris are hopeful that subjects such as the N-word will attract new Black viewers and inspire old ones to come back.

“We encourage fans to DVR Black-ish,” Barris said. “After all, we are not a monolithic group and we have a lot of different points of view.”

Black-ish Season 2 premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.