On This Is Us' Unexpected Use Of The N-Word

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC.
Television might be getting more liberal every day, but there are still certain things no one expects to hear. At the top of that list are the words that are usually so offensive, they can’t actually be said; instead they’re referred to by their starting letter and everyone still knows exactly what you're trying to say. “The N-word” is most definitely like that. And, yet, before Tuesday night’s family-friendly juggernaut This Is Us could hit the halfway mark, the N-word was tossed out in the middle of a conversation. While that kind of choice would usually seem totally unnecessary, the polarizing addition was a needed reality check for “The Most Disappointed Man” and the Pearson family.
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To understand why the N-word drop wasn’t simply a play to make waves and create Twitter trends, we need to look at why it was used in the first place. In This Is Us’ signature multi-layered tradition, “Disappointed Man” looks at how the justice system has failed or saved three major characters over the decades: baby Randall Pearson, young William Hill (Jermel Nakia), and present-day new addition Déjà (Lyric Ross). In baby Randall’s case, Judge Bradley (Delroy Lindo), who’s in charge of approving the 1-year-old's pending Pearson adoption, has some reservations about permanently placing a Black child into a white family. If it were up to Bradley, the Pearsons' request would be denied immediately, and Randall would be put in foster care until a Black family could be found to adopt him.
There are obvious flaws in this plan — that's why the day is eventually saved by some creative découpage — but Bradley brings up an important question during a private meeting with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia). He asks, “How will he see himself, understand who he is?” if little Randall is raised by a white family in a very white world like 1980s suburban Pittsburgh. The well-meaning Pearsons stammer, “Because we will teach him of all that.”
Of course the Pearsons can’t teach their Black son “all of that,” no matter how much they try. This is why the judge feels he needs to use the N-word: to drive home the fact Randall will have to face a sometimes-hateful world, a world he will need the “tools” to deal with. Unfortunately, Jack and Rebecca do not naturally possess these tools. To make the sweet couple officially Get It, Bradley tells his own story. “I was nine years old before I understood I was Black,” the judge, who grew up with Black family and friends, says. “Now, I understood my skin color … But I never really understood what my Blackness meant until a white man called me ‘n-----.’”
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Rebecca is so shocked by the word she reels back, alarmed — and that was the desired effect. While the mom of three is disturbed in this moment, her would-be son could be disturbed by the hateful slur for the rest of his life. That is the lengthy, violent history of the N-word, and it’s a history we can’t avoid simply because a very nice family from Pennsylvania wants to adopt Randall. It’s the word that was screamed when Black people were strung up on trees or dared to try to grasp their basic human rights. This is Bradley’s no-nonsense way of pulling back the curtain to explain while the Pearsons might not be racists, that doesn’t mean the rest of the society isn’t.
The fact we now know Rebecca and Jack got this education makes certain plot points from season 1 even more problematic. In “The Trip,” which takes place years after “Disappointed Man” in the This Is Us timeline, Jack questions whether he and Rebecca should finally try to track down Randall’s biological parents. “I don’t want him resenting us,” the dad says. When Rebecca asks, “For what?” since they already give their son “everything he could ever want,” Jack reminds his wife, “We can’t roll our tongues.” Tongue rolling is Randall’s latest obsession to find Black people who could be related to him. Jack can’t roll his tongue and knows his child needs to “see himself, understand himself,” as the judge said so long ago.
It’s strange it took this long, about seven years after the adoption of “Disappointed Man,” for Jack and Rebecca to figure out Randall might need some Black male role models, or “men who can show him who he might grow into.” It’s odd a family friend like Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe), one of Randall’s few lifelines to Black culture, is the one who had to explain that fact to them. After the conversation with Bradley, the Pearsons should have been on the lookout for possible role model candidates since 1981.
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Speaking of Yvette, it’s similarly weird Rebecca was openly hostile to the Black woman when the pair first meet in “The Pool.” During their initial conversation, Yvette reveals Rebecca never introduced Randall to the Black families at the titular community pool. Again, why, after that adoption conversation? On top of all this counterintuitive behavior on the Pearson parents' part, this new information proves Rebecca should have given Randall the opportunity to meet his father William at some point. Yes, we know Rebecca was afraid of court battles and custody problems, but she very easily could have allowed William into Randall’s life when her son was old enough that such issues wouldn’t be possible.
Of course, though, we’re likely dealing with a sophomore year retcon. It’s doubtful the This Is Us team wrote episodes like “The Pool” and “The Trip” knowing in a year’s time, they would pen a specific conversation like the one Rebecca, Jack, and Bradley have in “The Most Disappointed Man.” But, NBC is now open to use of the N-word, as The Charmichael Show proved earlier this year.
At least the episode offers closure on the subject of how Randall legally joined the Pearson family. Because, we all know people can’t pick up babies at the hospital and just decide the child is theirs, even when it’s 1980 and the parents in question are sweet, grieving white people with huge hearts and a hit NBC series.
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