How ‘Parenthood’ Tackled ‘the N-word,’ and Why Crosby’s Reaction Was Off

by | October 3, 2012 at 9:34 AM | Fall TV Preview 2012, Parenthood, Recap

Dax Shepard and Joy Bryant in "Parenthood" (Photo by: Danny Feld/NBC)

All of the Braverman men find themselves dealing with the sort of sensitive issues that used to make for Very Special Episodes on this week’s “Parenthood.” Surprisingly, Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) turns out to be the one who is not a self-absorbed, clueless, entitled, jerk. Adam (Peter Krause) and, especially Crosby (Dax Shepard), I am putting you on notice.

This week, Crosby realizes that his son is black. Seriously. The episode is going to get a lot of praise for dealing with “the N-word” but the way that it addresses, while very well intentioned, is, in my opinion problematic in large part because it is a story told entirely from a white point-of-view. Jabbar sits in on a recording session with Crosby at the Luncheonette, where he attends a recording session where he hears a black rapper use the word (though, as Jasmine later queries, it’s a little unclear whether it’s the one that ends with an r or an a) and asks Crosby what it means. There is no way that Jabbar, or any other 8-year-old, particularly an 8-year-old African American, has not heard both versions of the word. It’s all over the internet and music and movies. Kids like to use “bad” words on the playground.

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We don’t see how Crosby handles it, but he later tells Jasmine (Joy Bryant) he compared it to Voldemort. Jasmine, who is pretty awesome in the little bit that we see her this episode, lets him know that’s a stupid analogy. Jasmine thinks it’s time to have a frank talk with Jabbar about the word and racism. Crosby thinks he is too young and they are shattering his innocence. He even whines that Jasmine isn’t listening to him because he is white. It truly does not occur to him that Jasmine knows more about racism than he does, or that this is about what Jabbar needs. He even claims that Jabbar is half white too, as if that will somehow prevent his son from experiencing racism. Crosby reminds me of Stephen Colbert claiming he doesn’t see color.

Jasmine explains the word to her son, saying that white people historically used it to denigrate black people. That seems to be as big of a shock to Crosby as it is to Jabbar. Jabbar is surprisingly ignorant of black history and apparently even unaware of slavery, though he knows who Martin Luther King is. He wonders if anyone will ever call him that. Jasmine says it could happen, but the world is better than it used to be.

Crosby whines to Jasmine that he feels irrelevant and that there will be things he can’t relate to with his child. Poor privileged white male. The problem with racism is that it means it might be more difficult for you to relate to your son, not that your son could be mistreated. Then he asks Jasmine if she ever experienced racism. How have they managed to get married without ever having a conversation with each other? This is something that gets discussed within the first few dates in an interracial relationship.Watch the scene, and see if you agree with my assessment.

It’s also ridiculous that a white guy who grew up in Berkeley, attending public schools could be this ignorant. I speak from personal experience as a caucasian Berkeley native. This is a town where Malcolm X’s birthday is a holiday and the high school has its own African American Studies department. People grow up having frank discussions about race. The average Berkeley middle schooler knows as much about race relations as an ethnic studies grad student, in large part because it’s such a diverse area that it’s impossible not to interact with people from different backgrounds. Crosby would have been in the minority growing up, and would be very aware of his privilege. Everything about his reaction seems off.

We see him talking to Adam about how hurt he is about the situation, but there were no parallel scenes of Jasmine talking to someone about how she feels about Crosby’s attitude, or having such a difficult conversation with her son. Her mother is a recurring character on the show. Why didn’t we see them talking about this? Couldn’t Bailey from “Grey’s Anatomy” cross over for an episode and go out for drinks with her? It’s as if her experience and opinions don’t matter because she only exists to facilitate Crosby’s emotional journey.

Rant over. Onto the next entitled Braverman male: Adam. Kristina (Monica Potter) wants to postpone her lumpectomy because it conflicts with Max (Max Burkholder) running for school president. Her surgeon counsels her to put her health first. She still decides to wait 3 weeks. Kristina is thrilled he got 25 kids to sign the sheet endorsing his candidacy until she realizes most of the names are things like Seymour Butts.  Despite Max’s social issues, I’d think a pro-candy vending machine campaign would win a lot of votes at a middle school. Adam thinks they should forbid Max to run so he will avoid a “Carrie” style humiliation. Kristina realizes Adam doesn’t want Max to run because he doesn’t want her to postpone her surgery. So Adam and Kristina tell him he should wait until next year. He calls them both fascists, and refuses to wait. After talking to Max’s condescending guidance counselor, Kristina decides that Max should run. Adam is pissed that Kristina made the decision and he wants her to move the surgery back because he is scared. Kristina should tell him that it’s her breast, and her decision, but she actually apologizes to him for what she is putting him through and says she will move it back to the original date. Apparently, Kristina’s cancer is all about Adam. I get that this reaction is realistic and motivated by his concern for her, but he’s being a real douche.

In another incident of Braverman self-absorption, Joel and Julia have decided that Victor needs to stop spending all his free time playing video games. Instead of asking him what his hobbies were before he came to live with them, or if there is an activity he would like to try (perhaps studying computer programming so he can design video games?) they order him to play sports. Specifically, they want him to play one of the sports they enjoyed as children, whether he likes it or not. Victor picks Joel’s sport, baseball. It turns out that he’s a lousy player, and, after striking out, he covers his humiliation with anger, throwing his bat and saying, “screw baseball.” Joel, not being cursed with the Braverman selfishness gene, realizes he was putting pressure on Victor, and insensitive to how difficult it is to be the new kid in town. He assures him he does not have to play, but he would be happy to teach him when and if he would like to learn. Victor appreciates being treated with respect and decides to play catch with Joel.

In a redemptive, awesome development in an otherwise frustrating episode, “Friday Night Lights‘” Luke Cafferty joins the show! His name is Ryan here, but come on, Matt Lauria is playing a veteran who just returned from Afghanistan. Luke enlisted in the final episode. Zeek meets him when he volunteers at the VA Center at Camille’s suggestion. He is having difficulty finding a job. When Zeek learns he did irrigation in the army, he gets him to fix his sprinklers, praises his work, and ends up opening up to him about his own experiences in Vietnam. He had a lot of trouble adjusting when he returned home and was forever changed by the experience. He reassures Ryan that he will  recover and become a productive person again.  It’s a moving scene that explains a lot about Zeek, and makes Ryan feel better. Congratulations Zeek on being the only Braverman who realizes that it’s not always all about you.