By Arturo R. García
Maybe the most hard-hitting moment of CNN’s special The N-Word didn’t strictly involve it at all.
It’s tough not to cringe when LeVar Burton talks about the steps he takes to protect himself when he’s pulled over by police, for a number of reasons. The fact that, going by the ease with which he delivers his explanation, it’s become a routine. That he has to say it’s for the officer’s comfort. And finally, the stated reason he taught his son to exercise the same caution.
“I do that because I live in America,” Burton tells host Don Lemon and his panel. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, those words seem especially resonant. Though Lemon interrupts with his story of being “an uppity you-know-what” before segueing to anti-racism advocate Tim Wise, Burton’s story provides the show with a lived-in context it otherwise lacks.
Otherwise, the show’s View From Nowhere approach doesn’t advance a “national discussion” on race, despite Lemon’s stated intentions. The segment purporting to debate whether the actual N-slur “is worse than” the term cracker, which resurfaced in the public eye during the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, sputters because nobody is there to actually defend the word. While that would seem like a no-brainer in progressive circles, to have someone attempt to explain why they feel aggrieved by the term (say, a member of Towson State’s infamous “White Student Union”?) would have a) answered the predictable call for equal time and b) illustrated the downfall of such a viewpoint to begin with.
Likewise, topics like Paula Deen and hip-hop’s use of “nigga” come and go with no real meaning. Deen is not facing a lawsuit just for using a slur; her white accuser, Lisa Jackson, told CNN itself that Deen created a hostile work environment for POC. Instead, the show deals with the effect of her use of the slur as a “career killer.” And another panelist, Wendy Walsh, brings up rappers’ use of the word, but without an active member of the hip-hop community — say, a Dream Hampton or Davey D — there to push back with the other side of that history, problematic as it may be.
Unlike Soledad O’Brien’s (admittedly much-maligned) Black in America specials, in fact, there’s no real sense of community anywhere in The N-Word. Everyone involved is a pundit, which leaves the program lacking in the sort of lived realities that show us why slurs hurt, and how they’re used to do so. The bright side is, the show performed exceedingly well for the network — so much so, one imagines, that the temptation will be too great for CNN not to do a sequel. Hopefully, one with its eyes and ears closer to the streets than to a studio.