August 13, 2010

Dr. Laura: For White People Who Have Considered Saying "Nigger" When Common Sense Was Enough

Apologies to Ntzotke Shange. I've been a Dr. Laura fan for years. I started listening to her show on WJR when I lived in Detroit.  I recall the first time I listened to the show and being appalled at her comments and thinking she was a horrible and mean person.  There were other advice shows on the air with hosts who were nice to their callers.  But Dr. Laura was not about coddling people as she handed out her moral opinions.  Though I at first found her objectionable, I kept listening and over time, came to appreciate the fact that she's actually a very insightful person.  In church language, she has a perceiver motive gift.  She can gain insight into a situation with only a bit of information or observation. And while she can be harsh and stern with her callers, I have again and again heard her on her show demonstrate tremendous compassion and empathy, at times towards people I didn't think there was any thing to empathize with them about. I have also heard her help a lot of people with her advice.  Don't let the Listerine delivery cause you to miss the value in her advice.

But Dr. Laura, like many of us, black and white, has a bit of blind spot when it comes to race. That blind spot was on display in this call to her show from a black woman married to a white man who called for advice about how to handle what she deemed racially insensitive comments from her husband's family and friends.  Check the audio.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Laura got a boatload of criticism for her response and subsequently apologized.
Her apology seemed sincere enough, at least in the reading of it.  But its clear from the apology and from the conversation with her caller Jade, that Dr. Laura was off base in a variety of ways that I'd like to lift up for some examination.  Responding to Jade, Dr. Laura asserts that black guys use the slur "nigger" all the time.

Schlessinger:"Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger. I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing."
Jade: Is it OK to say that word? Is it ever OK to say that word?
Schlessinger: It depends how it's said. Black guys talking to each other seem to think it's OK.
Jade: But you're not black, they're not black, my husband is white.
Schlessinger: Oh, I see, so a word is restricted to race. Got it. Can't do much about that.

First, the main thrust of her argument to the caller which is often referenced by people in arguments about the slur "nigger", namely that  black people use it in conversation with each other, comics use it copiously and so on.  I'm sorry, but this is a stupid argument based on the false premise that black people routinely and casually use the word "nigger" to refer to each other. Its not true.   Despite the unfortunate prevalence of this racial vulgarity in popular culture created by and targeted at urban youth, many blacks find it to be an offensive and unwelcome vulgarity whatever the color of the person speaking. Dr. Laura actually attempted a bit of an argument for context which would have been somewhat sensible, but misapplied it. She jumped from raunchy black comics talking to adults in HBO programming to the blanket idea that black people use that terminology on each other routinely. Thats a leap.

People, this isn't complicated, its plain common sense.  I don't walk around thinking that it would be appropriate to use the word "bitch" in reference to women, despite the fact that I hear women saying it in the popular culture all the time and the same common sense logic applies here.  Moreover, Dr. Laura's point about observing black comics in pop culture programming using the term is an exercise in stereotyping.  While it is entirely true that black comics routinely use the word "nigger", that's a small subset of the black population. That group is not broadly representative of black Americans in general.  Yet Dr. Laura looks at  the raunchy language of black comics and extrapolates that to the entire black population.  Its inaccurate stereotyping. Some people observe that many urban youth commonly use the word "nigger" in reference to each other in casual conversation ,and that's accurate. However, its also true that most adult black people are chagrined and embarrassed by the way which this vulgarity has become very common in the everyday language of urban youth.  We wince at hearing it, just like we metaphorically throw up a little in our mouths every time we see young black men in sagging pants with their underwear hanging out. Popular culture amplifies this vulgar behavior, thus the mistaken idea that its common among all blacks. Its not.

Her caller, Jade, had a bit of a blindspot too.  Her comments suggested that she subscribed to the idea that using the term "nigger" was acceptable if you were black, but not if you were white. White people react to that because it seems arbitrary.  If its okay when a black person says it, why isn't it okay for a white person? The reality is that in 2010, there is a bit of arbitrariness to this unwritten social rule. But there is nothing magical about why it doesn't go over well when a white person uses this vulgarity for any reason. #1 We're not all walking around calling each other "nigger". I know pop culture tv shows and videos and comics make it seem that way, but you're extrapolating from the behavior of a subset of black people to the whole group.  The majority of the group does not behave that way. So if most of us don't routinely use the word nigger to each other (and we don't) white people have no basis to be mad when we object to you using it either. #2 history is relevant.  There was a time in America when you could be called a nigger by a white person and be killed if you dared to object.  That went on for a few hundred years.  Times have changed, but its no surprise that a word so bound up in a history of oppression, violence and degradation should have a continuing stigma and taboo attached to it. And even if you think "hey, times have changed, don't  be so sensitive", see #1 again. This is the point that Jade should have made to Dr. Laura in response to the bit about comics.

 The social stigma around the word "nigger" also mirrors a practical, commonsense reality which is that I can't really think of very many situations that call for the average white person to use the  racial slur "nigger" in a sentence around the average black person, for any reason. Just doesn't happen very often. And guess what, the same is largely true when black people are talking to other black people.  Simple self test you can try if you're a white person reading this: can you think of a situation where it would be appropriate to use the word "nigger" in a sentence in the company of any black person you know?  The reality is that the majority of black people don't go around calling each other nigger all day.  There is a subset of the population (urban youth) that refers to each other this way quite frequently, but they are not representative, merely more visible via pop culture.  So, if you share Dr. Laura's frustration that a white person simply is not permitted to use the word "nigger" without suffering severe social opprobrium,  get over it. You're laboring under a mistaken impression.

And oh yeah, for the record; I'm still a big Dr. Laura show fan.