Thursday, April 07, 2011

Why can't Dr. Laura say the "n-word"?

Last August, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, responding to a black caller whose white husband's friends were passive-aggressively mocking her race, said the word "nigger" 11 times. Here's the full audio:

Unsurprisingly, it caused an uproar, prompting her to apologize before announcing the end of her decades-running radio program. She insists that she was only trying to make a "philosophical point" about black people's use of the word "nigger". When the caller asked if it's OK to say that word, Schlessinger responded:

SCHLESSINGER: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, 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.

After the commercial break, the conversation continued:

CALLER: So it's OK to say "nigger"?... It's OK to say that word?
SCHLESSINGER: It depends how it's said.
CALLER: Is it OK to say that word? Is it ever OK to say that word?
SCHLESSINGER: It's -- it depends how it's said. Black guys talking to each other seem to think it's OK.
CALLER: 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.

She seems to be arguing that it's hypocritical of society to criticize white people for saying it, while allowing black people to say it. Is that the case? Is there really no difference between a black person saying it, vs a white person?

There's a pretty insightful interview with 50 cent, on the Howard Stern show, that addresses the issue. A caller asks, "is it alright for white people to use nigga?"

Caller: Is it alright for white people to use nigga?

50 cent: It depends who they with or what's going on.... Put it like this, Eminem has never used the word nigger or nigga around me. He's conscious of it. But you gotta think, he's hip hop all day listening to references where we say this so much, that if he said it, it would roll off like he didn't say [anything offensive]...

Stern: Should Eminem be allowed to use the word 'nigga' in his music?

50 cent: Around me, he can say whatever he wants. But I'm just saying to you he doesn't do it, he's conscious of it, he doesn't say it.

Stern: I don't think it comes off well when a white guy goes up to a black guy, even in the best of terms, and goes "hey my nigga"

50 cent: Listen... there's white guys that were born in my neighborhood. And they say "what's up nigga? Whatchya doin?"

Stern: They do? Do you shoot 'em?...

50 cent: No.. Because he's from the same space... you grew up with him.... When they from it, they [aren't subjected] to the same thing because they're actually from the same [environment].


Robin: There's context, is what he's saying. If you are a part of a group, then you might be able to use it.

50 cent: They gonna know if you're using it in a derogatory sense.

That's the crux of the issue: knowing whether or not the term is being used in a derogatory sense. When a black person says "nigga", it's probably safe to assume there's no bigotry behind its use, because he probably isn't bigoted against his own race. You can't make that same assumption about a random white person using the term. While Eminem can call 50 cent "nigga" without causing offense, he still avoids the word in his music. Even with his immersion in the world of hip-hop, the general public doesn't know him personally, so they can't assume he doesn't harbor any racism.

(Case in point: In the song "Nigga", featuring Eminem, 50 cent, and Notorious B.I.G, the word "nigga" is used over 20 times. The lyrics can be found here: Nigga lyrics. Count how many times Eminem says it.)

There's another, related, double standard here. If you dig through the comment section of that Howard Stern YouTube clip, above, you'll find this interesting point:

a white person call a black person nigger is racist but if a black person call a white person cracker that isnt racist what the fuck is that?

It's not the case that referring to a white person as "cracker" isn't racist. It's just society doesn't consider that word to be anywhere near as inflammatory as "nigger". Why not? Slavery, segregation, disfranchisement... black people, as a group, have been persecuted for the entire history of this country. And while the most obvious forms of institutionalized racism have been eliminated, it's still the case that large groups of black people, even with Ivy League educations, can be suspected of being "gangbangers" for no reason other than the color of their skin. (It happened just last year: What Do You Call a Black Man With a J.D.?)

The fact that black people are more often the targets of racism is the reason you see a double standard here. As a society, we want to avoid doing anything that might exacerbate what is already a significant problem. In general, societal taboos should being weighted in favor of victimized classes of people. That doesn't make it OK to call anyone a "cracker", and it doesn't mean people shouldn't be offended by that term. But if you're wondering why most people don't take as much offense, this is why.

So why can't Dr. Laura use the word "nigger"? Maybe it's because she accused her caller of being "hyper-sensitive" for being hurt by some, pretty obvious, passive-aggressive racial mockery. Maybe it's because she then went on a, completely off-topic, rant about how black people voted for Obama just because he was black, how his election meant white people should no longer be "demonized" for hating black people, and how it's "hilarious" that people are still "complaining about racism" (as if having a black President proves racism is no longer a problem).

Somehow, I don't think it's quite safe to assume that she doesn't harbor any bigotry against black people.