I was planning on posting about my frustration over the response to Dr. Laura’s recent racist rant, but then I saw that Jamelle Boiue at The American Prospect had already said much of what I was thinking on the topic.
That said, of everything in that exchange, Dr. Laura’s use of the N-word was the least offensive — and least racist — element; quoting racial slurs isn’t cool — they’re still racial slurs, with all the historical baggage that includes — but you can imagine scenarios where quoting a racial slur is appropriate to the conversation.
In actuality, it’s the rest of her rant that drips with racial animus. To recap: Dr. Laura immediately dismisses her caller’s problems, uses a racist joke to prove her non-racism, insists that black people voted for Obama over nothing but racial solidarity (as if pre-Obama, African Americans never voted for Democrats), strongly resents the fact that “black guys” can use the N-word but she can’t, and declares that “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry outside of your race.” Dr. Laura isn’t known for her sensitivity, but this is an impressive display of raw racial resentment.
I don’t know how common a view this is, but I tend to think the pearl-clutching over people using the n-word is largely a distraction from meaningful and productive conversations about race. Don’t get me wrong – I would be pissed as hell if a white person called me a nigger to my face (something I’m grateful to say I’ve never experienced). I don’t think there’s any reason in the world for a non-black person to use the word unless they are quoting – and even then it can be highly questionable.
But there’s something about our response to a public figure saying the word that disturbs me. It seems as though whether or not someone uses or has used “nigger” has become a lazy shorthand for whether or not someone is a racist, or has racist views, or would act on racist views. I’m particularly concerned by the subtext of conversations on this topic that suggest that a person doesn’t have racist views so long as they never use “the n-word” or other racial slurs.
There’s no question that Dr. Laura’s use of the word was racist. But I find everything ELSE she said in her rant much more problematic and offensive than her use of the word nigger – and much more disturbing because millions of Americans share these views about black people. And I suspect that the national and media conversation will focus far more on the fact that Dr. Laura said nigger 11 times than on having an honest discussion of the implications of her comments. We live in a world where the same people who act utterly aghast at hearing the word ‘nigger’ are completely comfortable discussing the idea, and even assuming, that the vast majority of black Americans who voted for President Obama did so only because he’s black. We live in a world where non-black Americans who would never dream of using the word nigger are nevertheless comfortable telling their black coworkers, neighbors, and friends that their offense at racist jokes or questions is merely oversensitivity or lack of humor.
These attitudes are racist and privileged, period. But instead of having a candid discussion in which the views of African Americans on these much more subtle expressions of racism are taken seriously, we instead engage in this cyclic obsession with the latest blatant and outrageous manifestation of racism. The current offender is turned into a national scapegoat, someone who makes us feel good how we’re not racist like them, and whom we can loudly villify as a demonstration to ourselves and others that we abhor racism. Frankly, it’s pathetic.
The obsession with “the n-word” disturbs me because it implies that the hard work of anti-racism – the painful process of examining one’s own privilege and prejudice, the difficult work of learning about and fighting institutional racism and rejecting privilege, can be reduced to whether we use a certain word or not.
I suppose it’s obvious from the above that I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to say “nigger.” To be quite honest, using “the n-word” strikes me as arbitrary and a bit immature. We all know what’s being said, but seem to think there’s some higher virtue in not saying that particular word (I’ve never understood why, say, slurs against Hispanics are fair game on television, but the word nigger is bleeped out or bowlderized). There’s nothing particularly anti-racist about never using the word nigger. And whether or not it’s wrong to use it, in my opinion, really depends on the context, the speaker, the purpose, and the consideration taken for how the use of the word will affect African Americans hearing it (Dr. Laura fails on at least the last two counts, if not all of them).
And personally, I think it would be a huge mistake to eradicate ‘nigger’ entirely from public use. We need to remember how it was used to demean and dehumanize black people, how it was used in concert with staggering violence to terrorize black communities. Calling it “the n-word,” to my mind, erases this history and allows people to pretend the word doesn’t have the force and the meaning it does.
So what do you guys think? Is “the n-word” discussion a distraction? Is it better to use “the n-word” or are there contexts where the use of “nigger” is appropriate or even necessary?