Archive - Aug 16, 2010

There's No N In Context

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Memo to Dr. Laura: HERE'S THE FUNNY THING.

Hey, everyone! Remember Dr. Laura, the right-wing radio host who everyone thought of as the perfect mix of Rush Limbaugh and Oprah for a few years? Of course you remember her. You might not have if I'd asked last week, but if it weren't for last week, I wouldn't be asking you rhetorically if you remember her as the opening to a You Are Dumb column, so I guess it all works out the way it's supposed to.

Anyway, Dr. Laura is a racist, and last week, she said "nigger" ten times in a five minute period on her radio show. And the best part? The two things are almost completely and utterly unrelated.

Now, I don't get to set the policies for racial interaction in America, But as an individual who not only feels white guilt, but feels it proudly, I'm comfortable stating my own personal rules and setting them up as the ideal by which we all should live, even if I can't strictly enforce that. So here it is. As a white dude, I only get to use the word "nigger" when I'm discussing the word.

Now, for this rule to make sense, I need to clarify "get to". You see, when racists talk about how some people "get to" use the word "nigger" and other people don't, what they mean is that some people can't use it without the very strong potential for very serious consequences. And that's what I mean by "get to". As long as the word's in quotes, in the context of a lexicographical discussion, then that's a universal OK. I'm not a fan of "the N-word". I understand the motivation - to keep the word from causing discomfort from even secondhand usage, but it's that second-hand usage that SHOULD cause discomfort. That's part of the consequences thing.

The fact of the matter is, some words carry with them social risk. The words and the risk vary from situation to situation. In many workplaces, the word "fuck" carries with it a certain social risk. In many relationships, the words "filthy whore" carry that same risk. "Nigger" is a very risky word, which is as it should be, thanks to history and continuing racial inequality. Maybe you can take the risk, and maybe you can get away with it, but that risk should always be there, making you cautious.

So here's the funny part. When Dr. Laura said "nigger" ten times on her radio show, every single time was her discussing the use of the word. She didn't call anyone the name. She didn't use it as the punchline to a joke. She said it a bunch of times discussing how some people could say it and other people couldn't. Where it got racist is where it always does with this conversation - the idea that this is somehow a bad thing.

If you ask why black comedians and rappers can say it and you can't, that's racist. I'm sorry, but it is. You want to throw out how language has always worked, and how it continues to work, and loudly complain about the unfairness in the usage of the most extreme, charged, racial slur in the English language today. There is no possible way that's NOT racist.

And when you make this loud complaint in an attempt to get white racists off the hook for throwing the epithet at their black relative who came to you for help, which of course is what got Dr. Laura started on her one-woman slurgy, that's REALLY fucking racist. And when you finish it up by saying that any black woman who steals a white man deserves getting called "nigger" every once in a while, at that point, you should really just pick up your white hood from the dry-cleaners, because it would save us all a lot of time.

And lest you think I exaggerate, as I am prone to do for comedic effect, this was Dr. Laura's final piece of advice to her caller, who, I remind you, called to get advice on how to deal with her white in-laws, who were giving her shit and calling her "nigger". ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, don't marry outside of your race." - Laura Schlessinger, hoping to win the 2010 Miss Cegenation pageant.

It's never really about the word. Not the syllables, not the number of times you say it, and not the frequency with which you say it. It's about who you say it to, and why. It's context and motive and intent and how all that interacts with history and the social contract. And if you don't get that, and want to reduce it to a simple "if they can say it, why can't I" argument, then you're just gonna have to accept that you're at least a little bit racist. But take heart, you're probably not as racist as Dr. Laura.