Opinion

The Root: What Dr. Laura Said Wasn't Racist

Dr. Laura Schlessinger i

Dr. Laura's ultimate point is, of course, historically ignorant, culturally ignorant and, worst of all, hackneyed. But what she said wasn't racist, and claiming that it is gives both her and the word more power than they deserve. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Dr. Laura Schlessinger

Dr. Laura's ultimate point is, of course, historically ignorant, culturally ignorant and, worst of all, hackneyed. But what she said wasn't racist, and claiming that it is gives both her and the word more power than they deserve.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root.

Could we stop giving folks like radio show host Laura Schlessinger the power to work our nerves?

So here we go again — another tedious descent into the "n-word" hole. This latest ride is courtesy of radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who, while speaking with a black female caller about problems in the woman's interracial marriage on Tuesday, said the following:

CALLER: How about the n-word? So, the n-word's been thrown around —

SCHLESSINGER: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger.

CALLER: That isn't —

SCHLESSINGER: 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. Don't hang up, I want to talk to you some more. Don't go away.

The caller became audibly distressed, telling Schlessinger, "I was a little caught back by the n-word that you spewed out, I have to be honest with you." Schlessinger responded by saying the n-word several more times, thus setting into motion a wave of backlash on talk shows and in the liberal blogosphere, which is now abuzz with calls for her firing.

Presumably, that we're even talking about Schlessinger means her plan has worked — from irrelevant to slightly less irrelevant with one little word. The joke's on us, and I'm not laughing.

Here's an idea: Starting today, let's stop getting apoplectic whenever a white person utters the n-word. In fact, let's stop calling it the n-word, which sounds childish no matter who's saying it. Let's start thinking critically about the word "nigger" and contextualizing it when necessary. Let's stop giving the Schlessingers and Limbaughs of the world the authority to hijack the news cycle whenever they feel like it by saying just two syllables. Because while what Dr. Laura said was trite and boring and shallow, it wasn't racist, and it's time we acknowledge that.

I'm loath to quote the NRA, but here I will: "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." In the same way that a shotgun sitting stationary on a shelf isn't dangerous until it's in the hands of someone, words have no power except for what we allow them to have. The word "nigger," screamed by a Klan member standing in front of a black church, is hurtful, frightening, dangerous, ugly and, indeed, racist. But saying, "Black comedians on HBO say 'nigger' a lot" is nothing more than an opinion about black comedians, regardless of whether that opinion is coming from a white person or a black person.

Schlessinger's ultimate point — "Black people say 'nigger'; why can't I?" — is, of course, historically ignorant, culturally ignorant and, worst of all, hackneyed. But what she said wasn't racist, and claiming that it is gives both her and the word more power than they deserve.

When I was growing up, one of my father's common refrains was, "The only power people have over you is the power you allow them to have." It's time we began to think the same way about the word "nigger" and how we let it affect us. If you choose to believe that a word can be so intensely influential that it will ruin your day if you hear it, regardless of how it's used, Schlessinger and her ilk are going to continue bleating it whenever possible, because above all, they adore having the ability to manipulate your emotions. But if you're willing to think critically about the word itself, the way it's used and who's using it, you'll probably be able to move past the nonsensical "n-word" circus and find the real things to be angry about.

For instance, after saying "nigger" a lot, Schlessinger went on to accuse a large swath of the black community of voting for Obama only because of racial allegiance. Not only is that inaccurate — blacks don't vote for black Republicans in significant numbers whatsoever — it's also far more offensive to accuse African Americans of being simpleminded sheep who think only in terms of their skin color than to point out that black comedians use the word "nigger." That's been lost in the dialogue, however, buried under so much "n-word" jabbering.

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