There's a name for what fueled Joe Rogan's n-word controversy Joe Rogan doesn't think of himself as a racist. But that doesn't mean his language isn't harmful.

I have a name for what fueled Joe Rogan's new scandal: Bigotry Denial Syndrome

I have a name for what fueled Joe Rogan's new scandal: Bigotry Denial Syndrome

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Podcaster and comic Joe Rogan, who also serves as a mixed martial arts commentator, looks on at a UFC fight in 2015. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

Podcaster and comic Joe Rogan, who also serves as a mixed martial arts commentator, looks on at a UFC fight in 2015.

Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

The latest controversy podcaster and comic Joe Rogan faces right now also highlights a fear which often plagues Black folks: That a high-profile person, who claims to be non-racist and an ally to people of color, may actually be the opposite.

And, in Rogan's case, it's all wrapped up in something I've called Bigotry Denial Syndrome.

Rogan himself claims he isn't racist. He says clips on social media of him using the n-word in his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience were examples of him invoking the word in conversations where it wasn't used as a slur about specific people or Black people in general. Rogan was following an ethic – he now says was wrong – which held that white people should be able to use the word if their intent isn't to denigrate Black people.

"I know that to most people, there's no context where a white person is ever allowed to say that word, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that now," Rogan said in an apology posted to Instagram. "I haven't said it in years," he added.

Sounds like, as Rogan himself said in his apology, "a teachable moment." (In a podcast that was released Tuesday, Rogan said he felt "relief" over the apology, but that the edited video of his comments also was "a political hit job.")

But then there's the Planet of the Apes joke.

Rogan's apology also addressed a video clip from 11 years ago where he talked about going with friends to see the film in a theater and realizing there were no other white people in the space — remarking that he had stepped into the Planet of the Apes in real life. He went on to say watching the film in that environment was a great experience.

But, as Daily Show host Trevor Noah noted in a brilliant commentary on this issue, even though Rogan says in his apology video that he wasn't comparing Black people to apes, he clearly was.

"Joe, I think you were using racism to be entertaining," Noah said. "I'm not saying you were trying to offend Black people...But you knew that offending Black people would get a laugh from those white people you are friends with."

Daily Show host Trevor Noah delivers a commentary on Joe Rogan's n-word controversy.


I would disagree with Noah on one point: The problem here isn't just that Rogan may have hurt feelings or given offense. The bigger issue is the way such jokes foster acceptance of stereotypes that are damaging and persistent; prejudices which can affect everything from how police react in an emergency to who gets hired for a job or gets to rent an apartment.

And, for marginalized people, it's also about figuring out which media voices we can trust.

Understanding Bigotry Denial Syndrome

I'm teaching a course at Duke University right now about race and media. In that class, I told the students about something I have often called bigotry denial syndrome – the belief that, because you personally don't view yourself as a bigot, you don't believe that you can say or do something that is seriously bigoted or damaging.

This is a race-centered version of a type of bias also called moral licensing, where people believe that because they are generally good, that outweighs moments when they do negative things. So, bringing it all back to Rogan's case, he seems to be insisting that – because he doesn't view himself as a racist – his use of the n-word and telling of a joke that he admitted in the moment was racist were somehow not expressions of racism.

But here is where Rogan is learning a difficult truth: He's wrong.

In fact, you can argue that — by providing more palatable ways for fans to use a horrible racial slur and laughing off a joke he admitted was racist – Rogan did damage that is tougher to address than an admitted racist openly advocating white supremacy.

Facing the ambiguity of racism and sexism

This is a distinction which also seemed to trip up former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who posted on Twitter that Rogan couldn't be racist because he "interacts and works with black people literally all of the time." Later, after a deluge of criticism, Yang deleted the tweet, saying it was "wrong-headed" and downplayed the realities of racism.

Rogan also faced criticism nearly two years ago for laughing when a comic on his podcast said he demanded women perform sexual acts on him to get stage time as a comedy club.

For people from marginalized groups, this all brings up something else with a complicated name: attributional ambiguity. That's a term for the difficulty people from oppressed groups have in figuring out whether something that happens to them is the result of prejudice.

In other words, thanks to attributional ambiguity, Black people now must wonder if Rogan is secretly racist. Or if he's racist but unable to admit it to himself. Or if he has learned from his public humiliation and is ready to behave differently. Same with women and sexism.

That's also one reason why it's considered less damaging when someone from a marginalized group uses a slur to refer to their own group – there's less ambiguity about commenting on a group you belong to.

(So please don't send emails about how rappers and other Black people use the n-word. Even Rogan admits it is Black folks' word to use, and I often note we have our own very complicated relationship with it.)

Fortunately, there's a solution to all of this uncertainty, ambiguity and bigotry denial syndrome: Action.

It's time for Rogan to more prominently feature the voices of marginalized people – especially Black people and women. It's time for him to talk frankly and often about why he screwed up and how it feeds into the systemic racism and sexism which damages America. It's time for him to do a better job of vetting and challenging guests to his podcast trapped in their own cycles of bigotry denial syndrome.

Of course, that may not go down well with some of his audience, who see his plainspoken style as a validation for their own problematic views. Already, former president Donald Trump has issued a statement telling Rogan to "stop apologizing to the Fake News and Radical Left maniacs and lunatics," because it makes him look "weak and frightened." Sigh.

This may sound like a tall order; Spotify has signed an exclusive contract with Rogan to feature his podcasts reportedly worth $100 million, presumably because they mostly liked what he was doing. Expecting them to do more than tinker with that profitable formula seems naive, I know.

But I'm not interested in canceling Joe Rogan. I'm interested in seeing him become a better, less troubling media figure. If he wants, Rogan is positioned to truly combat systemic racism and sexism in a changing media universe.

What could be edgier than that?

The recent deluge of criticism battering Rogan — from complaints about his podcast fostering misinformation about the pandemic to the way he has talked on race — may seem excessive. But it's also what happens when a media figure goes beyond speaking to his core fanbase to drawing the ear of the world.

If this is indeed a teachable moment for Rogan, then it's time for him to show the world what he has learned. Beyond how to release an apology video that should be the start of addressing the issue, not the end.