For John Ridley, The N-Word Is A Line In The Sand Amid the fallout from talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's use of the racial epithet on the air, Morning Edition commentator John Ridley talks to Steve Inskeep about his initial reaction, who can use the N-word, and Dr. Laura's First Amendment rights.

For John Ridley, The N-Word Is A Line In The Sand

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We're going to follow up, this morning, on the end of the highly rated radio talk show "Dr. Laura." Laura Schlessinger said, this week, she will stop when her contract runs out at the end of the year. This came after a broadcast in which she said the N-word - 11 times. We're going to play some of that tape in a moment, so be warned now, that many people will find that tape offensive. And we're going to talk about it with screenwriter and MORNING EDITION commentator John Ridley, also editor of John, welcome back to the program.

JOHN RIDLEY: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So "Dr. Laura" is a call-in show. She's taking calls. Let's listen to this call.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Dr. LAURA SCHLESSINGER: Jade, welcome to the program.

JADE: Hi, Dr. Laura.


JADE: I'm having an issue with my husband where I'm starting to grow very resentful of him. I'm black and he's white. We've been around some of his friends and family members who start making racist comments.

INSKEEP: Racist comments. Where's the conversation go from there?

RIDLEY: Well, at that point the doctor asks for examples of these comments and wonders if the caller is, perhaps, maybe just being hypersensitive about some of these things. The caller at that point gives a few examples of what she considers to be racist, and Dr. Laura says, in my opinion I think you're being hypersensitive about that. And then the caller asks about the N-word, and whether that is ever appropriate for anyone, particularly white people, to say around a person of color.

INSKEEP: Then Dr. Laura begins saying the N-word. They go away for a commercial. They come back. They're talking some more. We're going to play some of this tape now, and we advise you again, for those who want to turn down the radio for the next forty seconds or so, that many people will find this hurtful to hear.

(Soundbite of radio show "Dr. Laura")

JADE: Is it OK to say that word? Is it ever OK to say that word?

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: It depends how it's said. Black guys talking to each other seem to think it's OK.

JADE: But you're not black. They're not black. My husband is white.

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: Oh, I see. So a word is restricted to race? Got it. Can't do much about that.

JADE: I can't believe someone like you is on the radio spewing out the nigger word and I hope everybody heard it.

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: I didn't spew out the nigger word.

JADE: You said nigger, nigger, nigger, as everybody...

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: Right, I said that's what you hear...

JADE: ...heard it.

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: Yes, they did.

JADE: I hope everybody heard it. So what makes...

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: They did...

JADE: OK for you to say the word?

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: ...and I'll say it again: nigger, nigger, nigger is what you hear on HB...

JADE: So what makes...

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: Why don't you let me finish a sentence?

INSKEEP: What did you think, John Ridley, when you heard that exchange?

RIDLEY: I have to be honest. When I first heard the exchange, it made me laugh. I know the word is painful for a lot of people, but to me it was almost like a Monty Python routine. I'm one of those people, when someone uses the word. I know where they're coming from, and I know what they're about, and you just told me everything about you so I don't get freaked out about it. It tends to make me laugh, particularly in 2010 when people use it.

What bothered me more was the way she seemed to luxuriate in using the word. What bothered me was that you have a caller who's calling with a legitimate issue about relationships and the doctor is supposed to help people with those problems, and not belittle those people, and not mock those problems - whether it's about race, whether it's about religion, whether it's about cooking. And beyond that, there were other things that the doctor said that didn't make the headlines. When she talked about why people of color voted for President Obama, in her opinion.

(Soundbite of radio show "Dr. Laura")

Dr. SCHLESSINGGER: Without giving much thought, a lot of blacks voted for Obama simply because he was half-black. It didn't matter what he was going to do in office. It was a black thing. You've got to know that. That's not a surprise.

RIDLEY: And the converse of that would then be what, a lot of whites didn't vote for him because he was half-white and it's a white thing? I mean those kinds of things which get to be - well, on one hand nonsensical, but honestly, they're the soft bigotries that go out there and get into people's heads and I think are in some ways more damaging because the N-word is just - it's a line in the sand.

INSKEEP: She even went on to say that black people are better at basketball and called herself funny for saying that.

RIDLEY: She made the joke white men can't jump, but said it in a way that - she said I think it's funny. Well, therefore for example, if someone came up to me and told a black joke, if they thought it was funny then it doesn't matter what I think or how I feel. Again, saying things like black thought, literally using that phrase, which is reductive in saying all black people think alike and that's not true, of course. All white people don't think alike, all Asians don't think alike.

So again, that word to me, the N-word, was a speed bump in that conversation -got everyone to slow down, got everyone to turn their heads and look - but my thing is what else did people see? What else did people hear? And what are the things that she said that were truly troubling - above and beyond the word that, for me, and I'm just speaking for me, myself, that in 2010, it just -honestly, it makes me laugh when people say it.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask John Ridley about the question that Dr. Laura asked here, so offensively, because it is a question that you actually do hear a lot of white people ask. Some people will ask, why do black people get to say the N-word and white people aren't supposed to say it?

RIDLEY: 'Cause black people got to go through slavery and Jim Crow and segregation. So we get to say things amongst ourselves that people can. By the way, I probably could not go to a NASCAR rally and do Jeff Foxworthy's You Might Be a Redneck routine without getting something handed to me. So - and I couldn't, you know, tell jokes about Jewish folks the way that Jerry Seinfeld could or something like that. So the idea that you can say something or can't say something is - I don't think that's new, and I'm sort of surprised when people are surprised that, yeah, you can't say everything you want all the time.

INSKEEP: Are you saying it's basically like self-deprecating humor? You can make fun of yourself, that can be good natured, that can be funny, but if somebody else starts mocking you, even the very same way, that becomes harmful, hurtful.

RIDLEY: You know it's - somebody else said this, I won't take credit for it, but somebody else said, you know, I can joke about my sister, you can't. And that's the way it works. And you know what? It may not be fair, but history wasn't fair either.

INSKEEP: So Laura Schlessinger then announced her resignation, that she'll leave at the end of her contract at the end of the year, on CNN's Larry King Live. And let's listen to a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of "Larry King Live" Show)

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: I want to regain my first amendment rights. I want to be able to say what's on my mind, and in my heart, and what I think is helpful and useful, without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent.

INSKEEP: So she's a voice of dissent?

RIDLEY: Well, here's - in the Larry King interview is where I really started to get upset. I mean look, unless Congress is enacting a law against Dr. Laura, nobody is touching her first amendment rights. Anybody has a right to complain about what somebody else says. This is not a first amendment issue, this is a you can dish it out, but you can't take it issue.

INSKEEP: I wonder, conservatives have talked a lot, in this country, about what they've described sometimes as a culture of victimization. I wonder if Dr. Laura here is buying into that exact culture of victimization that so many conservatives would decry?

RIDLEY: Well, I will say this, we've heard a lot, over the last week, about sensitivity, in terms of the mosque issue and things like that. We've heard a lot about first amendment, and these are the kinds of things that slide back and forth. There's a lot of sensitivity from the right in terms of the mosque. A lot of these people disappear when the sensitivity issue is about the Confederate flag being flown, and where it should be flown and how it should be flown.

These are the kinds of things where we start to, I think, in a lot of ways project our perspective. And when people talk about conversations of race, we tend to get uptight about it, we tend to not listen or feel from other people's perspective. I think this is a really good example of that on both sides here.

INSKEEP: John, thanks for coming by.

RIDLEY: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: John Ridley is a MORNING EDITION commentator and editor of

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