Dr. Laura Schlessinger, professional talk radio nag, went off on a racist rant during yesterday’s (Aug. 12) Tuesday’s (Aug. 10) episode of her nationally syndicated program. A black caller had phoned in to the show seeking advice; her white husband’s friends and family members had a nasty habit of making racist remarks around her, and she felt hurt not only by the comments themselves but also by her husband’s reluctance to speak up against the comments or acknowledge that they were hurtful to her. Dr. Laura, rather than giving the woman any useful advice, went up and down the list of racist tropes in a tirade that included several instances of the incantation “nigger nigger nigger.” Of course, Dr. Laura’s use of that word has caused an uproar, but rather than focus on that part of her comments, I’d like to take a moment to unpack why so much of the rest of what she had to say was so problematic.
For what it’s worth, Dr. Laura insisted during the call that those who took issue with her repeatedly chanting “nigger nigger nigger” over the airwaves of hundreds of radio stations nationwide were simply taking her words out of context. Media Matters for America, in the interest of recording such incidents for us and our posterity, has the full call, unedited, with a transcript here. (Dr. Laura herself, apparently, has actually excised this portion of the program from the archives on her own Web site.) The Media Matters clip/transcript, though, will be quite helpful in demonstrating that pretty much everything Dr. Laura has to say is wrong and rooted in racism. Here are eight reasons why:
1. “Racism isn’t really a problem; blacks are just being hypersensitive.” To start off the call, as Jade (the caller) is explaining the problem with her husband and his family and friends’ racist comments, Dr. Laura cuts her off with this classic racist trope: She says to Jade:
Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment? ‘Cause sometimes people are hypersensitive. So tell me what’s — give me two good examples of racist comments.
Translation: “I, a white person, reserve the right to appoint myself to be the adjudicator of whether or not something that you, a black person, experienced was really racist. I reserve the right to tell you whether or not you have the right to feel hurt by the things you experience. None of your experiences or feelings as a black person are legitimate unless approved by me, a white person.” This is textbook racism, folks, way before the word “nigger” ever comes out of her mouth. And even one example of racism from Jade isn’t enough for her; she has the nerve to raise the bar even higher and insist on two!
2. “Stereotypes are based in truth and therefore cannot be racist.” In the La-La Land world that exists only inside the head of morality queen Laura Schlessinger, racial stereotyping isn’t racist. Now, not only has Dr. Laura exercised her right to adjudicate whether black people really experience racism; she’s gone one step beyond casting doubt to insisting that, no, the comments Jade endures from her neighbor are definitely not racist. She even gives an example of (what she thinks is) a stereotype that’s based in truth and therefore not racist: Blacks voted for Barack Obama only because he’s black. Never mind the fact that black voters have been voting Democratic (by about 90%) in national elections for many, many years now, and Obama’s numbers were not that far out of line with the level of black support that the previous several Democratic candidates had gotten; it must just be because he’s black. Or, as Dr. Laura is so careful to point out, half-black. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the Republican Party has, in the words of their own chairman Michael Steele, absolutely nothing to offer to black people. No, according to Dr. Laura, the only explanation for Obama’s popularity in the black communities of the United States is that blacks are an unthinking herd who voted for him because, as she so eloquently put it, “it was a black thing.” And there’s your example of a stereotype based in truth that proves that stereotyping isn’t racist. Glad we got that cleared up, Dr. Laura.
3. “I don’t understand why, or think it’s fair that, white people can’t say ‘nigger.’” Chris Rock said it best on this one: For all the white people out there who get so upset about not being able to say “nigger,” it just raises the obvious question, why do you want to? I, like Chris Rock, am deeply suspicious of any white people who want to say “nigger” that badly. For what? Aside from that question, though, Dr. Laura is being either intentionally obtuse or incredibly naive in wondering what the difference is between blacks saying it and whites saying it. Now, there’s a debate even among blacks about whether blacks should use the word “nigger,” and my point here isn’t to get into the question of whether that’s appropriate. My point is that it takes a special kind of ignorance, even notwithstanding that question, to miss the fact that there are real and relevant differences between black and white uses of the word. Even if it were wrong for blacks to use the word “nigger,” that doesn’t change the fact that it’s even more wrong on a deeper and far more fundamental level for whites to do so. History matters, Dr. Laura, especially regarding the historical use of a term like “nigger.” White uses of the term make reference to a centuries-old history of oppression, discrimination, hatred and injustice. Part of the reason that blacks started using it was that many believed that reappropriating it would empty it of (at least some of) its power when used by whites. In other words, there’s an entirely different power dynamic in play when blacks say it, compared to when whites do. Specifically, black uses of the term are not attempts to assert power over the person being addressed; white uses of it are. Anybody even a little bit reflective and thoughtful, who legitimately wanted to understand the differences in the uses of the term, could figure that out fairly easily. And yet, clearly, Dr. Laura could not.
4. Right-wing racism? What right-wing racism? This trope, as relatively recent as its rise to prominence has been, is already getting old. Since she’s breaking out all the racist tropes at once, Dr. Laura didn’t want to miss out:
We’ve got a black man as president, and we have more complaining about racism than ever. I mean, I think that’s hilarious.
Yes, it’s so hilarious that members of Congress had to endure racial epithets on their way to cast their votes on the health care bill. It’s hilarious that racist signs and slogans have become commonplace at Tea Party rallies across the country. It’s hilarious that the right has drummed up opposition to Pres. Obama largely on the basis of his allegedly being “foreign” and “not like us.” (“Birther” controversy, anyone? Can anyone explain why no white President has ever faced the same sort of insinuations that he just didn’t belong?) It’s hilarious that Dr. Laura’s fellow talk radio blowhard Laura Ingraham has published a book in which she describes First Lady Michelle Obama eating ribs at every meal. And it’s hilarious that Mexican immigrants have been so thoroughly vilified on the right as the true source of so many of the United States’ problems. Yes, that’s some uproariously funny stuff. If by “hilarious” you mean “alarming, disturbing and downright terrifying,” then yes, Dr. Laura, all of this racism stuff since Obama took office last January has been “hilarious.”
5. “Chip on your shoulder. I can’t do much about that.” Dr. Laura insists that racism can’t possibly be a real problem under the Obama administration because whites voted him into office. Jade attempts to make a salient point regarding the huge gap between the amounts of support that Obama got from younger whites and older whites. But Dr. Laura doesn’t need to listen to reasonable points that conflict with her worldview. Instead, she can just change the subject completely by insisting, when she finds herself getting the worse of the argument, that her black opponent just has a chip on her shoulder. Does Jade actually have a point about the race gap between older and younger generations of whites? Of course not! She just has “too much sensitivity and not enough sense of humor.” (Oh, that would be a semi-clever play on words, Dr. Laura, if only the content of those words weren’t so profoundly ignorant and utterly asinine.) She’s just looking for an excuse to get offended, so there’s no need for Dr. Laura to engage her actual point. Funny how privilege works that way, isn’t it?
6. “Don’t NAACP me, bro.” (OK, Dr. Laura left out the “bro,” but her comment here is still completely stupid.) First, there’s the typical insistence that those (like the NAACP) who are attempting to tackle racial issues head-on and discuss them openly are “the real racists.” Dr. Laura insists that the NAACP is synonymous with taking comments out of context to make whites seem racist even though they’re not. Moreover, she claims that black “hypersensitivity” is “being bred by black activists” who are only interested in power rather than in “righteousness to do good.” (Side note: Seriously, Dr. Laura, you’d have us believe, after that unsolicited commentary, that Jade is the one with the chip on her shoulder? Really, how long have you been sitting on that rant, waiting for an excuse to get it off your chest in the most self-righteous way possible?) Second, there’s the complete lack of any situational irony on Dr. Laura’s part in describing the NAACP as an organization that takes others’ comments out of context. Has she been spending so much time in her imaginary Dr. Laura Land that she hasn’t heard about the video of Shirley Sherrod speaking at an NAACP event? Tell me, Dr. Laura, was it the NAACP that was playing fast and loose (and intentionally deceptively) with “context,” or was that hatchet job actually the work of right-wing hack Andrew Breitbart? Give me a break.
7. “I’ll tell you whom you can marry.” After Jade points out the obvious, that whites using the word “nigger” is an attempt to hurt blacks, Dr. Laura does what Dr. Laura does: she gets matriarchal and decides to tell people how to run their lives. This time, she has some unsolicited advice about who should and shouldn’t be in an interracial relationship and which blacks should and shouldn’t associate with whites. Nor surprisingly, again it’s the allegedly humorless, oversensitive blacks (funny how that characterization just keeps coming up, isn’t it?) who need to stay away from Dr. Laura and her fellow whites (who are, of course, just doing their level best at all times not to say or do anything racist and are never really the problem when it comes to racial issues). After all, if you marry outside your race, you should expect to be grilled by your spouse’s friends and family about stereotypes of your racial group. And, remember, those stereotypes are totally legitimate, so you’ll have no basis on which to complain about constantly being put upon in that way! The sad thing is, there is a lot that can be learned from the sort of open, frank conversations about race that can happen when people of different racial backgrounds get together, talk and form real relationships. They’re not the nonsensical “why do blacks conform to stereotype x” conversations that Dr. Laura envisions, of course, and there’s definitely no good that can come from someone like her deciding who ought and ought not to enter into those relationships and have those conversations.
8. “This conversation is over when I say it’s over.” Finally, Dr. Laura exercises the ultimate display of power in a conversation by exercising the privilege of unilaterally deciding when it’s over. After being dismissive of Jade’s feelings, doubtful about the legitimacy of her experiences and presumptuous about her true motivations, Dr. Laura decides she’s heard (and said) enough. And, since she’s heard and said enough, that means the conversation has reached an endpoint, right? There’s no need to acknowledge the needs of the black person in the conversation about race, no need to ensure that Jade has been heard or that her points have been addressed. Dr. Laura said what she had to say and avoided really listening to anything that might contradict it. Another successful conversation about race, as far as she’s concerned!
So, there you have it: eight reasons why “nigger nigger nigger” isn’t all that’s wrong with Dr. Laura’s rant. She can dodge responsibility for saying “nigger” and retreat into her “you’re taking it out of context” explanation, and people will buy her hedged “I wasn’t really wrong, but I’m sorry anyway” apology. And while repeatedly saying “nigger nigger nigger” is definitely the most sensational aspect of this incident, the rest of her racially problematic rhetoric is, to me, the more problematic part of her comments, because all the other rhetoric only serves to reinforce racism and white privilege while maintaining a cover or plausible deniability that that’s really what’s going on. So, Dr. Laura, you tried to have a conversation about race on a nationally syndicated talk show and utterly failed in the presence of millions. To borrow a phrase from the racist nag herself, “nice try, Dr. Laura. Actually, sucky try.”
Update: From Dr. Laura’s apology, here’s yet more reason (actually a few more reasons that I’ll articulate here briefly) that her comments are problematic:
I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the “n” word all the way out – more than one time. And that was wrong. I’ll say it again – that was wrong. I ended up, I’m sure, with many of you losing the point I was trying to make, because you were shocked by the fact that I said the word. I, myself, realized I had made a horrible mistake, and was so upset I could not finish the show.
First, can Dr. Laura even explain why her use of the word “nigger” was wrong? Based on her comments from the show, she clearly doesn’t seem to know, and this statement doesn’t give us any indication that she’s really had any epiphanies in that regard since Tuesday. Even in her apology, she still falls back on the “I was attempting to make a philosophical [sic] point” excuse that seems to attempt to justify her use of the word more than apologize for it. It seems all she’s really sorry about is that, as she writes, many of her listeners lost the point she was trying to make. In other words, she seems not really sorry so much for her words and actions themselves as for the fact that they offended people. Even the letter from a black listener (racist trope: “But I know a black person who also disagrees with you!”) that she posts along with her apology, she gets a chance once again to hammer home her so-called “philosophical” point that there’s no real difference between blacks and whites saying “nigger.” And, bonus, she gets validation from the author of this letter that she’s not really a racist! Aside from the not-really-sure what-I-should-actually-be-sorry-for apology, she manages to work in yet another racist trope: making it all about her and her feelings. She goes off for around six full minutes of spewing racist nonsense, and we’re supposed to care that she “was so upset [she] could not finish the show?” Sorry, but no. Dr. Laura, I don’t care that you were upset. You had a black caller on the line and repeatedly chanted “nigger nigger nigger” at her in front of a radio audience of millions, and we’re supposed to focus on the effect that this behavior (your behavior) had on your fragile feelings? Hell no.
And what about Jade, the caller who had to sit on the other end and listen to Dr. Laura’s garbage for those six minutes? Dr. Laura hopes she’ll call back and get the help she was looking for! No, Dr. Laura, you gave her your opinion on her situation. Her problem was that her husband didn’t have her back when people made racist comments. Your “solution” was for her to stop being oversensitive and realize that the comments weren’t really racist! Your complete dismissal of Jade and her problem came way before the “nigger nigger nigger” chants started. Have your views on black hypsensitivity changed since Tuesday? Have you decided that racial stereotypes really are racist (and not simply true), after all? Are you now, as you weren’t then, ready to acknowledge that racism is still a real problem in American society and not just a political ploy by “black activists” (like the NAACP) to gain more power? Are you prepared to relinquish your insistence on saying which blacks should and shouldn’t form relationships with whites? If not, then what additional “help” do you think you can give Jade? For Jade’s sake, I hope she never even thinks about calling Dr. Laura for advice on this anything else ever again. So, for the apology that was more about herself and her own feelings than it was about the hurt that she caused to Jade (who, let’s remember, called Dr. Laura in the first place because she considered her in some sense, misguided as her estimation clearly turned out to be, a trusted and respected authority on … something), I still conclude: “Nice try, Dr. Laura. Actually, sucky try.”