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The N-Word and Beyond: How Far Is Too Far?

August 20, 2010

On an August 10th episode of the Dr. Laura Program, a black identified caller sought the advice of host Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The caller wanted to know how to address racist remarks made by her white husband’s friends and family, which included using the N-word. Instead of providing the caller with reasonable advice on how to handle the situation, Dr. Laura instead accused the caller of being humorless, and proceeded to use the N-word 11 times in attempting to prove her point. The caller was taken aback by Dr. Laura actually being able to use the N-word in its full form.

According to Dr. Laura,

If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.

Of course, Dr. Laura was heavily reprimanded, which led to a public apology and the end of her talk show (to give her  time to “regain [her] First Amendment rights”).

At the August 15th roast of David Hasselhoff, Lisa Lampanelli (“Queen of Mean”) reminds us “It’s a roast assholes!” during rants about the holocaust, blacks, and Roger Ebert’s surgeries for cancer, among other things. About blacks she says:

[David Hasselhoff’s] liver was so black and bloated it could have starred in Precious. David Hasselhof’s liver is so black it’s f***ing two of the Kardashian sisters. Uhm, look at that old wrinkled brown thing over there. Is that George Hamilton or Oprah Winfrey’s (bleep)…In fact George, you are the closest thing we have to a black on the dais. Oh, that’s not because of your skin color. It’s because you are a terrible father and you haven’t worked in twenty years.

And this is where it gets touchy. In the United States we can say anything we want as we are protected by the First Amendment, but that does not mean that it will or should always be tolerated. Dr. Laura and Lisa Lampanelli, both white, can argue that African Americans can joke the way they have without admonishment, and further as Americans they  [Dr. L and Ms L.] have a right to say whatever they choose. But they should also give historical context to their choices and think about the kinds of attitudes they perpetuate. So, are these cases simply matters poor judgment where celebrities go too far, or are they really illuminating an issue?

Next time we want to talk about the parameters for black people in the United States using the N-word. It, too, is not without controversy.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Corinne S. permalink
    November 1, 2010 7:04 pm

    I think the biggest problem with Dr. Laura’s behavior isn’t necessarily her use of the n-word, but the fact that she, as a white speaker, was telling a black person that they shouldn’t be offended by the use of the n-word. This problem seems to come up as a sort of backlash against being “overly politically correct,” with the idea that a derogatory word loses its offensiveness once its been reclaimed, or that the derogatory word is only harmful so long as people treat it as harmful. Claims of people being hypersensitive to issues involving ‘political correctness’ are par for the course in these discussions. The problem is that Dr. Laura- or any non-black person- shouldn’t tell a black person what they can or cannot find offensive. I don’t think it’s possible for, in this example, a white person to truly know what it would be like to be called something so derogatory. It’s one thing for a white person to say they aren’t offended by certain terms for white people- saying black people shouldn’t be offended by similar terms ignores a lot of the racism still present today.

  2. Claire K. permalink
    November 1, 2010 7:06 pm

    These serve as great examples of the lack of communicative competence involving elements of AAE among many portions of society. Hip-hop seems to be spreading certain aspects of AAE (such as its lexicon) more quickly than competence, resulting in situations such as these. The use of the n-word within AAE is undoubtedly frequently debated and is still quite a hot topic, but from a purely sociolinguistic point of view, these serve as a misuse of a feature of lexicon by an outlier of a dialectal group. Dr. Laura felt the very serious repercussions of her lack of communicative competence, regardless of the legality of her statements.

  3. S.Shaikh permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:38 pm

    I agree with Corinne that the main problem here is that Dr. Laura, a caucasian person, is telling an African American person “how to feel” when using a derogatory term to describe her race. Under no circumstances does she have the moral authority to tell another person how to feel. Personally, however, I do not find anything wrong with this statement “[David Hasselhoff’s] liver was so black and bloated it could have starred in Precious” as I find it being employed as a simile and a descriptive linguistic tool, just as any other simile, regardless of which race it was pertaining to, as it is comparative (I’d really just find it humorous if someone said something similar about my race).

    The “N” word, is completely different and the morality argument is far from the same. The “N” word refers to the times of the slave trade and is a sensitive topic for some and everyone, in my opinion, including Dr. Laura, should be understanding and sympathetic. Clearly, Dr. Laura’s levels of competence are damaging to herself and to those around her.

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