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Bye, Bye Dr. Laura: Why We Should Actually Thank Her for That N-Word Rant

"I'm hoping that her recent on air meltdown will finally help settle a philosophical debate over the n-word that has raged for years."
 
 
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Editor's Note: The fallout over Dr. Laura Schlessinger's statementshas led to the announcement on Tuesday night that she is retiring from her show.

A lot of people have been beating up on Dr. Laura Schlessinger lately, but I'd actually like to thank her. Before you start drafting your irate comment or e-mail to send my way, let me explain.

By no means am I a fan of Dr. Laura, (as she's known), but I'm even less of a fan of the n-word, which I find more offensive, more harmful, and more poisonous to our community than Dr. Laura will ever be. So the reason I'd like to thank her is because I'm hoping that her recent on air meltdown will finally help settle a philosophical debate over the n-word that has raged for years. On one side of the debate are those of us who believe that no one should say the n-word -- not a white racist and not a black comedian -- ever. On the other side are those who believe that if you're black, you essentially get an n-word lifetime free pass. (I don't recall ever receiving mine in the mail, but I am black so I must have one lying around somewhere.) But Dr. Laura reminds us why such logic is not just flawed, but dangerous.

For those of you who have been living under a rock or without electricity for the last few days, let me catch you up. The controversial radio host said the racial slur nearly a dozen times in the context of telling a black caller that she was being too sensitive about her white husband's friends and others using the n-word, since so many black comedians use it. As a parting shot she also told the woman that if she was so sensitive she never should have married a white guy. (So much for the myth of post-racial America.)

Now I happen to consider Dr. Laura's laughably flawed logic more offensive than her use of the n-word, but considering her doctorate is actually in physiology and not psychology like many believe, it's really not that surprising that she knows so little about people or race relations. But the fact that she felt justified saying what she did confirms a fundamental reality: Arbitrary rules about who can say the n-word and who cannot simply do not work. Dr. Laura felt justified saying what she did because a host of rappers and comedians continue to validate her perspective.

In 2007 the NAACP hosted a funeral for the n-word, a symbolic gesture aimed at putting the word to rest in our community and the community at large. The effort was met by derision and scorn by many, among them celebrities who argued the words' artistic merit and those who noted that there are a host of more important issues plaguing our community.

That's certainly true. As I (and others) have written about before, AIDS is the leading cause of death of young, black women and gun violence is one of the leading causes of death of young black men. But here's what I find interesting. I notice that those issues do not seem to generate the same level of outrage and even reaction in cyberspace among black Americans that a white person saying the n-word seems to. So clearly the word does have an impact, even if it's one that's clearly not as lethal as AIDS or a firearm.

But, we all know that words do matter. Call a child stupid enough times, and eventually that child -- no matter how bright -- will grow into believing that they are not. Despite its racial connotation, the official definition of the n-word is this: "a person of any race or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc." So here's my question to those who believe that as long as the word remains within our community, it's harmless. If a child hears his uncle refer to his father as the n-word on a regular basis, but has been told that if a white person says it to him it's bad, do you honestly believe the word remains harmless? Are children really savvy enough to grasp the nuances of a word being an alleged term of endearment around certain types of people, but a term of degradation among others? Is it any wonder then that so many inner-city high schools have nearly fifty percent drop out rates among black boys, when many of them have likely been called the n-word (as a term of "endearment") much of their lives? Why would they think of themselves as better than that, when they've been raised to believe, and say that they're not?

 
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