October 19, 2011

Hurtful slurs

Inquiring minds want to know what triggered my angina on the day I almost died.

It was news of a racial slur.

The legendary scandal aired on WHAS-11 at noon Friday, Feb. 3, 2006.

Renee Murphy, who now anchors that newscast, interviewed Paul Dawson, a white teacher at Valley Traditional High School, who confessed he’d commanded a black student to “get away from the door, niggaz.”

I felt a mild tightness and ache in my chest. Dawson struggled to explain himself. He admitted that “nigger” is a racial epithet, but argued that “nigga” is different — a salutation synonymous with “dude.”

Though he didn’t like the word, Murphy reported, he “still used the slang version to feel more comfortable with black students.”

It made Keysean Chavers, the freshman honors student at whom it was directed, uncomfortable enough to want Dawson fired.

Jefferson County Public Schools mandated him to undergo diversity training and suspended him for 10 days without pay — reportedly a record at the time.

According to Murphy’s homework, it wasn’t his first suspension. In 1994 at Southern High, he directed one student to place an “I am gay” sign on another.

Barely aware of the ringing in my head and pain pulsating down my left arm, I agonized over what unreported damage this “educator” had done in his 20-year tenure.

The next day, I underwent quadruple-bypass surgery.

Last week, another controversy swirled surrounding a potential racial slur, and news junkies were transfixed. The remark in question came from a morning anchor at WDRB. After a story on an addled golf fan who tossed a hot dog at Tiger Woods, Lindsay Allen said what some believe sounded like, “This nigga blamed the hot dog on some of his poor performances lately, maybe.”

I repeatedly reviewed the clip posted by Rick Redding on the WLKY-affiliated LouisvilleKY.com. I couldn’t believe my ears. But other listeners heard something different.

I returned to the video, this time focusing on what preceded the utterance in question. It appeared that Allen’s co-anchor, Sterling Riggs, unwittingly set the stage for the alleged offense by lapsing into a jive dialect when he said, “Gonna have to throw it out there. C’mon, man.” In an online comment, one Allen defender who wrote “she just jumbled her words” described the exchange between the two white anchors as “mock Southern redneck or African-American slang.”

The next day, the station awkwardly reported on its own “firestorm of controversy.”

Allen’s boss, News Director Barry Fulmer, said, “Lindsey has done nothing wrong, and we want to be outspoken about that.” If that’s the case, folks on both sides agree Allen shouldn’t have apologized for being misunderstood “if any viewers were offended.”

In a follow-up headlined, “Allen’s lame apology won’t end the story,” Redding reported that “several media experts” he surveyed concurred with his verdict. He proposed a confession for Allen: “Yesterday I said the N-word during the broadcast while trying to be hip in an exchange with Sterling. I’m not racist, and I know that the word is offensive … It was a huge mistake, and I apologize …”

Redding drew fire from readers sympathetic to Allen. Likewise, cyber-critics blasted the 19-year-old black male who brought the story to Redding — and WHAS-11, the only WDRB competitor that covered it. It was a bold move and a balanced report.

By any measure, the issue was newsworthy. Good journalism inspires discussions we need to have.

Throughout Kentuckiana, it led to thoughtful discourses on race, gender and hurtful words. On Thursday, my Back Door buddy Gayle opined that a word that disparages women is especially offensive if there’s not an equivalent word for men. Still we wondered why “cunt” is more cringe-worthy than “dick” — and even agreed on a reason why.

At Sunday brunch, my goddaughter’s friend Hillary made a breathtaking claim: “I like my beer like I like my violence: domestic.” As a hypersensitive New Age guy who swills imports at The Holy Grale, I couldn’t say that — or anything at all.

Many discussions since Allen’s fumble reminded me that the harshness of words relates to their source, tone, attitude, context and audience. But that no toxic talk should go unchallenged.