Dear Dr. Laura: Why you can’t use the n-word

August 18, 2010

Dr. Laura's speech bubble

Photo by Dawn Beattie (license), adapted by Jon Reid

Dear Dr. Laura,

I hear you’ve had a tough time at work, and are now feeling misunderstood, threatened, even repressed. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about you, but maybe that will allow me to provide some relatively unbiased comments. I hope they are helpful.

I did see video clips of your conversation with the caller on your radio show. Frankly, I was shocked. Didn’t you know that sensibilities regarding the n-word have changed dramatically in the last 60 years? I’m no more black than you are, but I was aware that the n-word is regarded as quite offensive. The issue is not whether you or I have a “right” to say what we want; the issue is respect for others. Where offense is likely to be received, let’s take extra care not to go there, even when (really, especially when) offense is not intended.

But as you ask, why is the n-word off-limits for non-blacks, but okay for black men? And I have heard other white people wonder this same question. Let me try to explain using my own background and personal experience:

My father is a white boy from Indiana. My mother is Japanese. What does that make me? Well, it depends where I am. Growing up in Japan, I was an outsider. Kids on the street would point and stare, and say (quite clearly, as if they didn’t expect me to understand), “Look, it’s a gaijin!” Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner — literally, an outside person. In the land of my birth (Japan), I grew up an outsider.

Japanese people are generally some of the nicest people you will ever meet. But it didn’t really matter if the word was said by a kindly old lady, or young punks on the street. Even when meant kindly, it continually reinforced my awareness that I was the Other and did not belong.

But here’s a funny thing: the word doesn’t have the sting when said by another non-Japanese person. In fact, among my friends, we would occasionally call each other “henna gaijin” — weird foreigner. That was the worst taunt we heard, but saying it to each other made us laugh. It was like an inside joke. A bravado guy thing. It helped us belong.

But oh, the wound that would come to my heart if I heard a Japanese person say those words.

(…And this is without a history of slavery, repression, and ongoing injustice.)

I hope this helps.

Jon Reid

Related posts: Are You a Racist?

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

7 responses to Dear Dr. Laura: Why you can’t use the n-word

  1. Your fellow gaijin concurs! One time I told some 1st grade Japanese boys, that I was not a gaijin – I had a Japanese name, and I spoke Japanese. You should’ve seen how confused they got! It took a long time for me to be comfortable being “other.” I wanted so desperately to be like Paul, who was Greek to the Greeks, Roman to the Romans – I wanted to be Japanese to the Japanese. Indeed, my inner sense of things is far more Japanese than my own Japanese husband. But now I use this sense of not fully belonging to remind myself that my citizenship is in heaven, and is nowhere here on earth. And I fully see your point to Dr. Laura. She hasn’t suffered any of the things that black men do, so she cannot be in the club that can use the word.

  2. Donna Escoffier August 19, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Well done, Jon. Dr Laura saying that she wants to “regain her First Amendment rights” to say what she wants on Larry King is equivalent in my mind to the proposal to build a mosque near ground zero. Both are protected by our Constitution, but that doesn’t make them kind, compassionate, nor classy in any way. I am disappointed in her.
    I understand your point well as a fellow gaijin. The term in one circumstance (among friends) is inclusive, and in others (coming from strangers) is exclusive.

  3. She definately has no right to use that word!
    Check out my blog:

  4. Jon – Coming to here by way of Chad’s revised parable, I had to laugh at the last part of your second paragraph:
    “The issue is not whether you or I have a “right” to say what we want; the issue is respect for others. Where offense is likely to be received, let’s take extra care not to go there, even when (really, especially when) offense is not intended.”
    This is exactly parallel to what I’ve heard opponents of the ground zero mosque say. They have the right to build it, even there but if they are really wanting to reach out and build bridges that’s exactly the wrong place to build it and the Imam used as the proponent is the wrong person given his past statements.
    I took from Chad’s parable that he was painting the opponents of the mosque being built in that place in a very negative light and they should re-think. Your comments on his blog made me think you agreed with Chad. Now reading the above quote I can’t reconcile the contradiction. Which is it? The right is there but best not to use it? Or anyone who suggests not excersizing the right is a bigot/racist/censor/ take your pick of insults?

  5. Andrea, the gaijin/missionary combination is a unique thing. On the one hand, you will never be “one of them,” even while they’re being so nice about it. But on the other hand, as an outsider, you have some license to bend the cultural rules: to say what isn’t being said, to offer a point of view that no one is considering.
    That feeling of not fully belonging you describe is very familiar. Your kids are third-culture kids, and will carry that with them. It can be a pain, no matter where you go. But for me, it has heightened my awareness of my true citizenship.

  6. Donna, I felt a little sheepish relating our growing-up-in-Japan experiences to those of African Americans. But I’m glad that my point got through, how a word can be both inclusive and exclusive.

  7. Kelvin, I find it difficult to draw a line between Dr. Laura’s offensiveness and the offense people are perceiving at the Islamic community center. The former is clear. I simply do not understand the offense of the latter. What connection is there between this center and the terrorists of Al Qaeda? The latter are Sunni extremists. The main proponent of this center is Sufi. …Should we avoid constructing church buildings in the south, because the KKK are Christian extremists?
    Al Qaeda’s desire was to foment a religious war, pitting Muslims against Christians for The Crusades 2.0. By our reactions, are we not playing to their desires? The world is watching what we do and say.