Thursday, August 26, 2010

"That Black Boy Took My Swing!" or, Dr. Laura Deserves a Time-Out

Soon-to-be former talk radio personality Dr. Laura believes that she's "lost her First Amendment rights" because sponsors aren't willing to stick with a woman whose advice to a black caller concerned about how to deal with epithets from her husband's friends was that she "shouldn't have married outside of her race." Here's the thing Dr. Laura: You can holler the N-word all you want and (not-so) obliquely insist upon racial purity all you want. You can even do so without legal recourse as long as you're not attempting to incite a hate crime, but that doesn't mean anyone has to listen to, condone, or finance your drivel in national syndication. You can still go get yourself a soapbox and a megaphone and stand up on a street corner and holler whatever you want - but nowhere in the First Amendment are you guaranteed freedom from criticism or the social consequences of acting like an asshole. 

One sticky Carolina afternoon a year or so after Reagan left office, I made a complete ass of myself too. I took a flying leap from a swing on a dare and landed nearly knee first in the dirt. Triumphantly, I dusted myself off and turned around to go again, but my swing? Was occupied.

A little boy whose name I can't remember had quickly usurped the vacated swing the second I flung myself off of it and into the air. I was pissed.

"I. Am. TELLING!" I shrieked, and I stomped off to the gazebo where our afterschool counselors were gathered around a picnic table, ostensibly making sure no one died.

I marched up to one of them, interrupting the counselors' (I just realized they were younger than I am now) rousing game of Uno. I tugged at at the nearest grown-up sleeve and pointed towards the playground.

"That little black boy took my swing!" I shouted nastily.

The counselor's eyes popped wide open in shock. He slid off of the picnic table bench and squatted down. I began to shift my feet around inside my Keds as he looked me square in the eyes.

"Who took your swing now?"

I set my jaw.

"That. Little. BLACK. BOY!"

I should point out that the afterschool counselor was also black. (I can't remember his name either, and I'm not sure what that says about me considering my usual propensity to never forget anyone, ever.)

"Do you mean the little boy took your swing?" .

"NO! I mean that BLACK boy TOOK! IT!"

The counselor shook his head and walked over the the gazebo's railing. I followed, expecting justice for my stolen swing to be quickly meted out just as soon as the counselor realized that I'd been robbed; that he was focusing on the wrong thing here.

Instead, the counselor came back down to eye level and asked me a question I've never forgotten.

"Why did you call him black?"

What the hell kind of a question was that? And what about my SWING, HUH?

"Because he is black!"

"What if a white boy had taken your swing? Would you have screamed that the white boy took it?"

I turned that one over for a moment.

"No. But that boy is BLACK. And he TOOK my swing! And I WANT IT BACK!"

The counselor looked away for a moment.

"Did he push you off of the swing?"


"Did you get to swing for a long time before he got on?"


"Don't you think you ought to be sharing?"

"Y- NO! I was THERE FIRST! And I just did my jump and I was going to go back and then that-"

I pointed again, wildly,

"-little black boy took it away!"

The counselor had finally had enough.

"Margaret. I want you to sit here. For ten minutes. And I want you to really think about sharing. And about why you feel like you need to holler about what color he is."

I was shocked. Time out was unacceptable. My swing had been stolen, where was MY justice? Why was I being punished for calling the swing thief what he so obviously was? I crossed my arms and slunk to the ground to do my time, but just in case the counselor didn't know how I felt about this whole thing, I yelled,

"Fine! But I am TELLING that you put me in time out because I said he's black when he IS! You put me here because I'm WHITE!"

He walked back to other counselors and re-joined the Uno game. I thought one of the white counselors might release me from my time out; I was obviously being punished unfairly. After a few minutes of enraged muttering, which impressed no one, I fell silent.

So I sat and I pouted, but inevitably, I pondered. In 1990, I was sure I'd been grievously wronged, that the counselor and the boy were obviously in league against me because they were black and I was white.

In high school, after not thinking about the incident for years, I recounted the story to a friend and realized that I had been a complete asshole.

The counselor didn't put me in time out because I was white. He put me in time out because I'd come up to the counselors demanding that the little boy be ejected from the swing because I wanted it all to myself, and on top of that I'felt the need to scream about the boy's race, even though that wasn't the issue.

But it wasn't simply that I'd said it. It was how I said it.

I can still hear my voice, a tiny five year old white Southern girl demanding  - in her haughtiest, most nasty voice possible - for that swing thieving little black boy to be dealt with, because she sure as hell didn't HAVE to share with him or anybody else.

I deserved those ten minutes. That time out didn't harm me. That time out didn't squelch my First Amendment rights; they let me holler and mutter until I wore myself out. But it did punish me for acting like a greedy, borderline racist little brat.

When I hear people screeching that their First Amendment rights have been violated because no one wants to put up with their borderline or blatantly racist drivel (What up, Dr. Laura?), I almost always flash immediately back to that afternoon, and I can't help but wonder:

Are you really being discriminated against, or silenced unfairly? Or are you just getting a Time Out for acting like an asshole?

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theTsaritsa said...

She definitely deserves a time out for being an idiot. I listened to the call, and she was on the caller's case from the very start. You would think she'd be more empathetic and compassionate, but no she insisted that the caller was "hypersensitive." Whatever.

I went to public school all my life where I was actually a minority. I think if more people understand what it's like to be a minority we'd all be a bit more empathetic about race.

Queen of the Rant said...

Great story with great morals-despite the fact that i think our freedom of speech is hindered and that has nothing to do with race-it is simply because we live in a police state where our lives get dictated by the man-and if we dare say something that the man does not like-he will find a way to silence us next time.

Margaret said...

@Queen - You've entirely missed my point. There is no Police State silencing us.

When you act like an asshole about race, or gender, or religion? You don't get punished by the state. Citizens THEMSELVES choose to ignore the spewing drivel.

And that's not a police state, that's not The MAN.

That's decent people looking at someone being an asshole and saying, "You know what? No one can prosecute you just for being a dick, but we sure don't have to put up with you."

The Ranter said...

@Margaret - Here here

Alexa O said...

Hear, hear! Dr. Laura is a DICK. I heard that call, too, and she was an ass from the beginning.

Weirdly, the issue started when the woman said that her husband had a friend who always asked her "what black people do." Dr. Laura didn't think that was racist, but I disagree. What, ALL black people do this, that, or the other? Ridiculous!

I love that you wrote this post, though, because I do think that one thing that is happening is that people are SO afraid of saying the wrong thing that everybody pretends that racism and prejudice don't exist anymore. And sure, things are better. But it's still an issue, and it helps if people can be honest...

Angela said...

I like this post. Very much. It's always the biggest assholes who decry freedom of speech to defend more of their assholish behaviour. Which I think you covered, but just thought I'd second it.

I live in a city which is really more of a small town and is still ridiculously racist. It is commonplace for people to refer to 'black' people as "monkeys" and worse. It's disgusting and when I object, as I often have, they pipe up with "I'm not prejudiced". Um, yes you are now shut the fuck up you un-educated moron.

Which, apparently, makes me the bad guy.

Fuck freedom of speech if that's what it means.

Margaret said...

@Angela - I love that they're legally allowed to run off at the mouth. If they were LEGALLY restricted from spewing that kind of crap, we'd never be able to see them for what they are, would we?

The best way to punish people for being assholes is to hit them hard with social consequences.

Jendra said...

This was a fantastic post. And it's sad what you learned while young is something that too many middle aged people still haven't figured out. Like Dr. Laura.

Skywaitress said...

::claps:: I couldn't have said this better.

People think they're not only entitled to speak but they're entitled to an audience. Thankfully they're mistaken.

Great post.

Max said...

Bravo Margaret, excellent post. And thank you Skywaitress, there is no constitutional guarantee to a free audience.

theTsaritsa said...

I agree, Margaret. It's better that these morons and bigots show the world who they really are-- so that we know to stay clear of them!

Jon said...

One of the reasons my father and I no longer speak is because he feels the need to bring up the superiority of white people every other minute and every time he does I want to choke him with his suspenders. It's my own fault, I let him know much it bothers me. Now he can use it against me, to punish me for not thinking he's right and for having a black best friend and for not living up to his expectations et cetera et cetera.
It sucks. But you're right; I can't stop him from thinking or saying these things, but I sure as hell don't have to stick around to listen to them.
Great post, Margaret.

LM Lawrence said...

Fab post! Totally agree with you. Dr. Laura deserves a time out...a few years perhaps.

joreth said...

I can understand the confusion that some people have when they see a particular word being used casually by a group of people whose culture they are unfamiliar with, and then they try to use it and get penalized for it.

That being said, I'm not defending Dr. Laura at all and I think this post is completely correct. The proper response to "that's racist" would be "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't understand that and I didn't mean what it sounded like" and, if necessary, "could you explain to me why?", not "you're violating my First Amendment Rights to say whatever I want!"

A mailing list I'm on recently went through a similar flame war, where someone made a joke about "all women" and a couple of women stepped in with "that's sexist and also untrue". To which the guys said "oh lighten up, it was just a joke".

After progressively more heated responses on both sides, I (as the moderator) stepped in and banned a couple I thought of as the most rude, but not everyone with the opposing opinion got banned. Just the ones with the biggest attitude.

To which the opposing side cried "censorship" and taking sides in an argument. First of all, yes, I took the side of those who were offended by the rudeness and who were the first "victims" in the situation. Second of all, nowhere does it say that the email group is required to listen to every single viewpoint in existence. As someone above said, not everyone has the right to an audience.

Although, to whomever said something about Dr. Laura having it in for her caller from the beginning - that's her schtick. Why she's popular is because some people like a "tell it like it is" type personality. An awful lot of the time, her response to her callers is not to sympathize with them and tell them how right they are to feel whatever they're feeling, but to point out where she thinks it's *their* fault for their predicament. In certain cases (like the guy who married a party girl & got pissed when she didn't change into June Cleaver after the wedding) that might be appropriate. In many other cases, it's not.

Lori @ In Pursuit of Martha Points said...

Remember when Miss California got flamed so badly for saying she was against gay marriage, and then went all over every talk show that had electricity saying her first amendment rights were being infringed upon?

I wanted someone, ANYONE, to say, "The first amendment does not give your protection from consequence for saying things that are offensive! It gives you freedom from being ARRESTED for those offensive comments by someone who disagrees with you."

Consequence is consequence. Say something that pisses people off, they act pissed. The first amendment is not an entitlement clause.

Margaret said...

@Joreth - Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I do have one nitpick though: who should and should not use the N-word isn't confusing.

Women can say things about women that men shouldn't say. Hispanics might crack jokes amongst themselves. Japanese kids might make jokes at their own ethnic expense - it's all along the lines of "I'll make fun of my mama all I want, but you better keep your mouth shut." And Dr. Laura is old enough to know better. She's not some kid born in 2001 who has no clue about the original meaning of the n-word. She's 63 years old (born in 1947, if you're doing the math.) Unless she's spent her entire life in isolation, she should know better.

But that's neither here nor there, the 11 n-bombs were bad, but they were almost nothing compared to her directive that the caller "shouldn't have married outside of her race." That statement was the far more egregious moment of Being a Dick.

Amanda M said...

can we be pen-pals or something? haha you are so honest p.s. your keds sound amazing. my cool-kid shoes were clear-jelly and sparkly. my pride and joy. p.s. I feel like its innapropriate to be pen pals when we live on the same continent. like. shouldnt one of us live over the ocean? just saying.

The Ari | af | ya Universe said...

I read your anecdotal story with great interest. How does a 5 year old KNOW the discernment of race unless it was taught by an adult?

My niece and nephew are biracial. Their mothers are Caucasian (I know long story don't want to go into). And it is my nephew that is beginning to realize how he is different because he is ~5 years old. But I even remember him ~2 years old not wanting to hug me because he was scared of who I was and that he had never seen a "Black woman" like me before...See my mother has a lighter skin tone so his reference to darker skin tones are only males.

My niece is ~2 and she has taken to me since she was an infant in my arms. That little girl just clings to me as if I was her mother. It is the funniest thing. Cute as a button.

As my nephew gets older it takes 2 days for him to warm up to me...Your story reminds me of the wounds that children inflict on one another that never heal. While you may feel you healed, you cannot remember the boy or the counselors name of how your greedy ignorant 5 years borderline (I like that diagnosis) racist rant confounded another child...

That child now an adult, if still alive, may have moved on and is happy. Some people can do that. A lot of people, cannot.

The reason why Dr. Laura's comments were so incendiary was not the fact she used the word in a matter of context or claim her free speech rights were oppressing her. But that she would attempt to befuddle the caller on her real relationship problem with her hypocrisy by knowingly target her on something that would incite the caller...This caller was blindsided.

Fact is you don't call Dr. Laura's retarded show on that subject.

Margaret said...

You pose an interesting question- I'm not sure anyone can really pinpoint the moment they became aware of race. I do feel the need to point out that I wasn't specifically mad at the kid because he was black (at least not, God love me, consciously), I was pissed because he took my swing, and for reasons I still don't understand, I made his race an issue. It's particularly notable in light of the fact that not before and never since have I done anything like what happened that afternoon.

If anyone's wondering, the boy never heard the exchange. The gazebo was quite far away from the swing set, and he was able to swing and play quite happily, unaware of the stunt I was pulling on the other side of the park.

Thirdly, no I didn't call out Dr. Laura's n-word rant or her thinly (read as: not at all) veiled jab at interracial marriages - I touched on it briefly, but I think most of the media's got calling her on the racist B.S. covered - as well as the fact that the baited the caller.

I told the story only to emphasize that the concept of receiving social consequences for being borderline or even blatantly racist isn't anything on a scale with losing your First Amendment rights.

The Bear Monk said...

You're post reminded me of the first time I used a racial slur...sadly it was the n-word but, fortunately I've seen the error in my ways.

I honestly can't remember how old I was. We were waiting in line at a Dairy Queen for some ice cream and I remember saying that I was glad that there was just some --- in front of us. I don't remember feeling any sort of frustration at their race or entitlement based on my own but, my parents quickly corrected me and later explained to me that that particular word shouldn't be used in mixed company.

Inquisitive in my youth I remember wondering why a word should be said at all that was like the N-word. It is a word uniquely designed to demean and hurt people and I can't for the life of me think of any reason that I wanted to do that then or that I'd want to do that now.

Now while I'm glad that in this country I do have the freedom to say the n-word but, I'm also glad that I've got the good sense to NOT say it.

Our thoughts are expressed in language and as such we should be aware of the words that we allow to enter into our vocabulary and be aware of the whole definition of the words that we already use.

Martha said...

Margaret, this is all very true.

What bothered me most about Schlessinger's comments that day was not her use of the N word, but her dismissive attitude toward the caller from the very beginning.

She accused the woman of being hyper sensitive and then shouted over her all the while saying that the collective "we" should be able to talk about race.

Yet, she wasn't letting the woman have her opinion and she was treating her with much disrespect.

I agree that she is being given a much-needed time out. I hope it lasts forever. It pains me when such callousness and poor judgment is used by any person with an audience.

I don't think that you deserved such treatment as a child. I think you were wronged. Children learn racism from adults and it is up to the adults to talk to them about word choice, not punish a child for saying something she doesn't truly understand the ramifications of.

@ Ari af ya Universe, I am the mother of a biracial child. I wonder if your nephew seems scared of you for other reasons than your skin color. My daughter is 2 and she is aware of the difference in our skin tones, but it's because we talk about it. She sees older white women and yells "Grandma" and she sees older black women and yells, "Grandma." Children notice lots of things. Maybe your nephew is simply shy, in comparison to your niece. With all due respect, I think you should carefully consider assuming that a member of your family is scared of you because of your color. Children act in many ways for many reasons.

If I am wrong, please accept my apologies. I mean no disrespect. But it's a topic I think of often considering that my family is made up of different colors.


Lynette said...

I really loved this post. It was a lesson too many of us have never learned.

twilightgazing said...

Loved your blog.

It is interesting at what age we become aware, consciously or not, of our own environment and social being in the world. Being born in Zambia to white parents, and migrating to Australia when I was two, I remember vividly being at the water drinking fountains at school, when I was about five and discussing with another child (the name, and who, I cannot remember either) that I was born in Africa. They responded, so simply, “You can’t have been you’re not black”. I still remember the confusion this caused to me as to why I wasn’t, and perhaps a bit of disappointment. Interestingly, my first doll (who I still have lovingly today) is black and sent to me by my grandmother and all the time playing with her it never dawned on me that she was a different colour to all the other dolls in the household at the time. A very fortunate upbringing!

Kelley said...

This was a very entertaining and educational story! You seemed like a confident little 5 y/o speaking your mind and thoughts so passionately to an adult that way, even if they weren't the "right" thoughts. My son is 5 and this story makes me realize that he will remember things that I do and lessons I teach him (I hope). Thanks for this post!

Jukeman said...

That is a great story, and perfect that you learned. It's also a great example of how racism is alive in the U.S. and still is. The talk show hosts expect a following no matter where they go and will usually get it. Minorities are only in the heads of the people that use the term, and that's what I personally dislike about labels, they do only exist because we use them. In the end I suppose certain social factions will never get along with other social factions because they will look for reasons not to. In my community growing up, there were social introverts and outcasts the same. I suppose it's not really who you are anymore in this country, it's what you are, and as long as social terms exist, we'll never be Americans...

Adrienne said...

Sigh. Late to the party, as per usual.

I love this; I agree with every word, and I love the gentle lesson you got from that man.

Dr. Laura's statement that her advertisers are infringing on her constitutional rights is flat silly. That's like saying I'm infringing on her constitutional rights because I don't buy her books! She has the right to say what she likes; I have the right not to listen; and her advertisers have the right to stop financing her show.


That woman has always made my skin crawl. I have never understood why people listen to her profoundly dismissive, judgmental, and harsh words.

alonewithcats said...

Amen. To everything.

Sounds as if Dr. Laura is getting the ultimate time-out. And a long-time-coming heave-ho.

Keeping time said...

It seems that we as Americans like to qualify things, I've never understood why. It also seems to be a very generational thing. As a teacher, most of my high school students never use qualifiers, its just not apart of their vocabulary as it was ours and our parents'.

Erin said...

Sorry to be late to the party, just wanted to chime in that I felt your post was quite relevant.

I think it also is very eye opening to suddenly find yourself in a position of being a minority. It makes you realise how privileged or lucky you have always been. I moved to Britain from America 5 years ago, and being an immigrant has given me an insight I didn't have previously.

Also- my son, being of a darker complexion, never had any trouble in Arizona- but here in Britain, land of the pasty caucasian, he is frequently the victim of racial abuse that I bet most "whites" don't even realise still happens in this day and age....

It has a huge affect on your point of view. Perhaps Dr. Laura hasn't had the benefit of walking a mile...

Amber said...

Dr. Laura is a total weirdo.

The worst thing is that when she gave her completely stupid, insensitive, uninformed advice, there were hundreds of listeners who didn't question it.