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'd 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?