Tom Burlington and the N-Word Game
Here we go again. From "Kramer" to Dr. Laura, the debate over the six-letter slur is never-ending. Now a former local Fox TV anchor is taking the matter to court. Will we ever find consensus?
3. Usage depends on context. Burlington should not only sue but also win. Fox's knee-jerk response is an overreaction. The word appears to have been used as part of a question, and not as part of a racist verbal attack. People are most likely assuming racist intentions that do not actually exist. These same people will be forced to re-evaluate their positions based on further information Burlington aims to provide at trial.
Judge R. Barclay Surrick seems to agree. In denying Fox's dismissal request, Surrick said that federal courts "had not determined whether a double standard, if found in this case, would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," which deals with equal opportunity in employment.
But I think there is another, fourth, answer: Neither Burlington nor his verbiage really matters at all. He's just the latest in a long line of scapegoats that allow the rest of us to feel good about ourselves, unburdening our collective guilt about race and racism onto the next worthy -- or unworthy -- contender.
This doesn't mean that Burlington is innocent. Rather, it means that focusing on Burlington and others of his ilk gets in the way of what we actually need: dialogue and reconciliation. Making Burlington our scapegoat makes us trade temporary discomfort and uncertainty for the comforts of simplicity and sanctimony. Our preference for simple worldviews -- as in, black people can say the n-word and others can't, or that all or none of us can say it -- ultimately fuels an addiction to moral superiority that gets in the way of real, and necessary, progress.
With both sides firing off statements accusing others of being either racist or more racist, some bigger questions remain unanswered. Who can be considered racist? Who can call someone else a racist? And, the most nagging question of them all: What exactly is racism, anyway? Since so few of us can answer these questions definitively, a federal jury will now have to decide. Burlington contends that he's a victim of political correctness run amok; Fox contends that he's a victim of his own poor judgment.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins is an award-winning writer, speaker and scholar at Brown University. She is interested in new ways of thinking and talking about race, religion, media and politics.