LeVar Burton Gives CNN’s N-Word An Actual Story

By Arturo R. García

Maybe the most hard-hitting moment of CNN’s special The N-Word didn’t strictly involve it at all.

It’s tough not to cringe when LeVar Burton talks about the steps he takes to protect himself when he’s pulled over by police, for a number of reasons. The fact that, going by the ease with which he delivers his explanation, it’s become a routine. That he has to say it’s for the officer’s comfort. And finally, the stated reason he taught his son to exercise the same caution.

“I do that because I live in America,” Burton tells host Don Lemon and his panel. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, those words seem especially resonant. Though Lemon interrupts with his story of being “an uppity you-know-what” before segueing to anti-racism advocate Tim Wise, Burton’s story provides the show with a lived-in context it otherwise lacks.

Otherwise, the show’s View From Nowhere approach doesn’t advance a “national discussion” on race, despite Lemon’s stated intentions. The segment purporting to debate whether the actual N-slur “is worse than” the term cracker, which resurfaced in the public eye during the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, sputters because nobody is there to actually defend the word. While that would seem like a no-brainer in progressive circles, to have someone attempt to explain why they feel aggrieved by the term (say, a member of Towson State’s infamous “White Student Union”?) would have a) answered the predictable call for equal time and b) illustrated the downfall of such a viewpoint to begin with.

Likewise, topics like Paula Deen and hip-hop’s use of “nigga” come and go with no real meaning. Deen is not facing a lawsuit just for using a slur; her white accuser, Lisa Jackson, told CNN itself that Deen created a hostile work environment for POC. Instead, the show deals with the effect of her use of the slur as a “career killer.” And another panelist, Wendy Walsh, brings up rappers’ use of the word, but without an active member of the hip-hop community — say, a Dream Hampton or Davey D — there to push back with the other side of that history, problematic as it may be.

Unlike Soledad O’Brien’s (admittedly much-maligned) Black in America specials, in fact, there’s no real sense of community anywhere in The N-Word. Everyone involved is a pundit, which leaves the program lacking in the sort of lived realities that show us why slurs hurt, and how they’re used to do so. The bright side is, the show performed exceedingly well for the network — so much so, one imagines, that the temptation will be too great for CNN not to do a sequel. Hopefully, one with its eyes and ears closer to the streets than to a studio.

  • http://psychologyandpolicy.wordpress.com/ GeeKayGee

    Why is that each time a famous white person says “nigger” the conversation almost immediately segues to black people using the word? It irks the hell out of me. I didn’t watch the special, but I imagine (given the trite topic and it being cable news) the broader point LeVar Burton made was pushed aside and not fully addressed.

    • happyappa

      LeVar Burton is great on multiple levels.

      And not just famous white people using it as an excuse. What world are they living in to think that cracker and the N word are somehow equal? Every time people argue that it’s not the same, white people are screaming about how they themselves aren’t treated equally. Or if they think cracker isn’t “as bad”, then why are they arguing about it so hard?

    • aboynamedart

      That’s pretty much what happened. Lemon didn’t even ask any follow-up questions or let the moment stand before adding his own anecdote.

  • Diacritic

    It’s also tough not to cringe when Tim Wise literally speaks over top of black people in a discussion about “the n-word” and the way cops treat black people.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      He dosen’t automatically get a pass for that,but if you have read any of
      Wise’s books and articles, he most definitely gets it about how white
      privilege works (that was a great example he gave right there) and
      benefits a white person in a hell of a lot of ways that it never works
      for people of color. His books really break it down about that very
      well,and I’ve always thought the reason he’s not better known out side
      of anti-racist circles is because he rips away white folks’ comfort/ease
      with their privilege and tells the about themselves in ways they don’t
      want to hear,which is why he’s not as famous, as say, Bill O’ Reilly.

      But,yeah,
      what Mr. Burton (who still looks great 30-some after ROOTS,btw) said is
      pretty much par for the course for black folks in general across
      America,and has been for a very long time.

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    I saw a preview for this and someone clamied that the phrase “n****r please” was used repeatedly on The Jeffersons. It’s been a long time since I saw that show, but I just don’t believe that. Heck, i don’t think Archie Bunker ever used it.

    • sharoncullars

      i remember the term “negro please” being used on good times; don’t know about the jeffersons. it was used sparingly on all in the family and when used was pointed out for its negative connotations.

    • aboynamedart

      They did show a clip from the show in this video package (Note: heavy racist imagery and language) where George brings it up to Helen in the context of, “What are you going to do when that term’s used against you?”

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        Interesting, I kind of remember that scene, but I didn’t think they actually used the word.

        In any case, i don’t recall the “n****r, please” construction on Jeffersons.