On his show this morning, Dave Lenihan attempted to list Condleezza Rice's qualifications for NFL Commissioner:
She's been chancellor of Stanford. She's got the patent resume of somebody that has serious skill. She loves football. She's African-American, which would kind of be a big coon. A big coon. Oh my God. I am totally, totally, totally, totally, totally sorry for that. [.wma]
The link to the audio on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch warns potential listeners of the clip's "offensive language." People were certainly offended by it. KTRS station manager Tim Dorsey fired Lenihan a scant twenty minutes after his self-described "slip of the tongue." According to Dorsey, Lenihan's "slip"
was a most unfortunate racial slur. There can be no excuse for what was said. Dave Lenihan has been let go. There is enough hate. We certainly are not going to fan those flames. That is not what we're about.
St. Louis' NAACP chapter president, Harold Crumpton, called Dorsey seeking an explanation. Dorsey explained that Lenihan had already been fired. Crumpton sounded pleased, noting that "coon" is a word "intended to inflame passions . . . like the 'n word.'" I emphasize the word "intended" because the intention is there only in a general sense. It fails to account for the specific context of this utterance.
His unfortunate "slip" immediately follows a conversation in which Lenihan agrees with a caller who said she'd make a "fantastic President." He accidentally calls her a "coon" while trying to refer to the "coup" her ascension to NFL Commissioner would be. I grant you that the word "coup" immediately following the phrase "she's African-American" reeks of tokenism. But to claim that he "intended to inflame passions" by praising her qualifications for both the office of President of the United States and the Commissioner of the National Football League irks me.
This kind of unintentionally offensive comment differs from those which result from unacknowledged privilege. Lenihan's language isn't "unintended" in the "I'm unaware of the structural inequalities inherent in contemporary America" so much as the "I tripped over my tongue and out came what sounded like a racial epithet" way. (Unless you believe that in praising Rice he intended to denigrate all African-Americans. One could argue that Rice fits into the old "one of the good ones" mold and that Lenihan did intend to belittle the majority of African-Americans. None of the talking heads I've watched have forwarded that argument though.)
Perhaps I sympathize with Lenihan because I also 1) relish speaking in public and 2) frequently trip over my own tongue. I often swap the initial consonant of consecutive words. Some times I catch myself doing it; others only come to my attention when I realize I'm staring at a room of students desperately trying to suppress laughter. One of my more memorable flubs occured at a prospective graduate student party a few years back. A couple of current graduate students malingered around the punch bowl discussing the Dixie Chicks' then-recent banishment from mainstream country radio. As a prospective approached one of the department's "ambassadors" said something funny:
Prospective: What's so funny?
Ambassador #1: Um . . . something about Derrida.
Ambassador #2: Of course. Why? Is that intimidating?
Prospective: (obviously intimidated) 'Course not.
Scott: We weren't laughing at a Derridean joke.
Ambassador #1: Shut up! He thinks we're smart!
Prospective: What was so funny then?
Scott: Promise not to think less of us? Alright then. You know how the chicks eat dicks . . .
See my point? After a moment's explanation everyone ceased loathing and resumed laughing at me. Now normally when I switch initial consonant sounds the result only resembles English. I'll stop pading grapers, bean lack and slift off to deep for a couple of seconds. Or maybe I'll kalk into the witchen, pash a wear and spare into stace for a minute or two. Point being these slips rarely make sense.
I'm not saying Lenihan slipped like this. But from the sound of it his slip was no more intentional than mine. Short of granting the existence of a psychoanalytic unconscious which reveals itself through such slips, I can't see how someone would ascribe ill-intention to them. However there are times when they may be the product of conscious thought interfering with articulation:
I can imagine racially charged situations in which I'd be very conscious about my language selection; for example, if I were teaching Faulkner's Light in August and I were discussing his introduction of "new figures" who challenge the easy classification of race in the South. I could imagine myself worried that I'd invert those initial consonant sounds that I might do so incidentally. Of course I'd use the awkward silence which followed to initiate a discussion of why I was hypersensitive in the first place and how that anxiety is precisely what Faulkner's work hopes to engender &c.
Now I don't know whether Lenihan deserved the second chance my students would no doubt grant me. I do know that this firing will become ammunition for rightwing radio to denounce "political correctness" ad nauseam.