HAMILTON BEACH, MINNESOTA — When comedian and host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” Larry Wilmore ended his White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech last weekend, he left many in the room and in the press buzzing. Wilmore’s routine was scathing in its critique of Washington media elites and their cozy relationship with the people they were supposed to be covering. But Wilmore also called President Obama a jovial, familial variation of the “N-word” to end his speech, and that had 56-year-old Sharon LaBetts of Minnesota upset and offended on behalf of “Obama and all black people everywhere.”
LaBetts said that she “is under the impression that word is never to be used by anyone at any time ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.” She said that despite the fact that generations of African Americans have attempted to reclaim the word “nigger” and re-purpose it to be “nigga” and used in whatever way the speaker wishes to, that doesn’t matter because “as a society we have ALL decided that word is off limits” so “if the minority group that is most impacted by the pejorative use of a word is attempting to disarm it by appropriating it” she says that’s still “bad, wrong, terrible and shameful.”
After his blistering speech, Wilmore ended his speech by turning to President Obama and saying, “Yo Barry, you did it, my nigga.” A firestorm of controversy erupted over it. Both Wilmore and Obama are African American so LaBetts says that part of her wants to simply assume as an outsider to black culture that the use of that word in this context is in no way insulting, and is actually a very clever and subversive swipe at racist white people. She said she really wants to believe that Wilmore has the right to use that word in any capacity he sees fit, and that she as a white woman would be better off keeping her “mouth closed and ears open,” in her words, so she could learn more instead of “being a condescending, finger wagging interloper.” But, she said, ultimately her sense of indignation and political-correctness just won’t let her enjoy a joke or a moment of levity unless it is “100% guaranteed to offend absolutely no one.”
“They should have at least put a trigger warning in the program for Mr. Wilmore’s speech,” LaBetts said, “to at least give those of us who are overly sensitive and uptight about things we don’t really understand and aren’t a part of a chance to find our safe spaces.” Ms. LaBetts went on to say she was “pretty sure” she was acting in “everyone’s best interests” by firing off a sternly-worded letter to Wilmore, the White House, and to “the inventors of comedy, whoever they are.”
Though she says her letter has met no response yet, she is sure she’ll get one, eventually.
“I’m white and live in America,” Sharon told us, “so eventually everything really becomes about me anyway. And that includes whether or not members of communities I don’t really belong to have a right to use any words they want to in order to mitigate the pervasive and lasting influence of racism in this country. If I say I’m offended, as a middle-aged white woman, that means something has to be done. Action has to be taken. I’m offended for Obama, and I’m offended for all the white people who had to hear that word used in a context they might not understand.”
In a press briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnst said Obama “appreciated the sentiment” of Wilmore’s speech and was not offended. Sharon says she will “take that under advisement” but is still leaning toward a class action lawsuit against Wilmore, Comedy Central, and the “very idea of comedy itself.”
This story is developing.