A Racial Slur And Second Chances
Let’s start at the beginning.
A very good place to start.
Last Sunday, Lady Gaga brought the Oscar crowd to its feet and ignited social media after belting out a medley of songs from The Sound of Music — and without a hint of irony. It was quite a moment, especially for those us who, admittedly unfairly, had never quite moved on from the eye-searing spectacle of Lady Gaga draped in slabs of raw meat for the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.
The following morning, Kristi Capel — morning TV anchor for Cleveland’s Fox affiliate, WJW — gushed on the air over Lady Gaga’s performance, using a word that millions across the country now know she wishes she could take back.
“It’s hard to really hear her voice with all the jigaboo music that she (makes), whatever you want to call it,” Capel said. “Jigaboo,” she said again, laughing. “She has a gorgeous voice. I never knew.”
She has been apologizing for the racist slur ever since.
On Twitter: “I apologize if I offended you, I had no idea it was a word or what it meant. Thank you for watching.”
In an email to the New York Daily News: “I deeply regret my insensitive comment. I truly did not know the meaning of the word, and would never intentionally use such hurtful language. I sincerely apologize.”
On Tuesday morning’s show: “I just want to take a moment to address a comment that I made yesterday that got a lot of attention. It’s important for me to let you know that I deeply regret my insensitive comment. And I truly did not know the meaning of the word and would never intentionally use such hurtful language.”
Capel says she didn’t know the word is racist.
I believe her.
I don’t know Capel, who is 31 and a relative newcomer to Cleveland journalism. I have, however, met her 58-year-old co-anchor, Wayne Dawson, a number of times over the years. Dawson is black and an ordained minister. He is professional and respectful — and nobody’s fool. He was sitting next to Capel when she used the racist word. I looked to him — and to his reaction — for what to make of this.
On-air he was clearly taken aback when Capel said it, but he did not react with anger, nor did he try to embarrass her. As The Plain Dealer’s Mark Dawidziak reported, the next day Dawson supported his colleague on-air.
“You know, it’s just one of those unfortunate things that happen,” he said. “It happens to everybody. I’ve been working with you for three years, so I think I know your heart. And I know you didn’t mean it.
“And I also know your family. You and your whole family came to my ordination. … And you all had a great time. So I know you didn’t mean it. So my thing is that you learn from it, you move on. It’s time to forgive and move on. My prayer is that our viewers forgive and move on because she’s a good girl. She really, really is. And I know you wouldn’t say anything like that knowing, but things happen.”
Like many in my generation, I know the ugly history of that word, and I know never to use it. However, I’ve spent the past two days asking dozens of young adults whether they knew what the word means, and overwhelmingly they have told me they’d never before heard it.
This is not to say that others, particularly people of color, should not be offended. It’s not up to me, a middle-aged white woman, to determine what bothers somebody else, and it’s never OK to use racist language.
Where I draw the line is when strangers who have never met Kristi Capel claim to know the contents of her heart and deem her racist. She made a mistake. Her apology seems sincere. She is suffering the consequences of public shame. We can banish her to the shadows — and my, how we love these momentary grasps at superiority — or we can learn right along with her.
In a statement released Tuesday, WJW’s news director, Andy Fishman, said that the station removed Capel from the anchor desk for the rest of the week and that she had met with a group of black pastors “to begin the process of reflecting on the gravity of this incident.” The pastors are on it. I know from long experience as a journalist in Cleveland the good that can come from that.
I asked to interview Capel, but Fishman said no one is interviewing her right now. I do hope those reins loosen soon. Nobody but Kristi Capel should speak for Kristi Capel. And we should be willing to listen. If we are ever to heal from the racial tensions smoldering in this city, we have got to start believing in the power of second chances.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.