Pity Valerie Hoff, the local TV reporter who went down in flames for having the temerity to use the N-word in pursuit of a story. Or don’t pity her. Folks have lined up in both camps.
Granted, the former WXIA employee was parroting the term back to a young black man who had used it. But she made one big mistake. She’s white.
Hoff wasn’t using the term in an ugly fashion from what I can see. And she was using the N-word Lite, the one with “ga” at the end of it. The term n——a is the one that a new generation of African-Americans has appropriated, turning the noxious and derisive slur on its head, using it ironically and as a term of endearment.
Unless you’re white. Then don’t tiptoe through that minefield.
Last month, Hoff, who worked for Channel 11, was chasing the story of two white Gwinnett County cops who thumped a young black motorist. A second video surfaced, showing a sergeant cold-cocking the driver. Hoff approached a man named Curtis Rivers, who had posted the video on his Twitter feed.
Rivers had written on his site that the video made him suddenly popular with the media, saying a lot of “news n——as” were reaching out to him to get the footage.
Hoff, trying to endear herself to a source, as reporters will do, sent him a private message saying, “Please call this news n——a. LoL I’m with 11alive.”
Rivers initially laughed along with Hoff, but minutes later, changed his tone, writing, “I just looked through your photos on twitter and realize u aren’t black but called me a n——a.”
Hoff instantly realized she was falling into the dangerous netherworld known as the Racist Zone and started apologizing all over herself, saying she was calling herself the term, not him.
Rivers asked for her boss’s name and made their exchange public. Next thing you know, Hoff is suspended. Two weeks later, as other media sources closed in on the story, she “resigned” at the point of a sword when the weak-kneed bosses at WXIA decided they didn’t want to deal with the mess. Or maybe they used the incident to dump a salary and hire a 20-something reporter for nickels on the dollar. Media companies like to do that these days.
Her boss, John Deushane, released a statement saying: “11Alive does not tolerate any form of racial insensitivity and aggressively enforces our standard policies.”
Before I go on, I must ask: What on earth was she thinking?
Obviously, not much. “It was incredibly stupid, but I can’t take it back now,” she told me, adding, “I have never used that word. Ask anyone who knows me.”
I’m sure she’s not lying. But these days, in a hyper-partisan, ultra-sensitive, quick-to-pile-on social media world, one mistake can do you in.
Hoff’s “resignation” has spurred tons of comments on the Internet, with many folks saying she did something stupid and was done wrong, and a lot of others — but not as many — saying she stepped over a boundary and got her just deserts.
I couldn’t reach Rivers, but on Twitter, he said he “Never EVER said she was racist … I think it was unprofessional,” adding, “She made herself resign I didn’t do a thing.”
But before she was let go, Rivers told my colleague Rodney Ho that Hoff should be fired. “I honestly don’t want anyone to lose their job but if you’re representing your company and not just yourself, then yes I do.”
I called Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who uses the Twitter handle “@N——atheory” (I’m not going to fill in the blanks and get Valerie Hoffed.)
Armour said he started using the word to be “disruptive,” to break through the clutter in conversations about race, stereotyping and the law.
“There’s no other word that comes with the same power. It’s supercharged, radioactive and glows in the dark,” he said. “It’s a difficult word, a transgressive word, and it’s an unsayable word for many people.”
That would mean white people.
Now, I often hear white folks complain about a “double standard.” That black folks get to say it, so why can’t we? It’s almost like some white people like the fact that the word “n——a” is out there because it lets them tiptoe up to the really bad term.
But I have no real problem with this so-called double standard. Just let it be. Whites have abused it for long enough.
Armour says his mission is to talk about social justice, about unequal treatment of black people in the economic and law enforcement arenas. But he said we also shouldn’t be so uptight about language. The reporter, he said, should not have been let go.
“Retaliation shouldn’t be our first response,” he said. “With Black Lives Matter, we hear that we have to have uncomfortable conversations about race. But the way to have uncomfortable conversations is to let people make mistakes. We have to allow people to say the wrong things.”
Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, doesn’t like the word and wishes no one, black or white, would continue using it. He has no problem with Hoff resigning, “because it was about her professionalism.”
“The use in a joking way belittles the oppressive history of the word,” he said. “We live in a multicultural, diverse society. We have to walk circumspectly in that world.”
When whites use it in a racialized way or in jokes, it’s “corrosive,” he said. When blacks use it, “it’s often about ignorance.”
Neither is good.
I called Andy Young, civil rights hero, former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, a man who knows how to discuss dicey subjects with aplomb. But for a while, on this subject, he dithered.
“These are times of great sensitivity and I hate to discuss it, um,” he said, pausing to think. “It’s a very confusing issue.”
He said he did not think the reporter should be let go. “The atmosphere is so reactionary and everyone is so hypersensitive.”
“Times are so tense now. I hope it doesn’t last much longer.”