As allegations of sexual misconduct unfold, video has emerged of self-help guru Tony Robbins dropping more n-words than a Black hip-hop artist.
Except, he used the hard “r” at the end.
Many Black people who use the n-word, typically use ni**a, with a light and airy “ah” or “uh” at the end.
The hard “r” changes the game and not in a good way.
When I watched the 1980’s video of Tony Robbins using racial slurs as one of his jarring techniques, I heard so many “ni**gers” that I felt unsure if I was viewing one of his events or an audition for a Quentin Tarantino film.
In this post, I discuss this racial slur controversy in four parts. First, I take up the matter of giving Tony Robbins the benefit of the doubt. Next, I analyze the video behind the controversy. Before closing, I explore one of Robbins’ responses, including his use of a testimonial from Lora King, Rodney King’s daughter.
Before proceeding further, beloved NonBlack readers, please do not let Robbins and his superfriends get you in trouble in these streets. You do not get to use ni**ger or ni**ga, even for instructional purposes. Neither you nor Robbins get an N-word Pass.
Part I. Giving Robbins the benefit of the Doubt
Because video in question is from decades ago, my initial questions involved the usual: “What has changed? How has he changed? Does he still align with this teaching? Most importantly, does Tony Robbins still practice this exercise?”
After all, people change over the course of decades. I am interested in hearing about the how one has changed and if they are open to change.
I really try to practice what I preach by giving people the benefit of the doubt.
The video seemed to be heavily edited, so there could be missing content that dramatically shapes the context of the clip.
On the other hand, here is where the editing of the video clip, age of the event, and change of heart over time arguments get tossed out of the door: Robbins stands by the video clip and his actions. Therefore, all bets are off.
When White people pridefully choose to re-center the issues about their feelings and how offended they are for being challenged, then it shows that they most likely have problematic racial beliefs (They do not want attention being called to their behavior).
In response to the video, Robbins has decided to dig in his heels and stand by his words and actions. He has removed himself from being given the benefit of the doubt. I tried.
I am not standing in the way of the mob to defend Robbins, for he has boldly refused to even re-visit his attitudes and actions. His arguably fragile White identity reframed the matter into proving how he is not racist.
According to Jane Bradley and Katie J.M. Baker of BuzzFeed News,
Robbins’ lawyers said in a statement that ‘he presentation was positive and was accepted in the context in which it was conducted: a passionate discussion about racism and how to rise above it.’ They added: ‘any suggestion that Mr. Robbins is somehow racist or insensitive to the African-American community is absurd and false. Indeed, one of Mr. Robbins’ event partners for 25-plus years is an African-American.’
In other words, Robbins wants us to believe that he does not support racism because of a long-standing business affiliation with a Black person. Will Robbins produce video evidence on how he has challenged White people to interrogate the ways the colorblind rhetoric supports maintaining an unjust world? Perhaps his legal team will furnish evidence of the ways that Robbins guides White people to stop using the word “victim” as a way to ignore structural racism, too.
Part II. Video Analysis: Was it That Bad?
In this section, I take a closer look at the video clip at the center of the racial slur controversy. I divide the video into five segments, providing analytical insights for each one. The actual video is below. Also, you can access it through the BuzzFeed News article.
Segment 1: As long as a man can look at you and say “ni**er,” (Motions arms wide and makes a distorted facial expression with a growling/roaring sound. The crowd laughs.)
As long as somebody can do that. As long as someone call you ni**er and gets that response– I’ve seen it right now (Robbins points out into the audience at unidentified person) where you’re ready to explode, what you’ve done is given that person absolute control of you.
Analysis: Robbins makes a powerful point about allowing people to push your buttons. When I began college in the Midwest after growing up in Mississippi, I used to comment that if they were in the South, some of the Black people up North would lose it all of the time because they would easily take the bait whenever they were called a racial slur. I do not consider myself a racial slur and do not need to sing any of them for freedom. I do not call White people slurs, even in my mind, no matter how angry I get. It is not my practice nor is it necessary for freedom.
The real “control” is the located in the ways in which Robbins supports colorblindness and willful ignorance that perpetuates racism.
Notice his use of “ man” and “someone” is as if the individuals in question are raceless. Here he positions himself, being a White man, as “man” and “someone” and proceeds to call the Black man a “ni**er.” He reinforces the racial hierarchy, positioning himself raceless- the standard, the norm. The Black man becomes racialized.
When pretending to respond as a Black man, his body language, almost animalistic in his gestures, is a nod to racist beliefs that Black people were out of control beasts in need of White people to domesticate them. This positioning becomes more evident as he equates his beliefs and thinking with freedom.
Segment 2: You have no control in your life, you are still a slave (Robbins points back into audience at unidentified person. Crowd reacts with gasps and other responses). I said you are, you’re being enslaved by you and nothing else.
Analysis: Robbins continues to position himself as not only the norm, but also, he shifts into positioning himself as the all-knowing, White savior. He reinforces that racism is only in one’s mind and that no institutional factor hinder Black people. While I agree that our mindset can hold us back, to ignore the social forces and those backed by those with government/coercive power has no bearing on anyone’s life keeps systems of oppression in place.
Harriet Tubman had the mindset of freedom, which compelled her to take action. She did not stay on the plantation and think herself out of slavery and she did not pretend there were not systems and laws in place that kept people physically enslaved.
Coercive power can be so strong that choice becomes limited to life or death. So, is that really freedom of choice?
Black would not have gained physical freedom from the institution of slavery by calling ourselves “ni**ers” and hugging White people. Calling ourselves “ni**ers” would not have kept us from being lynched and raped during Jim Crow. Today, it will not keep us from being murdered and assaulted.
Segment 3: I said I’d like to have you be free because I’m free and I’m white. So, why don’t you pretend that we’re going to get you free right now. I suggest here’s the way to do it: everyone stand up. I said stand up!
Analysis: Robbins can see race, again. In this segment, he associates his White identity with freedom. He positions the Black man as an enslaved ni**er, who is out of control and needs a White man to help him become human. I agree with Robbins people that locating our identity in victimhood robs us of freedom. In other words, as I have written before, these issues require a both/and approach. I think it helps Black people and all people to invest in personal development in order to transform our mindset. Also, I know this work alone is not enough to undo racism.
Transformation in this world happens with both personal development and societal development, not either/or focus that the Tony Robbins of the world teach.
I suggest a more human approach that recognizes the inextricable link between individual and society, and the ways this relationship has created norms, practices, and structures that have material impact on people. Robbins has approached racism through the lens of White innocence. In this video, he feeds the racist narrative that Black people need to stop being overly sensitive, absolving White people of their contribution to stop creating oppressive spaces.
Segment 4: Come on, try something with me… trust me for just a moment.
(Okay, so it is not an analytical insight.)
Segment 5: Pretend I’m Black. (Crowd laughs) I get him to stand up, right. I say, now you guys just do what I do just for a minute if you really want to be free, and if you wanna have some fun. So let’s try this.
I stood up, and I said, “Okay, follow me. Do what I say. Say what I say. Move the way I move.”
(Sings and dances) “I’m a ni**er, you’re a ni**er, be a ni**er, too.” (Crowd laughs) “Be a ni**er. Ooh be a ni**er…” Then I turn around and say… Okay when I’m done repeat after me:
(Sings and dances) “I’ a honky, you’re a honky.” I said, “I’m a honky ni**er, you’re a ni**er honky. This one guy who was like most militant walking up to this other white guy in the audience and going “Hey, honky ni**er, how you doing?”
And he goes “Hey ni**er honkey, how are you?”(Crowd laughs) Giving each other hugs and the whole bit.
Analysis: Common in today’s racist rhetoric is the idea that Black people are making a big deal about race. Therefore, Robbins think it is a matter or taking on the label of “Black” to prove how he can handle being called a “ni**er.” By doing so, Robbins communicates that he can handle being a Black man better than Black men because his criterion is the ability handle being called “ni**er” without the embodied lived experience.
By pretending to be Black, Robbins takes on the popular self-righteous and uninformed position that the racial slurs are disconnected to systems of power and only name-calling.
He misses key habits of the mind underlying why racial slurs impact many White people without little effect:
“Who cares if you are called a slur, when you have an entire government, churches, and corporations that provide material advantages for your life? Who cares if you are called a racial slur, when the media promotes that you are not only the superior and norm? Who cares when you have the power to engage or disengage with little to no social or economic consequence?”
Robbins fails to see that being called a racial slur as a White person is not the same as a Black person because there has not been the equal footing in this society for it have any merit to White people.
Moreover, the Black man is identified as “the guy who is the most militant,” whereas the White man is described only by race and gender. The happy ending of the narrative is that the White man subdued the dangerous and out of control ni**er and is acceptable on the terms of acceptance and assimilation to White men’s standards.
Although, he attempts to use humor to disarm the power of the words, Robbins appears to fall short of challenging White audience to explore the ways racist beliefs inform their behaviors beyond racial slurs.
He does not call people to disarm the ways they maintain the kinds of practices that keep Black people treated as ni**ers without call us the name.
Tony Robbins demonstrates a lack of understanding and empathy about what it means to be treated like the n-word from various sectors of society. He seems to think that past has nothing to do with the present. He does not think about how his race gives much more ease in a world set up to favor his racial identity construct.
Robbins, like various White men, has lived with profound ignorance about how racism and sexism works in our contemporary world. By keeping these issues at the interpersonal domain through the flawed assumption of societal colorblindness and meritocracy, Robbins has not had the impetus to change or acknowledge the structures that are more inclined to benefit him and disadvantage others by social identity markers.
Racism is not solely defined by individual acts and racial slurs, but systems that has created cultural norms, policies, and laws that have decimated communities, crippled groups of people, stolen and raped in the name of greed. Robbins has ignored how has stood on the shoulders of an empire that despite, his personal adversity, made it easier for him to succeed than a Black person with a rough home life.
Part III: I’m Not Racist. I Have a Black Friend.In part of his response to the liberation through racial slurs video, Tony Robbins released a statement on social media along with a video testimony of Lora King, who is Rodney King’s daughter.
In a social media post, Robbins states:
I just learned that BuzzFeed and also Now This (co-founded by the same person), are planning to release a video and article attacking me again – referring to an event in the early 1980’s where I was hired by an African American group – accusing me of being a racist. I thought it was timely to share this beautiful video by Lora King, Rodney King’s daughter.
I just learned that BuzzFeed and also Now This (co-founded by the same person), are planning to release a video and…
A. Tony Robbins’ Response
Robbins has taught about the giant within, without accounting for the giant policies and laws created by and maintained by White supremacy. His rhetoric of “victim” in the name of empowerment has served as weapons wielded at people who dare to challenge the oppressive structures that have advantaged him on the basis of race.
Now that he has been accused of racism (and sexual misconduct), Robbins has faced the reality that words are not just individual insults. When backed by systems of power, words can materially build up, tear down, transform, and hold accountable individuals and organizations.
If Robbins thinks he is being smeared and attacked, then his “fun” exercise in playing “Black” dress-up has failed miserably. I think he needs to really listen and hear the experiences of Black people who invest in self-development and still face racist tactics designed to take us down in our comings and goings—at work, worship, and at play.
Sadly, Tony Robbins has re-centered the conversation by becoming the victim he supposedly teaches people not be.
How would he like for the public to respond? Would it help him to handle this crisis if we told him, “Stop playing the victim, Tony!”
As he is now experiencing by way of controversy, Robbins acknowledges that there really are forces beyond us—well, at least himself.
Instead of taking responsibility, Robbins has responded with the “Black friend” argument: “See, I am not racist. I have a Black friend- a woman friend. She’s not just any Black woman, either. I have Rodney King’s daughter supporting me.”
Black people are humans, not objects to be used by White people as their “get out of racism jail” free cards.
Instead of taking to heart and evaluating his actions, Robbins has made the situation about proving why he is not a racist, which aligns more with White supremacy than personal transformation.
Even with good intentions of trying to help his audience, his response in the aftermath shows that he would rather hide behind the Black friend argument than engage in self-development in this area.
Lora King, it seems, allowed herself to be positioned as the “Black friend” to become an object—proof of why Robbins, a self-help leader, does not need to revisit his thinking or expand his beliefs when it comes to race. How racially ironic.
B. Lora King’s Response
Black people have varying degrees of understanding race and racism, too. In her testimony, Lora King shares from her experiences in order to defend Tony Robbins. She contends that Robbins was not racist because he came to South Central Los Angeles.
Various White people go to great lengths to colonize or “explore” another culture. They will do so to “save” People of Color, and they chronicle their affairs to “help” People of Color. Certainly, the attention and praises showered on them by other White people and Nonwhite people do not hurt their egos, either.
Possible threat and difference do not and has not stopped White supremacy and saviorism from taking over, killing and stealing from Black and Indigenous People. This argument falls short.
Her other argument, however, has more merit. She draws from her personal experience at one of Robbins’ events, where she observed how certain activities could have been taken out of context and used beyond its meaning.
Her point about the media’s use of selecting particular lines and clips to amplify a pre-determined story has more validity. The media have biases and can be weaponized against people from different backgrounds.
Haven’t you had your words taken out of context and twisted? I have walked down this road many times as a Black woman. However, Tony Robbins would likely consider this reality of dealing with aggressions and microaggressions as being a “victim.”
King seems to conflate philanthropy and charity with anti-racism. White people who have uninterrogated racist beliefs do good works every day. They will support Black people, and then, use it to as evidence as to why they do not align with racism and have no need to look at themselves.
On the other hand, she does not address the “n-word” activity or problematize it. Was she aware of this activity before she came to Robbins’ defense? Does she agree with these exercises? Why?
Does Lora King believe that if only her dad sang the “n-word,” then he wouldn’t have been brutally beaten by the LAPD? Does she think this would bring about criminal justice reform? Does she plan to give back all money from any legal settlement surrounding her father’s police brutality case because wouldn’t taking one dime fall into being a victim?
Racial misunderstandings happen, and things can get easily misconstrued and taken out of context. Open and clear communication with suspension of judgment and offense helps to move the conversation forward.
White people’s support and actions as allies do not mean that they have no room to grow in these areas as humans, including Tony Robbins.
IV. Closing: More “Fun” Activity
As I have mentioned before, kind and well-intentioned White people can still say and do racist things, including those who do phenomenal work around the world. Religion and spirituality can become an excuse to not go further in exploring this part of your lives.
Robbins stated in his open letter to Buzzfeed Editors and Board of Directors,
Amidst all the divisiveness in the world today, I truly believe there is a yearning and a calling within all of us for a kinder way — a life of compassion, forgiveness, and a desire to live as brothers and sisters. I pray that, out of all of this, we can choose to unite rather than separate; to drop our judgments and criticisms, and look for the goodness in each other. We are all human beings doing the best we can. It’s time we come together.
I agree with Robbins that it is time to come together, yet no longer through smiling White supremacy terms. The unity Robbins has called for has been at the expense of Black people’s psychological and material well-being.
I share Tony Robbins desire for a life of freedom. I want Tony Robbins to be free.
I want him to engage in a “fun” activity to help him get free from all of these allegations and scandals.
You can join in on this fun activity, too.
I want Robbins to repeat his message in the video that is the main focus of this discussion, and I want him to replace the “n-word” with “racist.” I want him to see how much “fun” he is having with this scandal by doing this exercise.
Does Tony Robbins think this activity will free him from his current plight?
Unlike Robbins methods that he stands by, when challenged, I invite you to not just sing racial slurs or make the situation about proving why you are not racist. I invite you to explore without defensiveness in order to expand your thinking and beliefs.
Tony Robbins work might change your life. He has changed millions of people’s lives, and at the same time, unfortunately, Tony Robbins work has supported the kinds of rhetoric that supports the insidious workings of racism in our world.
Because he is human, his work is capable of both.
This moment not only calls for us to “look for the goodness in each other,” but also it calls for us to be the goodness by taking heed the criticisms and humbly listening and learning with each other.