A Conversation with a Meteorologist in the Middle of a "Racial" Storm
This morning I woke up with something on my mind so I often write in the quiet hours before the family awakens. Recently, a television meteorologist named Jeremy Kappell lost his job for allegedly uttering a racial slur. Was this a slip of the tongue or a deliberate racial prank involving one of the nation's most important and historic figures, Dr. Martin Luther King? To be honest, I am struggling to understand why Jeremy would basically commit career suicide by deliberately saying a racial slur on television. Al Roker defended Kappell, and Dr. King's daughter Bernice has also questioned Kappell being fired. However, enough people were offended that we have to deal with this and not sweep it under the rug. To be crystal clear, the term at the center of the controversy is highly offensive and has been used by many racially-insensitive people or groups. I watched the video and have done enough broadcast work to know that verbal slip-ups happen. TV meteorologists, unlike other newscasters, are unscripted and ad-lib for a living. As we approach Dr. King's holiday, I reached out to Jeremy Kappell for a candid conversation about the controversy and race. I present his perspective for you to evaluate for yourself. I am not writing to change your viewpoint. However, as an African-American scientist within this field, I do see this as a teachable moment on race and an opportunity to highlight some very real issues.
Marshall Shepherd: My gut sense is this was a slip of tongue. You've acknowledged that. I believe you based on previous interactions with you. What do you say to people that saw it is offensive?
Jeremy Kappell: First, I want to reiterate the apology I've made to ANYONE who may have been offended by my unintentional verbal blunder. I've had people reach out to me to say you don't have anything to apologize for and while I appreciated the support in those responses, they are wrong. I do have something to apologize for. It's like when you are driving and you get into an accident. Say you rear end someone. You didn't intend to hit someone with your car. It was an accident, but you still hit someone with your car. So for anyone I accidentally hurt, I am sorry.
Marshall Shepherd: Many of have said, even if this was a mistake, it rolled off so naturally that you likely have said this before. How do you respond to that?
Jeremy Kappell: That is just plain wrong thinking. We are all shaped by our environments and our personal experiences. Essentially, whether we want to admit it our not, we all have inherent biases through which we see the world. We are ALL biased and to some degree prejudiced by the lens of beliefs that may be far from the truth. For those that heard "that word", I think it speaks more to the biases of the listener than it does from those who made the verbal stumble. Keep in mind, this exact same stumble over the words "Dr. Martin Luther King Junior" have been made at least three times on air over the last 15 years. There's a reason for that. Something I've learned since, is a term known as a "spoonerism". This is the combining of two words into one. In this case, as in the other three cases mentioned, I made accidentally combined the words "King + Junior". Now had I completely the spoonerism, I would've arrived at "Kunior". Unfortunately for me, I stopped myself halfway through before correcting to "King Junior." It was a rather unfortunate, and now costly mistake to me and my family.
Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate, was the 2013 President of American Meteorological Society (AMS) and is Director of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Atmospheric Sciences Program