Dennis & Judi are friends we love — but they were dead wrong
Dennis Malloy is a friend. He's a new grandfather. He's proud of and fascinated by his Italian heritage. He bristles at the idea of political correctness. He prepares meals for the underprivileged and mentors children without fathers. He's kind and generous to the people in his life, regardless of race, creed or color.
Judi Franco is a friend. She's knowingly (often hilariously) foul-mouthed and deliberately pushes the line. She's an Orthodox Jew who, in person, defies any idea you might have of the deeply religious, but in practice exemplifies the charitable spirit that religion can inspire. She volunteers at a food pantries and works with children who have special needs. She advocates for the caretakers of cancer patients. She's also kind and generous to the people in her life, regardless of race, creed or color.
If you've never been provoked by something Dennis or Judi had to say, you haven't listened to their show closely. They'd be glad to have you call in and laugh through (maybe, in some cases, to laugh at) your concern. Some people enjoy that more than others — but for their fans, that's their charm. They're proudly plainspoken and annoyed by oversensitivity.
These aren't hateful people. They're simply not.
And Wednesday, when they repeatedly called Attorney General Gurbir Grewal "Turban Man" and the "guy with the turban," their offense — which resulted in a 10-day suspension — wasn't one driven by hate. But it also wasn't simply a matter of going too far, or stumbling onto the wrong, forbidden language. It was deeper.
Their offense was one of myopia — of not being able to see past their own experience.
Dennis Malloy and Judi Franco reduced a dignified, accomplished individual and the community he shares to an "other" — to someone who wasn't one of us. To someone who was only caricature, drawn from his religious headdress.
Perhaps you heard the segment on air, or you've read about it in the time since. Dennis was talking about Grewal's new directive to postpone marijuana prosecutions as the state moves toward legalization. He said he couldn't remember Grewal's name. He said he'd never remember Grewal's name.
"I'm just going to say the guy with the turban," Dennis said. Judi chimed in with a chant: "Turban Man." It stuck. They referenced it repeatedly.
That's where we winced the first time. Grewal — born to immigrant parents in New Jersey, as American as Dennis or Judi — was too foreign, too different to have a name worth remembering. The outward sign of his culture and religion — that's how we'll identify him. And only by that.
They questioned whether "Turban Man" was offensive — and both conceded that to many people, it would be. They both agreed it shouldn't be.
"Listen, and if that offends you, then don't wear the turban and maybe I'll remember your name," Dennis said.
Be more like me, be more like us, and you'll be worth respect. Then I'll remember your name.
Dennis and Judi didn't say anything quite so overt — and if asked, they'd be horrified by the implication. But it's the message they sent.
Let's be clear — these aren't people prone to malice. These aren't people who were looking to be hurtful. These are people who are sincere and contrite in their apology and in their quest to understand the depth of the experience of those affected.
Our inboxes have been full — messages coming in faster than we can reply. Our phones are ringing endlessly. The vast majority have been critical of the station's decision to suspend the hosts. "Your policy to join the legions of the 'politically correct' is abhorrent," one listener wrote us Thursday. "You and those like you are destroying freedom in this country."
Perhaps that's no surprise — the feedback is coming mostly from listeners of Dennis and Judi, people who enjoy their limited patience for a sort of mindset where inclusivity becomes inanity, where sensitivity becomes victimology.
And they're bolstered by defenses that Dennis and Judi poke fun at everyone — that Judi's caricature of Dennis' Italian grandmother, or Dennis' impression of Judi's Jewish husband is no better or no worse than Wednesday's comments. But those jibes are gentle and loving teases among friends; there's nothing of that character in the statements Dennis and Judi made about Grewal.
Even Ed Forchion, the marijuana and social justice activist known best as "NJ Weedman" — a longtime listener of and frequent caller to the show — is in their corner. Forchion immersed in issues of racism, of systematic injustice and of implicit bias. He spent a year in jail on ultimately defeated charges he alleges were, in part, racially motivated.
But Wednesday's comments were "radio schtick" and not racism, he told Steve Trevelise on air Thursday. He applauded the pair for giving him a platform while he was in jail: "I'm a black man. It would have been easy for them to say, 'Oh, he's in jail, we're not taking to him right now.' No, they felt for me as a human."
We appreciate where they're coming from — and the instinct to give Dennis and Judi the benefit of the doubt. We wouldn't have allowed Dennis and Judi a platform day in and day out for decades if we didn't think their sort of no-nonsense directness had value.
Dennis himself made the case for taking his comments lightly on the air, after asking "Is that highly offensive?"
"Could be," he said. "But if you call me ‘Baseball Hat Man’ in a culture where nobody wears baseball hats, and they call me ‘Baseball Hat Man,’ should I be offended? ... I would say no.”
But a baseball cap isn't a symbol of someone's religion — isn't a sign of a person's closely held values and identity, and isn't a target for those who want do a certain kind of person harm. It's not a touchstone for those eager to decide who's "us" and who's "them."
Dennis and Judi don't live in a culture where no one wears baseball caps. They don't live in a culture where people who look like them, who sound like them, whose customs are like theirs are rarely seen on television or in books. They recognize their faces in those of our elected officials — something the Sikh community had never seen in an attorney general anywhere in the U.S. until Grewal took office.
That wouldn't have always been true. Both are from families whose communities have often been made "other" in America — life wasn't easy for Italian and Jewish immigrants in this country even a short time ago. It still often isn't — Judi herself has railed against anti-Semitic sentiments that appear on the rise in New Jersey and elsewhere.
And perhaps that should have given them insight into the struggles of those seen by mainstream America as somehow apart from the norm, of those shifted to the margins. But it's a mistake to confuse one person's lived experience with another.
We have to consider the lived experience of people like Raj of Bridgewater, an Indian immigrant who told Steve he came to the United States 35 years ago.
"I think Dennis and Judi is the best show on NJ 101.5 ... but they made a stupid comment," Raj said.
He continued: "I've been called 'camel-jocky,' a 'dothead,' 'go back to your country.' It's almost done with a wink and a nod. 'It's just a joke, what's the big deal?'"
To Raj, "there's a different standard when it comes to what you can say about certain minorities, and certain special interests, and what you can say about Asians."
So what should we see when we see Grewal's turban? When we see any turban?
We should, of course, see the person wearing it. But the turban is also "meant to be something that is distinctive, something that you do notice," Amman Seehra, the northeast director of the Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund, told New Jersey 101.5.
“It’s a symbol of social justice. When you see somebody in a crowd and you see someone with a turban, it’s the responsibility of all Sikhs to help those in need," he said.
Steve asked Raj Thursday if he was personally offended by Dennis' and Judi's comments, and whether they seemed to mean their comments "in an offensive way."
"I do not think they meant it in an offensive way. Sometimes it's an implicit bias, you don't even realize," Raj said.
We appreciate Raj's spirit of forgiveness — that he didn't approach Dennis and Judi's comments in anger, but wanted them to truly understand why they landed the way they did.
“We offer our sincerest apologies to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal as well as the Sikh and South Asian communities for a series of insensitive comments we made on our show," Dennis and Judi said in the apology thy issued Thursday. "For 21 years, the Dennis and Judi show has been unscripted and free form. We use humor and sarcasm to make a point and add color to the broadcast; in this instance, we were off the mark. It was a mistake we both deeply regret. We respect all cultures and beliefs and are deeply sorry for the pain caused to the Sikh community, our co-workers and our beloved listeners.”
As their coworkers and friends, we know Dennis and Judi blew it. We also know their apology is sincere. And we're grateful for their willingness to learn from this experience.
Just as we all can.
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