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Don Imus: The Character of the Content

David Swerdlick
Rutgers player Kia Vaughn addresses derogatory remarks made by radio talk show host Don Imus during a press conference at Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, Tuesday, April 10, 2007. (Chris Pedota/The Record/MCT)

It would be easy to "get over" a disparaging remark about one’s race or gender (or religion or sexual orientation) if one could confidently believe that one's thus ridiculed identity would never be the cause of denied fair treatment, or extended common courtesy, in society at large.

I may be a white man, but I know that young black women all through that society are demeaned and disparaged and disrespected by their own black men and that they are called that name.

-- Don Imus, host of CBS Radio/MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, 10 April 2007

What I’m tired of hearing is people making bigoted remarks, and then saying "I’m not a bigot."

-- Michael Wilbon, host of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, 10 April 2007

The steadily percolating controversy over recent remarks made by nationally-syndicated radio talk show host Don Imus about the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball team brings to mind three questions: Would Imus have ever had the balls to refer to a more prominent black woman -- Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé Knowles -- as a "nappy-headed ho"? Maybe. Would he be offended if someone went on a national broadcast and referred to his wife, mother, or daughter as a (presumably) "limp-haired ho"? Probably. Would I be offended if anyone referred to the three most important women in my life: my wife, my mother, and my sister -- all black women -- as "nappy-headed hos"? Definitely.

Although Imus has apologized profusely and repeatedly on his own show, Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, and on the Today show for his remarks, disavowed any malicious intent, and embarked on a quixotic campaign to affirmatively demonstrate that he is not a racist, the discourse and the controversy surrounding his comments continues to veer toward a referendum about political correctness, "racism" versus mere "insensitivity," and freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that there are many who believe that Imus’ remarks are simply (pardon the pun) off-color, edgy, and unkind, but do not rise to the level of being termed racist, sexist, or harmful. Page2’s Tim Keown observed, "Somehow, we’ve reached the point in our society where Imus’ comments about the Rutgers women require debate. Should he be punished? Was he wrong? It's scary to think that people actually believe those question marks apply." It is the unspoken dynamic. Few would try to outright defend Imus’ comments purely based on their content. Most would agree that calling women "nappy-headed hos" is at least some form of insult, comic or otherwise. But some, Senator John McCain, Bill Maher, James Carville, have suggested that because Imus is an equal opportunity offender -- anyone or anything is fair game for his caustic remarks—that no one should be offended. After all, "that’s just how he is". The logical corollary is that the team, black women, and society at large should all just "get over it".

Those who choose to defend his remarks have even speculated that there was nothing per se racist or sexist about calling a group of black women "nappy-headed hos". Mostly, those who defend Imus object to the backlash, in which national figures such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton have called for Imus to be fired from his job and banned from the airwaves.

To a degree, I agree with the last point. As they say, "It’s a free country". Free enough to call anyone you want a "nappy-headed ho" even if it isn’t free enough to avoid being called a "nappy-headed ho". Imus has millions of listeners who have the right to listen to him perform racial insults, and he has the right to insult at will. Imus and his audience even have the right to laugh. Cenk Uygur of The Huffington Post called Imus’ comments racist in no uncertain terms, but also makes a compelling case that he shouldn’t be driven from the airwaves, noting, "It's hard to see what society gains from allowing Imus to call people racist names. But if we push for people to fire him, will we prevent others from having an open dialogue about race that can eventually lead to positive change?" Good point. But while it’s true that Imus has a right to say whatever he wants, he doesn’t have the right to everyone’s buy-in or acquiescence to the premise that everything he says is just a harmless joke, or even funny at all. It’s double-dipping to invoke your, or anyone else’s right to say anything, and then go on to insist that the object of the statement, no matter how demeaning, should shrug it off, accept it, and move on.

One of the ironies of the current situation is that in a strange sense, a few black women in our society have reached the absolute peak of the pyramid. Oprah and Rice are two of the three most influential and powerful women in the United States. Beyoncé is the reigning paragon of feminine sexuality—a position that she inherited from Halle Berry. But just below the surface of this seeming acceptance and potential celebration of black women, this is still a society where black women continue to be devalued and the objects of scorn. It was almost too easy for a popular radio personality to set up a joke at the expense of an 80 percent black women’s basketball team with a black woman coach about what he perceived to be their "rough" appearance. It is also all too easy that Imus would be able to go on national television after the fact and try to defend himself on the basis that he only was referring to black women in the same fashion to which he thinks they are referred to by black men.

Never mind the fact that it’s not the job of 19- and 20-year-old college athletes to fit within the twisted parameters of a declining sexagenarian’s conception of whatever the inverse of a "nappy-headed ho" might be. Never mind the fact that what I saw in the Rutgers press conference was a group of well groomed, well spoken, thoughtful, and confident women. Never mind the fact that they shouldn’t have to hold a press conference to "prove" to the world that they’re well groomed and well spoken. Never mind the fact that any defense of one’s self that begins and ends with the notion that if you’ve met the minimum standards of the misogynist wing of rap music, then you’re covered (I must have missed the memo that explained how certain degrading and self-nullifying rap lyrics are the current standard by which talk show hosts measure their content) is at best shabby as hell, and at worst, plain ignorant.

If there is any doubt that this position of being susceptible to this sort of mean spirited attack is in fact racist and sexist, and to a degree the exclusive burden of women of color, ask yourself this -- can you imagine a major media commentator going on the air during the Olympics and referring to the bronze medal-winning USA women’s hockey team as a bunch of "unruly, unkempt sluts" and that they deserved to lose to Finland because the Finnish women were cuter? Not really. Not even as a "joke".

On some level, conscious or unconscious, Imus and his comic foil, producer Bernard McGuirck, probably didn’t think that their remarks and jokes would raise such ire because they don’t think that much of black women. To them, the women that they were insulting were just fodder for their brand of "humor". And make no mistake about it, they directly insulted those women. It would have been similarly obnoxious and disgusting to call black women as a whole "nappy-headed hos" and "jigaboos". But they pinpointed the eight black women and by association, the two white women on that particular team, at that particular school, none of whom is a public figure, and most of whom are still teenage college students. In their minds, these women were just a bunch of "nappy-headed hos".

Don Imus

Who could Imus have expected would come to the defense of these women?—especially when his core audience not only revels in this kind of frat-boy banter, but would also be the first to blame the victims, and say that any accusation of racism is itself an act of "playing the race card". The answer, of course, is anyone with a sense of common human decency. On 11 April 2007, one day after Imus’ appearance on Today and MSNBC’s announcement of a two-week "suspension", MSNBC announced that it would no longer simulcast Imus in the Morning. It really doesn’t matter whether CBS Radio follows and cancels the program. I’m neither for it nor against it. Imus exercised his freedom of speech, and if he loses his job over it, he’s sure to pop up somewhere else. But the test of the impact of this incident will be whether listeners, advertisers, and perhaps most importantly, Imus’ guests continue to patronize his show. Such figures as Senator John Kerry, Meet The Press’ Tim Russert, Time magazine’s Ana Marie Cox (formerly known in the blogosphere as "Wonkette"), and even African American Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. all appear regularly on Imus in the Morning. If they disassociate themselves from Imus, perhaps it means that they want their public to know that they don’t accept Imus’ comments. If they continue to appear on his show, maybe it means that they think the rest of us should just get over it.

Of course, "getting over it" is the exclusive luxury of the dominant group in society: white men. It certainly seems that it would be easy enough to get over a disparaging remark about one’s race or gender (or religion or sexual orientation, for that matter) if one could rest confidently that one's race or gender, or a combination of the two would never be the cause of one's being denied fair treatment or extended common courtesy in the society at large. The women who play basketball for Rutgers wouldn’t know, because they’ve never had that luxury.

The rub, in the end, is this: on 10 April 2007, the Rutgers players, coaches, and university officials announced that they would grant Imus’ many (pitiful) requests to have a private meeting with them, in order to allow him to explain himself, attempt to make amends, and to convince them, the public, and himself, that he is not a racist. Already, they have been praised for their generosity of spirit. But really, what choice did they have? If they had followed the advice of those who would advocate that they get over it and had just moved on, gone silent, and politely declined Imus’ request, where would they be now? Surely, they would have been portrayed as surly, militant, and thin-skinned. They would have been accused of stooping to the lowest common denominator and of contributing to the problem by refusing to engage in a dialogue. I am certain that after the meeting takes place, there will be statements from both sides about forgiveness, learning, and understanding. Being gracious and forgiving is really the only option that the Rutgers women have, because if the meeting does not result in a public embrace, then in a perverted way, Imus will become the victim.

Despite the fact that less than two weeks ago, they lost the national championship game, that hardly anyone outside of New Brunswick, New Jersey knew any of their names, and that they ended their season to quietly resume the remainder of their school year, now these women who didn’t ask to be singled out for cruel insults by America’s leading curmudgeon will now be asked not only to demonstrate enough charity to rehabilitate him as a person, but also to assuage all of our collective sentiments about the state of race relations in our society. And I actually think they can pull it off. Right now, no one else can. But while I do hope that they will eventually move on, I also hope that they won’t get over it.


David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to Creative Loafing, Charlotte, North Carolina’s independent weekly newspaper.

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