Wednesday, April 11, 2007


NBC Universal announced today that Don Imus' simulcast of his radio program on the MSNBC cable television network has been canceled, not merely suspended. CBS Radio is reviewing the situation, for the moment keeping the Imus in the Morning show for the remainder of this week, for a previously scheduled charity telethon, and then suspending it for two weeks, beginning Monday. Whether Imus returns at the end of the month remains to be seen, although the momentum certainly seems to be strong in the "no" direction. I must (Imus t?) admit to strongly mixed feelings on this issue.

On the one hand, what Don Imus said, calling the Rutgers women's basketball "nappy-headed hos," was tacky and clearly racist and sexist. It was demeaning to those women as human beings. Beyond that, rather than judging those women or their opponents on the basis of athletic achievement or skill, he was judging them based entirely on physical attractiveness. Having said that, though, I find it difficult to credit the notion that the players were emotionally scarred for life. Insulted, yes, but wounded and victimized in a way that they will carry with them for the remainder of their lives? That view seems to me to be completely lacking in perspective. The words of a total stranger should not have that sort of power over your outlook on life.

For myself, I don't associate the word "ho" with race, but much more with class. A ho, in the literal sense, is a street hooker, as opposed to a hoity-toity call girl or rent boy. A few years ago, I was out for an evening with a couple of friends of mine who exchange sexual services for money. (No, I wasn't paying for their time, nor were we having sex. In fact, we were having club sandwiches and curly fries.) Robert made some comment about being "sex workers," to which Christopher said, "Sex workers? I'm not a sex worker, I'm a ho: a five-dolla' ho." He wore it as a badge of honor and viewed it, I think, as a part of his recovery from crystal meth abuse. Sadly, after paying for my food, I only had $4.95 left over....

The "nappy-headed" part I didn't quite understand initially, as in my experience the term "nappy" usually refers to a diaper. My first thought was of the astronaut who was so much in the news a few weeks ago. I doubt that's what was meant, but it's the lens through which I heard it, if you will. (In fact, "nappy-headed" means that the person's hair has the coarse and bushy texture associated with an afro hairstyle.)

As the story has been flogged, day after day, I've heard much more about the long history of inappropriate comments Don Imus has made in the past, each time followed by an apology and a promise to take remedial action. I don't think that Imus has any anImus against black people, but he clearly hasn't fully internalized the need to mind what he says. Indeed, I think the healthiest thing for Don Imus himself, not to mention for CBS Radio and MSNBC and their various sponsors, is for Imus to make a fresh start elsewhere. He needs to rethink the fundamentals of his radio persona and style and also put some concrete action behind his promises of increasing the racial diversity and sensitivity of his program.

NBC management has stated that the withdrawal of sponsors from the Imus program was not the conclusive factor in their decision to cancel the cable TV simulcast, but rather that it was internal discussions, primarily with employees of NBC and MSNBC who viewed this incident and Imus' continued presence on the network as a blot on their reputation for integrity. Although the withdrawal of sponsors was dramatic, I don't think it was the deciding factor, because, given Imus' ratings, the sponsors could be replaced. The bottom line would certainly have taken a hit for a few weeks or even months, but sooner or later those ad slots would be filled. There's no shortage of sponsors for the hate-filled rants, including much worse racist and sexist remarks, that are the common currency of right-wing talk radio. If anything, the continued media spotlight on Imus would probably have fueled his ratings when he returned from the originally planned two-week suspension, and sooner or later ratings will translate into ad revenue.

The media coverage of this issue has been interesting, but also somewhat schizophrenic:

Don Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos"!

He called them "nappy-headed hos"??

Yup, "nappy-headed hos." It's terrible. My skin crawls every time I hear someone say the words "nappy-headed hos."

You're right, the words "nappy-headed hos" are incredibly offensive in any context. Let's watch that footage again of Don Imus calling the Rutgers women "nappy-headed hos."
...nappy-headed hos...
That's awful. How could anyone say the words "nappy-headed hos" on the air?

We'll be right back after these commercial messages with more about the terrible story of Don Imus calling some women "nappy-headed hos." And remember, no broadcaster should ever utter the words "nappy-headed hos." It's indefensible.
And yet we hear so many references to "the N-word." Whether we're talking about "nappy-headed hos" or "niggers" or "ragheads" (another one from Don Imus' show) or "faggots" or "wetbacks" or "gooks" or "cripples," the words themselves are less important than the animus behind them. If I say, "The word nigger is an offensive term for an African American," is my use of the word nigger offensive in that context? I maintain that it's not, and that anyone who takes offense at that use of the word nigger is completely off-base.

All the same, I don't know what it's like to be African American, and I never will know. Even the white people on Morgan Spurlock's show 30 Days who were made up to look black, got only a tiny taste of the experience of growing up and living on the wrong end of a racial disparity that is pervasive throughout our society. Even when I travel to another country where I become a racial minority, the experience is very different, because I know that I can still avail myself of "white privilege" (and "male privilege," too). I can try to imagine what it would be like, and I can read books and watch films and tv shows about black history, and more importantly I can do my part in working to end that racial disparity, but my black experience will always be vicarious.

Part of the work of healing the racial divide involves balancing our sensitivities, which means being more sensitive to how others hear our words and also being less sensitive to the words others use. We must not focus on language to the detriment of working on more substantive issues like education and economic opportunity and judicial fairness. What the racist cop is calling you should matter less than the fact that he's beating the crap out of you with his nightstick. Conversely, having "the man" walking on eggshells with every word he speaks is a hollow victory if you still have second-rate schools, a third-rate job (if you have a job at all), and a legal system that criminalizes D.W.B.

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