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Don Imus: What We Say, Who We Are

By       Message Lydia Howell     Permalink
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What Don Imus did isn't unusual.

Shock jocks, national and local, habitually make racist remarks and sexually humiliating comments about women --under the guise of "joking". When people of color and women challenge being denigrated on the publically-owned air-waves, we're usually told we "don't have a sense of humor" or the tiresome charge of "political correctness' is leveled.

My first reaction is always to wonder why guys like Imus (on and off the air) are so oblivious to the most minimal sense of courtesy and respect for others. Is it that they really think that only white men, like themselves, deserve basic respect? Or, is it that making degrading comments about people of color and women is their attempt to "put those people BACK in their place"? As a woman, I'm absolutely clear that when men talk about women in such a disgusting manner, it communicates not only hostility, but, also has another message: 'You think you're equal--but, you're still just (fill in sexual ijnsult)."

Even in 2007, there are some that would prefer the old hiearchy, where white men could count on being privileged in every situation. Now, they have to share the field with the rest of us.

Some say that African-American use the infamous 'N-word" and that Black hip hop rappers use the term 'ho, too--as if that gets Imus off the hook. It doesn't.

From Princeton professor of African-American Studies, Cornel West's rap album to the organization Abolish the N-Word and a recent column in Insight News, a Minneapolis African-American newspaper, there are Black voices questioning the proliferation of one of the most horrifically painful epithets--racial or otherwise--in the English language. In defense of using that word (or younger Gay people using another old epithet 'queer' or women calling themselves "b*tch"), one argument is that they are "taking the power to hurt and oppress out ", of such terms.
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But, I wonder if as the social movements that expanded equality for people of color and women floundered in the 1990s backlash and rise of the rightwing rollback, as we hit brick walls of white supremacy and masculine perogatives, if we took a path of least resistance by accepting hateful words "as our own". The pain of that racial epithet isn't any less when white people say it so how has Black people using it "empowered" them?

As for Black women being called 'ho' or 'b*tch', while there are certainly some significant differences in the experinces of women of color and white women, on this point my guts say we're the same. From the first time I heard a rap song using such language and looked at the 20-something-year-old women hearing that song, I just didn't believe that they want their men slurring them like that any more than white women do. Attacking women's sexuality remains the oldest, deepest way to insult a woman. Reducing women to sexual objects publicly available to any man--which is what 'ho' means--hurts all women regardless of race.

It seems to me that no matter who says these ugly words, what's being reinforced is racism and sexism.

Imus attacked accomplished young women, who should be applauded not verbally assaulted. Though of course, no women deserve such treatment, that Imus attacked accomplished young African-American women is especially troubling. That Black hip hop artists do the same thing provides convenient "cover" for Imus and other white men who want to freely use racial epithets and cruel insults. But, hip hop artists didn't create the N-word and whites were using it long before rap songs. The same goes for sexist slurs, that were once whispered and now blare from every corner of pop culture.

I hope one positve result of the public furor about Imus is that those in the music industry will contemplate their frivolous use of a word that's surely been said every time a Black person has been lynched in this country. It's certanly overdue to challenge the relentless sexual disrespect all women are subjected to in what some have termed the "pornification" of American culture. Don Imus, his fellow shock jocks and their fan base could easily begin to clean up their act to some extent. It's called the Golden Rule and it simply means treating others the way you expect to be treated.

Finally, this is not the first time that Don Imus has spewed bigoted remarks over the public air-waves. His sponsors should pull the plug. What used to be called "the marketplace of ideas" has been cluttered up with ignorance, insult and exclusion of women and people of color--except as crude entertainment-- for long enough. There's plenty for all of us, men, women, and people of all colors, to do to make the "I-mess" into a teachable moment. Let's go for it.
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Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis journalist, poet, activist and producer/host of "Catalyst:politics & culture" on KFAI Radio, all shows archived for 2 weeks after braodcast at www.kfai.org

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