Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don Imus - a racist, or just ignorant

Yesterday, the radio talk show host Don Imus got himself into quite a lot of trouble by describing the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed hos”. Al Sharpton (whose radio show Imus appeared on after the incident) demanded that he be fired, many others were similarly outraged, and NBC ended up suspending him for two weeks.

Here is the transcript of the offending portion:

IMUS: So, I watched the basketball game last night between -- a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women's final.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, Tennessee won last night -- seventh championship for Pat Summitt, I-Man. They beat Rutgers by 13 points.

IMUS: That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and --

McGUIRK: Some hard-core hos.

IMUS: That's some nappy-headed hos there. I'm gonna tell you that now, man, that's some -- woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like -- kinda like -- I don't know.

McGUIRK: A Spike Lee thing.

IMUS: Yeah.

McGUIRK: The Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes -- that movie that he had.

IMUS: Yeah, it was a tough --

McCORD: Do The Right Thing.

McGUIRK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

IMUS: I don't know if I'd have wanted to beat Rutgers or not, but they did, right?

ROSENBERG: It was a tough watch. The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors.

IMUS: Well, I guess, yeah.

RUFFINO: Only tougher.

McGUIRK: The Grizzlies would be more appropriate.

I asked my wife yesterday about this incident (she herself is black) and her point was very interesting: yes, the words Don Imus used were offensive, but they are no more offensive than when rappers use the same words. Why should Don Imus be held to such a high degree of scrutiny just because he is white and made the mistake of using some of the same words he’s heard rappers using on the radio?

I would take this a step further – I have some strong doubts that Imus even knew the correct meaning of the words he used when he used them. Did he even know that “ho” is a shortened form of “whore”? Imus and McGuirk seemed to use the word to refer to a tough woman, and not in any kind of sexual context, which suggests to me they didn't even know the real meaning. Should we blame Imus or McGuirk, or should we blame the media society from which they learned that word?

In most parts of society in the United States, it is not acceptable to wantonly class a bunch of random women as “whores”. If you listen to other genres of music (rock, pop, country, etc.) you won’t hear this. And yet, if you listen to rap or hip-hop, you hear the word “ho” used all the time. And, the rappers who refer to women as “hos” know exactly what the words means.

Is it not hypocritical to dance and sing along to some tune referring to women as “hos”, and then be harshly critical of Don Imus for using the same word?

Looking back at what Don Imus said, if we change the words around to something most white Americans would understand, Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a bunch of messy-haired whores – a very malicious thing to say about someone. The big question is, did he say this on purpose, or did he just grab onto a few words he’s heard on the radio; words for which he did not fully appreciate the meaning? If he did the latter, he is guilty of being ignorant and foolish, but not much else.

Yes, it is right to be indignant at Don Imus’ poor choice of words. But, we should be at least as indignant when we hear rappers and other musicians using the same words.

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