By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
What would possess nappy-headed radio host Don Imus to think "nappy-headed hos" was an amusing way to describe the Rutgers University women's basketball team? Why would it occur to him to say such a thing even in private conversation, much less to millions of listeners on CBS Radio and the MSNBC cable network?
The simple answer would be -- all together now -- racism. Imus employed that horribly offensive phrase against young black women who are students at a great university and who also happen to be superb athletes. If I had a daughter on that team, I'd want to slap that cowboy hat right off Imus's unkempt head.
At this writing, Imus is in full self-flagellation mode. He made the offending comment last Wednesday. On Thursday, he dismissed the whole thing as unimportant. On Friday, as criticism mounted, he apologized. Yesterday, MSNBC and CBS Radio suspended his show for two weeks. By then, Imus had entered the soul-searching phase, apologizing again and telling listeners, "I'm not a bad person. I'm a good person, but I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know it was not said with malice."
I can accept that Imus doesn't believe he is racist, but "nappy-headed hos" had to come from somewhere. Jobs have been lost and careers ruined for similar rhetorical offenses. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have called for Imus to resign or be fired, as have officials from the NAACP and the National Association of Black Journalists. I'd shed no tears if Imus were compelled to retire to his ranch, where he could sit at a microphone every morning and regale the livestock with late-breaking opinions.
But I'd rather lock him in a room with the parents of those Rutgers kids and let him try to explain himself. I'm not sure that kicking him off the air would accomplish much of anything, since there would still be plenty of morning radio jocks spewing racism, misogyny and other forms of cruelty for the amusement of gridlock-bound commuters. Howard Stern, another radio superstar who has expanded into television, recently held a degrading "Miss Black Howard Stern" contest.
Drive-time radio has become a free-fire zone, a forum for crude and objectionable speech that would be out of bounds anywhere else. There's an intimacy about radio. The medium creates the illusion of privacy -- it's just the jock and his or her entourage speaking to you, the listener, alone in your car where nobody else can hear.
Maybe, in your heart of hearts, you think some of those stereotypes are true -- about black people, or white people, or Latinos or Asians. Somewhere on the radio dial you'll find some jock who not only agrees but is willing to say so out loud, willing to ridicule those "others" and thus cut them down to size. You can have all your prejudices confirmed on your way to work. It's almost like putting on a suit of psychological armor.
If anything, Imus is more substantive and less offensive than many of his competitors. In a sense, that's one reason for his current predicament. Prominent politicians and other notables regularly call in to his show, and sometimes actual news is made -- which brings him greater scrutiny. You can be a shock jock or you can be a respected interviewer, but you can't be both.
One question remains, though: Why would Imus think to use the word "ho" to describe those young women from Rutgers -- or, for that matter, to describe any women?
The word is an abbreviation of "whore" that was introduced to the popular lexicon by hip-hop music and that appears to have become firmly established. We know what the word used to mean, but it's not so clear just what it means now.
Rappers use it as basically a synonym for "woman," but their lyrics are so focused on sex that the word retains the connotation of loose morals. The word is often used these days in contexts where that sexual connotation is ignored. It's still there, though.
It's easy to surmise that Imus came out with the word "ho" because hip-hop is an African American art form and he associated the word with black women. He knew nothing about those women from Rutgers, except that they were black. It's hard to imagine him describing, say, a Swedish basketball team as a bunch of "stringy-haired hos."
That's something for Imus to think about as he performs the ritual public examination of his soul -- and fights to keep his job. Meanwhile, the rest of us should banish that hateful word "ho" from the language.