A Needed Conversation

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By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, April 12, 2007

I don't want Don Imus fired. Instead, I want him to buy season tickets to Rutgers women's basketball and sit in the front row wearing a sweat shirt with a big letter R on it at every home game.

It serves no purpose to call for Imus's job; that's mere harsh vengeance and we've had enough undue harshness. If you shut down Imus's show, silence him, the conversation ends there. What's needed in the Rutgers-Imus affair, and on the subjects of racism and sexism in general, is not silence but talk, lots of it, and what's needed in women's basketball is a promoter. I know just the guy for the job.

When Essence Carson took the microphone to speak for the Rutgers team, you saw Imus's problem and why it hasn't gone away. In comparison with that blameless face and voice, his slur seemed tangibly, specifically abhorrent, and you felt it all over again. How could any intelligent person conjure such verbiage as "nappy-headed hos" in the first place, much less apply it to such a nice kid? Carson and the Scarlet Knights didn't lecture, they didn't say that injustice is what happens when you treat someone as an abstraction, a stranger, an "other." Instead, they simply demonstrated the point by introducing themselves, one by one, and made clear that the central sin and fallacy in any -ism, whether racism or sexism, is that it fails to take into account the individual qualities of an Essence Carson.

As Heather Zurich said, "What hurts the most about this situation is that Mr. Imus knows not one of us personally."

It's only fitting, then, that Imus should have to get to know each and every player, learn the particulars of their characters and details of their lives, and one way to do that is to go to their games. Carson is a straight-A student, a classical pianist, a composed speaker and someone's child. "Before the student comes the daughter," she said. Point guard Matee Ajavon sat out for two months with a stress fracture and has a steel rod in her leg. Coach C. Vivian Stringer has surmounted a series of tragedies over her Hall of Fame career. Her daughter was crippled by spinal meningitis, and she was widowed early. "My heart has never been light in going to a Final Four," she said. "It took me personally 25 years to come to a championship game."

Asked in a radio interview yesterday if she thought Imus was a racist, Stringer pointedly replied that she would wait to meet him in person before deciding.

The Scarlet Knights have decided to meet Imus face to face. And personally, I believe it's the right thing to do. They aren't looking for a punishment that fits the crime, or to join a mob action, and they can reach their own conclusions without being stampeded by Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson into demanding Imus's resignation. They have a chance to get something more meaningful from him: a full-fledged conversion.

To their credit, the Rutgers players seem to feel that it's no more right to paint Imus with a broad brush than it was to paint them with one. Imus seems sincerely ashamed of mouthing such unpardonable garbage, and it's legitimately hard to categorize him as an out-and-out racist. While I don't particularly know him, I've been on his show, and I listened to him champion Harold E. Ford Jr. during his run for U.S. Senate in Tennessee, and bitterly decry the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina. He's a shock-satirist who takes verbal baseball swings at piƱata-size personalities for their pretensions, often as not powerful white people.

But regardless of what anyone thinks of Imus, you don't cure prejudice by curbing speech. Clearly, as a society we've made the uneasy decision that censorship is more dangerous than sensitivity, otherwise Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh wouldn't get work. Words are hurtful, but for the most part they're inactive. Censorship is an action. As columnist John Leo succinctly put it, "No insults means no free speech."

Just because words don't constitute acts, however, doesn't mean they're without effect, and that's where the Rutgers players have a chance to turn an evil incident into something beneficial. If nothing else, we've all learned that words aren't ephemeral, they hang around, in bits, texts and instant messages. Some things stay said. You can argue about whether Imus "scarred me for life," as Ajavon maintains, but he left a mark. The Rutgers kids assumed that the winner's circle was colorless and genderless, and Imus disabused them, abruptly, of that notion with one harsh sentence. He cost them that ideal. To a certain extent, he hardened their hearts, and he has to live with that.

It's not frivolous, then, to suggest that one way for Imus to make amends to the Scarlet Knights is to use his microphone to promote and defend a deserving sport. Female ballplayers still fight enormous prejudice: They deal with a daily drumbeat of small degrading remarks, false assumptions and acts of stubborn little meanness; their looks and skills are derided; and at some schools they even have to fight for time on the practice court. An example: Back in 1998, when Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt was being celebrated for her sixth national championship -- her sixth, mind you -- she returned to campus and in the hallway of her own arena, she ran into an aging male administrator, who went out of his way to insult her. He stared at her coolly. "Did you win?" he asked. It was his way of telling her it wasn't worth watching.

The truth is, the fallout from the Imus controversy is the most publicity the women's game ever has gotten. Some of the male sports columnists who weighed in this week annually neglect the women's Final Four, and most of them failed to witness a single game in which Rutgers played.

So how is the Rutgers team better served? By demanding Imus be fired, or by converting him into an ally and employing his powerful voice and platform? By silencing his microphone, or by engaging him in sustained and badly needed conversation about race and gender? By refusing his contrition, or by suggesting that he come and watch, close-up and firsthand, and get to know them and the game they love? Preferably, wearing a scarlet sweat shirt.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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