Thursday, April 12, 2007
Imus As Racial Snapshot
"You can make fun of everything, just not with everyone."
"She was five-foot-six/ Two-fifteen/ A bleach-blond bomber with a streak of mean/ She knew how to knuckle and she knew how to scuffle and fight."
-- Jim Croce, "(The Night That I Fell In Love With My) Roller Derby Queen"
Most of what needs to be said about Don Imus' offensive remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team has already been said, but there are a couple interesting connections that I don't think anyone has made yet.
It's true "nappy headed" is an insult, but as far as I've ever heard it used, it's largely a black-on-black insult. For the simple reason that "bad hair" is a largely black cultural reference point (although my mother used to complain about having it). I would add that it seemed to be the kind of light-hearted dis that was shrugged off in any session of the dozens.
"Ho's", on the other hand, always struck me as shocking and distasteful. Nevertheless it's become a relatively banal term for women (along with "bitches") in the lexicon of black rappers, who have been largely using it with impunity for years, as has been pointed out.
So, yes, if a black comic had made the remark in the context of a routine, it might have gone unnoticed. And yes, too, if Imus had made the remark about a white team in terms offensive to poor whites, it might have gone unnoticed also. And yes, three, this is nothing new. Every group has something of an exclusive license to offensive humor about itself.
But above and beyond the issue of offensiveness, Imus' remarks offer an interesting crosssection of where things stand in terms of race in this country. I imagine that inasmuch as he thought there was humor to be mined in the remark, Imus was aiming for the longstanding punchline of a white guy mimicking black speech or behavior. In this, it was not so different from Al Jolson in blackface, or even Karl Rove as rapper.
But whereas the blackface tradition involved a white person camping a white caricature of black speech, Imus' remarks are the first that involve a white person camping a black caricature of black speech. From my own anecdotal experience as a white guy who spent quite a bit of my youth in black hip hop circles, I can attest to having heard the same remark, and far worse, casually tossed around by black men, and black women for that matter.
Which reminds me of a third quote, from The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, which I can only paraphrase since I don't have the text with me. (Anyone with a citation, pop it in the comments.) It went something along the lines of, "We know how you white people talk about us when we're not in the room. Because some of us can pass, and we've heard you."
Imus' remarks mark a turning point in terms of racial and racist speech, because for the first time, white people have an idea of what goes on among black people when "we're" not in the room. Imus just made the mistake of thinking he could repeat it.