April 13, 2007
Imus's Scarring Words: An opportunity to learn
LaTonya Taylor is an editor with Ignite Your Faith magazine. Here she offers perspective as a Christian, an African-American, and a woman.
The maelstrom radio shock jock Don Imus started when he referred to members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" is winding down. The Scarlet Knights issued a statement accepting Imus's apology for words he called "insensitive and ill-conceived."
I find this outcome so far only partially satisfying. People heard something outrageous and were outraged. They understood Imus's words were both racist and sexist, attacking the Rutgers players' beauty as people of color, as well as their stewardship of their sexuality. And the market spoke. After initially suspending Imus in the Morning for two weeks, CBS canceled the radio show, and NBC Universal canceled his TV simulcast on MSNBC's cable channel.
But part of me hopes that Imus's remarks also lead to a redemptive conversation within the Christian community. I hope we can move from satisfaction over Imus's punishment to think about ways we can redeem his situation--and others like it.
Some commenters in the blogosphere, on message boards, and in the mainstream media have raised some important questions: What's the big deal? Some shock jock said something kind of rude, but sticks and stones, right? Don't rappers say worse things every day? Isn't Imus's real mistake mocking the wrong group? And wasn't one of the players overreacting by saying his comments had made her "scarred for life"?
All good questions. It's possible the "scarred" comment was the statement of an overwrought college student. But I don't think so. At one of the most important moments of her life, a moment she and her teammates had striven to reach, a moment culminating years of positive choices, she realized that some will still view her negatively because she is a woman--and an African-American. That's a startling realization, particularly for those of us who've been insulated from some of the struggles of our forebears.
Are Imus's words the final words on this woman's identity? No, and I think she knows that. Is she the only person forced to realize that others may see her through a cloudy, limited lens? Again, no. Should those issues still give people of good will pause? Yes. We can grieve that her moment was marred, and mourn the loss of innocence.
Imus's ugly words also give us an opportunity to learn. I'm convinced part of the reason so much misunderstanding about issues of race and gender exists is that we know so little about one another. I'm pretty sure Imus knew he was out of line when he made that statement. But I'm not sure most of his listeners knew, or understood why the phrase "nappy-headed ho" was so offensive.
I heard his words as a woman who's aware of historical periods when white men felt free to appropriate the bodies of black women--to decide their identity, to judge their beauty, and to determine their uses, not only during slavery, but beyond. And I'm aware of ways our culture, directly or indirectly, pressures people of color to look less like themselves and more like white people: straighten that hair, lighten that skin, fix those eyes, starve off that booty and those thighs.
I heard Imus as one who notes ways our culture pressures women: be pretty, but not so pretty that people think you're dumb; smart, but not so smart that you're intimidating; assertive, but not aggressive; girlish, but not wimpy; flirty, but not a... well, you know.
Given my cultural location, I heard Imus's remarks as something worse than "a joke gone too far." They sounded like the words of someone who considered himself privileged to judge the beauty, acceptability, and worth of women and people of color.
That's why one man's defense of free speech and desire to stick it to the PC crowd can raise this woman's concern about being spoken of politely and viewed accurately. Perhaps learning each others' histories--and treating one another respectfully--will provide an example to a world that seems befuddled by these issues.
My hope is that, when it comes to issues of race and gender, Christians find ways of acting out righteousness. Of not limiting this discussion--and the larger issues it raises—to the voices of African-Americans, or women, or Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, or white men who feel attacked, or those in the hip-hop community who defend the use of this kind of language. I hope listening to all these voices--and, most important, God's voice--will lead toward creative action.
If you're like me, reconciliation and redemption challenge you on the most personal of levels. I think that's why we desperately need the larger body to talk about these kinds of issues--because they do affect us--and to press toward solutions that work in our families and communities and churches. To find ways to act and find ways to redeem, rather than to simply punish people like Don Imus. Or like you, or like me.
At the Rutgers press conference, one woman started by claiming her ability to name herself, and her identification centered in community: "I'm not a ho," she said. "I'm a woman and somebody's child." Although she couldn't be my child—she's closer in age to my sister—this woman belongs to me. She belongs to the beloved community. Her triumphs are ours. Her pain, and the responsibility to defend her, is ours.
So, too, is the opportunity to find God-centered ways to live out the truths rooted in our identities as individuals, and collectively, as the body of Christ.
LaTonya Taylor is a writer and editor in the Chicagoland area.