Unless you’ve had your head under a rock you have heard about Don Imus’s incredibly insensitive comments made about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team. Last Wednesday Imus described the predominantly black team as "nappy-headed hos." The issue came up this morning in my Women’s History course. Keep in mind that my students are all females, but I was asked what I thought should happen to Imus. As a teacher my first instinct is to throw the question back and ask the students what they think, which I promptly did. There were a number of questions and suggestions, but I was finally asked again to weigh in. First, I reminded my female students that this is as much a gender as it is a racial issue. Would Don Imus have said the same thing about a male team? In terms of punishment, however, I expressed more concern about the way in which the question has been framed and discussed in the mainstream media. As a society we have little patience in dealing with racial issues and fewer people even know how to honestly engage in dialog. I don’t know what kind of punishment Don Imus should get because I find the question itself confusing.
What I don’t understand is why as a society we continue to tolerate this kind of language. Don Imus has one of the most popular radio talk shows (broadcasted live on MSNBC) and is a regular stop for politicians on the campaign trail, well-regarded journalists, and other popular figures. What I have difficulty understanding is the fact that he apparently felt comfortable enough to say those things at all. There was no hesitation in sharing these thoughts over the airwaves owned by NBC. The same can be said in regards to the comedian Michael Richards who also let loose a barrage of racial invectives on his black audience a few months ago. I don’t believe for a minute that either Imus or Richards are rotten to the core, but they are clearly racially insensitive. Their actions speak for themselves. If as a society we believe that this language should not be countenanced in any way shape or form than we have to ask what consequences reflect those values. In the end I’m not really concerned about Imus’s feelings of regret and the possibility of redemption. I am much more concerned about the members of the Rutgers basketball team who didn’t do anything wrong apart from the fact that they are predominantly black and women.
This kind of racist-sexist language has a long history in this country There are times when we slide into oversensitivity, but I don’t believe that this is an example. To those people whose first instinct it to throw out the old "PC" arguments I think it is necessary to ask at what point a certain kind of language becomes unacceptable in the public discourse.