Comments on the Don Imus incident

by Larry Magid

Don Imus’ reference to Rutgers University women’s basketball players as “nappy headed hos” is not only a form of racial and sexual stereotyping, but an example of how far our society has come in permitting this type of innuendo. At the same time, the strong reaction to these remarks gives me hope that perhaps we may be at a turning point as a society by no longer tolerating this type of behavior.

I know what it’s like to be mocked on national radio. I’m a CBS technology consultant and when Howard Stern was with CBS Radio, he used to play my network sound bites, exaggerate my lisp and imply that I was a gay nerd.

As a parent of a young woman who was until recently herself a college athlete, I find it unbelievable that anyone could associate playing basketball with practicing prostitution but that’s essentially what both Mr. Imus and his producer did (his producer referred to the woman as “some hard-core hos”).

Of course, I have no idea what was going through their heads at the time but the fact that two individuals – both experienced broadcasters – could even think along those lines strikes me as very disconcerting. And, I’m sure they’re not alone. While their comments were broadcast to the world, one can only wonder how many others have said similar things in private conversations. My guess is that Mr. Imus thought he was being funny by repeating a stereotype about young African-American women. Surely he is guilty of bad judgment, but as a broadcaster/comedian, he was probably thinking that it is somehow OK to joke about this stereotype because, in fact, the image of African women – or any women – as “hos” is part of our culture. That doesn’t take the blame off Imus, but it should cause us all to look beyond this one individual to examine just how pervasive these attitudes are and where they are coming from.

While referring to a group of female college athletes as “hos” is totally absurd, Mr. Imus is by no means alone in using the term as a synonym for female. We hear it as well as the word “bitch” in rap music and comedy routines and we see it in popular movies and even some TV shows.

It strikes me that some of the outrage has to do with the fact that Imus is a white male but, frankly, I think that’s beside the point. A comment like this from anyone – regardless of race or gender – would be offensive, though it is a fact that some rap artists (mostly male) do get away with denigrating women. I also consider it offensive when women use the term “bitch” though I acknowledge that there is a long-standing tradition of comedians making fun of “their own kind.” I’m not necessarily opposed to ethnic or gender humor, but there is a difference between good-natured humor and perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes.

A number of years ago, my daughter, who was in high school at the time, was listening to a song by Mathew Mathers (M&M) where he referred to women as “bitches.” I asked her if that offended her and she said it didn’t. A few years prior to that, I caught my son – a middle school student at the time – using the term “gay” in a derogatory manner. He wasn’t using the term to refer to homosexuals, nor did he harbor any ill feelings towards gays or lesbians. He was just using the word “gay” as an adjective meaning bad. When I pointed out the implications of the term, he had no idea what I was talking about. He just didn’t make the connection. When I was in college, a friend of mine said that he had been “jewed out of some money,” again not realizing that he was making an anti-Semitic remark. To this day, I bet most people don’t realize that the word “gypped” is a derogatory term about Gypsies.

I’m glad I had those discussions with my kids. Although it may not have sunk in right away, my kids eventually came to understand what I was talking about. Now that they’re a bit older, I am happy to report that they are also wiser and neither would now sanction the use of these stereotypical terms, though I think they might still think that I overreacted a bit.

As per Don Imus, MSNBC has dropped the simulcast of his show and CBS then fired him from the radio program, perhaps deservedly so. But we need to realize that the problem goes way beyond a single radio stunt. The imagery that Imus evoked is part of our national consciousness and it’s clear to me that everyone – in every line of work – needs to look at their own attitudes and behaviors. That’s especially true of people and companies that perpetuate these images through advertising, music and other media. Imus may have done a bad thing, but by raising this issue, he may have done us all a favor. It’s time for a national dialogue about the meaning of words and how our culture is evolving in ways that are not entirely positive.

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