Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Nappy Headed Hos"

Everyone knows about the Imus "shock jock" reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team as consisting of "nappy headed hos." What is rarely commented on is how he came to say that. It arose out of a short dialog with his producer that went
"That's some rough girls from Rutgers," Imus said. "Man, they got tattoos ..."
"Some hardcore hos," said McGuirk.
"That's some nappy headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that," Imus said.
The construction of Imus's last utterance reminds me of the verbal behavior of grade school boys with each "kid" building on the insulting remarks of the other. But Imus and his producer went further, also calling these women “jigaboos and wannabees.” Back in my youth, "jigaboos" was a notoriously racist term. The "wannabees" reference would have been to the fact that they were newly in the Championship game while their opponents, Tennessee, has made a habit of winning the Championship. It has been noted by some writers that the Tennessee players were more "clean cut" in their appearance.

The presence of these tattoos was clearly the trigger that set Imus off on his ill-fated linguistic journey that has so far resulted in a two week suspension (without pay?) from CBS radio and the decision by MSNBC to stop simulcasting the show on television. I suspect the Fox "fair and balanced" cable news channel will pick the show up. What really interests me is whether or not all the big time politicians and journalists and sports figures Imus regularly had on the show will continue to show up. I would think that they would not.

What is clear from the television interview with the coach and her players is that these kids (four are college freshmen) are perfectly presentable, articulate young women. Perhaps Imus isn't aware of this but female college basketball players tend to stay four years and have much higher graduation rates than do male basketball players. On seeing these young women discuss how hurt they were by his remarks I began to think that two weeks in a stockade in Central Park would be a more appropriate punishment than a suspension.

One thing that embarrasses me is that on watching "Pardon the Interruption," a usually entertaining (because funny) sports talk show hosted by Tony Kornheiser (white) and Michael Wilbon (black), both very well educated sports writers for the Washington Post and long time friends was their confession that their initial reaction and comments focused solely on the racial implications of what Imus said. They completely missed the gender implications. Alas, so had I. I have often believed that we will solve our problems of race long before we solve our gender problems in the United States. This little confession illustrates the nature of the problem of how dimwitted smart men can be about gender issues.

Not only is "jigaboo" a powerfully insulting term, but so also is "nappy headed," also a term that is familiar to me from my youth. This leads me to think that Imus must have suffered some serious linguistic brain damage in his youth.

One issue I have heard people raise is how is it okay for blacks to refer to women as "hos" but not for whites? There are two answers. The first, is that decent black men and women do not use the term "hos" in derogatory references to black women. The fact that black rappers might do so is hardly license for whites to use the term that way. The second answer is that people who are close to each other, especially men, will often use derogatory expressions as signs of solidarity or even affection, as when one man, seeing an old friend for the first time in a year or more, might say, "John, you old son of a bitch, where have you been keeping yourself?" I can see a black woman using "ho" in a similar way. I don't think Imus was expressing solidarity or affection for these women.

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Blogger Ed Keer said...

But Imus and his producer went further, also calling these women “jigaboos and wannabees.” Back in my youth, "jigaboos" was a notoriously racist term. The "wannabees" reference would have been to the fact that they were newly in the Championship game while their opponents, Tennessee, has made a habit of winning the Championship.

From context it is clear that the use of "jigaboos" and "wannabees" is a reference to a Spike Lee film where these are the names of two African-American subcultures at an all black college. The jigaboos are unapolagetically black while the wanabees are trying to assimilate into white culture.

From that perspective, it's probably the least offensive bit of the whole thing.

11:34 AM

Blogger Becky C. said...

At least you are putting the whole thing in perspecitve by discussing the context--I have been doing this--but no one else--there has just the assumption that "nappy headed ho" is racist and sexist.

I disagree with your read that it was piling insult on insult. There was no intent to insult--Imus was saying the Rutgers players were "bad ass" girls who he was suprised did not beat the more demure Volunteers. I have argued there was gender/sexism stereotyping there. But it is not the type of sexism/racism that is being shrieked about. I've put out three or four posts on this if interested.

Also, the jigaboo/wannabe thing is a a reference to the Spike Lee film "School Daze" about the social relationships at an all black college--these were then names of two teams of basketball players--the dark skinned blacks (who called themselves jigaboos and the light skinned blacks (who called themselves "wannabes"--as in "wannabe white") I discussed this on my blog also. And Imus and the other idiots he was with mentioned it came from this source.


12:16 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

becky, on seeing the previews I chose not to see this Spike Lee movie. I am sure he will be delighted that some crackers on CBS radio have made good "literary" use of his material. No one ever said Imus was stupid; just that he is racist. Where did "hardcore hos" come from?

Were Imus black, then all of this would have been interesting stuff. It would have been no less shocking to me but I would have imagined that there was more to it than met the ear. The problem is that Imus is manifestly not a part of the context in which these terms derived their cultural meaning to you. Ergo, he was exploiting Spike Lee's material, not as a homage to Spike Lee (or he would have said do by now) but to allow him to be racist and think he could get away with it. He apparently has a long history of racist chatter with his boys in the studio. I haven't yet tracked down any actual references for that yet but some reliable people have suggested it is so.

I think you have a good heart and are being too forgiving here.

3:55 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Excuse me but only we can call eachother crackers!!!

9:48 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Well hershel, you are basically right. If you too are a white male, you can call me a "cracker," but I hope you do it in a way to show solidarity. However, we have a double standard here. Blacks can call us "crackers" too. The reason is that Blacks are in a stigmatized (not by you and me but generally speaking) minority and so they get cut some slack but it is not unlimited for Jesse Jackson got reamed out for referring to New York and Hymie Town. This involves one minority dissing another. We get cut no slack at all nor should we. I find Jackson rather tiresome. When Blacks are no longer cut any slack for dissing others, then they will know they have arrived.

7:35 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I saw that Imus said that the situation was getting "out of control." I thought that was an interesting for him to say. What did he mean? That he had lost control over it? If true, that compounds his errors.

11:22 AM

Blogger M said...

I know this comment is belated, however, I wanted to say that what I have read here - the initial blog and subsequent responses - are the most thoughtful that I have seen/read regarding this topic.

Everyone says something stupid and hurtful, the larger the audience the larger the affect. Being an oft-maligned black male, these statements solidify my stance that racism, sexism, bigotry of any kind, still have a strong presence, like terrorist cells in this country. Every now and then, more now and quite often, someone sets off a bigot-bomb that they forgot that they have been carrying for years underneath their coat of social equity and liberalism. I have listened to Imus for years, since a teen, and, now that I am in my mid 30s, this banter is no different than what he has always been saying whether subtly or directly.

What I find more upsetting is the leniency 'given' to black Americans when using racial slurs against whites. That, in itself, has a whole dissertation of social commentary that I could write on that. Suffice it to say, it still speaks of a seemingly 'lesser' status that black Americans have socially in this country.

Language Guy, thanks for clarifying the use of derogatory terms as signs of solidarity or even affection. However, that there are decent individuals, of all cultures, who choose to reference one another without the use racist or sexist slurs shows me that there are still individuals who counter this verbal terrorism, passively, by choosing not to pepper their speech with stupidity and others actively denouncing these acts for what they are.

I always enjoy your blogs - maybe they will help some to see that its not just how you say it (as mommy used to say), it's also, very much so, what you say.

10:30 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you, M. Perhaps your comments will inspire me to get out of my current blogging doldrums.

1:53 PM


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