Response to Imus
Those three words stirred up a firestorm of controversy and led to the cancellation of his radio show…but the debate didn't end there. Imus's remark has opened the door for a discussion that Oprah says she's wanted to have for years.
This radio "shock jock" isn't the only one accused of demeaning women in the media. For decades, women—particularly African-American women—have been referred to as "hos" and "bitches" on television, movies and in popular music. Members of the African-American community are also guilty of using derogatory language to refer to black women.
Imus may be off the air, but the problem persists. Dr. Maya Angelou, a black woman who says she's also been the butt of Imus's jokes, asks the question that's on many people's minds. "Isn't it ironic—poetically ironic—that here we are with the chance to say, 'What comes next?'" she says.
When the Rutgers players spoke out about how they were affected by Imus's offensive comment, Stanley says a lot of people began to identify with the victims. "The pure humanity that came out of [Rutgers] Coach Stringer, [team captain] Essence Carson and that team shocked everybody, because they realized, 'Oh, this is who he was talking about,'" he says. "Humanity of people is the only answer to this, because people are being dehumanized in popular culture. … When people saw who these women were, they saw how much of an insult it was."
Lisa, a woman from Maine, was one of those people. She wrote a letter to The New York Times that stated, "I'm a white, prudish suburban woman with the requisite huffy indignation for all things racist and sexist. Yet I watched Don Imus most mornings. It often made me squirm, but I could justify the puerile banter as being another part of urban culture that I just didn't get. So I was ready to defend Mr. Imus because of the platform he provided for in-depth, high-caliber interviews.
When I saw the young women of Rutgers, I was shamed as I have never been shamed before. I suddenly saw my very real contribution to our racial divide. Indifference. … Thank you all for showing me that I have much work to do."
Bruce went on record saying that Imus should be fired. Less than a week later, Imus's show was cancelled. "It was an opportunity to make a very clear statement that his behavior was intolerable, and it would not be accepted. An extreme statement like his required an extreme response," he says. "It had to cost him his job…and it did. And that's good."
Now that the message is clear, Bruce says concerned citizens have to take a stand. "We have to get engaged," he says. "Too many Americans are asleep at the switch. Too many Americans are allowing things that they say are 'deplorable' to occur without speaking out. Too many Americans are coming up with simplistic solutions instead of in-depth solutions."
Jason says the negative portrayal of black women in the hip-hop culture has fostered many harmful stereotypes. "Our real problem is that we're not willing to accept responsibility for our role in this [problem]," he says. "We've allowed our kids to adopt a hip-hop culture that's been perverted and corrupted by prison values. They are defining our women in pop culture as bitches and hos. … We are defining ourselves. Then, we get upset and want to hold Don Imus to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to. That is unacceptable."
Until black men and women develop a deeper sense of self-respect, Jason says they can't expect respect from others. "In the history of mankind, no one has ever received more respect than they're willing to give themselves," he says.
Diane says her daughter came home from elementary school one day in tears because a classmate called her a "ho." "It's the most difficult thing in the world to have to sit down with a 10- or 11-year-old and explain to her what a 'ho' is, that the word is actually 'whore,'" she says.
Young black girls aren't the only ones impacted by today's society, she says. "It's not just the denigration of women. It's the denigration of men. Black boys are given such a one dimensional, narrow image of what it is to be a black man," she says. "It's impacting the relationships between young black girls and young black men."
To understand what's going on in today's society, she says you have to understand American history. "The denigration of black women has been ongoing since we came to this country," she says. "The black community doesn't own degrading black women. Black women have always been degraded, and we all have to take responsibility."
Although some members of the black community use derogatory words to refer to women, Asha says that doesn't make it acceptable. "'Nigger' did not originate in the black community, trust me," she says. "Being called bitches…that didn't start with us. It's not as though I want to minimize some of the damaging things that have happened in the culture, but I'm saying nobody gets a pass on this. Don Imus doesn't get a pass because two wrongs don't make a right."
Asha believes that the media's portrayal of black women is part of the problem. "We don't get to see black women's humanity [in the media]," she says. "We get to see body parts on the covers of magazines, but we don't get to see black women's humanity."
Rev. Sharpton says Imus's firing shows that people will be held responsible for what they say. "I think that the accountability has to spread whether it's blacks saying it, whether it's whites saying it, whether it's Latinos saying it," he says. "We need to set a standard of what's acceptable."
While Imus's comment has put a national spotlight on the issue, Rev. Sharpton says the fight against negative depictions of women has been happening for years. "I think that some of us have been concerned about this misogyny and this self-hate … in the airwaves and in music and in culture for a long time," he says. "I mean, we've marched on blacks that have had shows with the n-word and have gone after advertisers. … I think now we're getting some attention.
"We're also going to work with those in the industry that want to talk and do something about it and artists who have said, 'I can't get a contract because I won't say 'ho,' I won't say 'bitch,' I won't do violence,'" he says.
Another student, Angela, says rap music with demeaning lyrics isn't the only problem. "It's also reality TV shows. The consumers who buy the rap music are a problem. The sponsors who support them should pull out just like they pulled out from Don Imus," she says. "The companies that hire them, the people who give them their contracts—all of that needs to be addressed, and I think this is the perfect time to do that."
Several of the Spelman students involved in the protest say they no longer listen to songs with demeaning lyrics.
"I think we need to be more conscious as women who are being represented by these names and derogatory statements," says D'Lynn, another Spelman student. "We need to be more conscious about what we accept and listen to."
"[The hip-hop community] can't explain to these women why it's okay for them to be denigrated in order for them to make money because finally, to me, when we look at it—this is purely a pimp game," Stanley says. "That is, that the women are supposed to suffer so a handful of knuckleheads become wealthy."
Diane agrees. "I think people should lose their jobs. I think they should lose their contracts. Just like Imus lost his job. I think we have to go to the record companies. They have to know it's not acceptable [and] if you keep doing this kind of music the contract is off."
Ultimately though, Stanley says black women need to take a stand. "I think that the women have to take the lead. I mean, they have to do the same thing that Harriet Tubman did, Rosa Parks, all of these women that helped up the civil rights movement. Because the humanity of the black female can magnetize everybody."
Bruce says we should also look at ourselves. "There are producers of this content, and there are consumers of this content," he says. "We are allowing our kids to consume it."
According to Dr. Robin, the acceptance of racism and sexism is kind of like having garbage for dinner every day. "At first it tastes awful, it stinks, it makes you sick," she says. "But when you have it long enough, and I serve it to you well enough and sometimes even dress it up with pretty plates and fine linen, it begins to trick your mind and your spirit and make you think that, that which is toxic and poison actually starts to taste okay."
Dr. Robin says we should all examine the nature of freedom. "As we look at what it is to be emancipated, it is not emancipation to tear down another human being," Dr. Robin says. "If I eat away at [another person's] soul, what I don't know is that my own soul is being poisoned at the same time."
Rev. Sharpton agrees that the issue has spiritual implications. "I think that at the end of the day, this is about how people affirm themselves," he says. "You can't let anyone define you and limit you. Those that define you can confine you."
India says she was hurt by Don Imus's remark about the Rutgers basketball team, but she was not surprised by it. "Being a black woman who looks the way I do and sings about the things I sing about in the music industry, I get talked about like that all the time," she says.
India admits that people in the music industry have told her that if she wore certain clothes or changed other aspects of her image that she could be more successful. "I've had people tell me, 'If you do 'this,' you can make more money," she says. "I know I can make a lot more money, but I do it [my] way."
Asha suggests diversifying the media to include artists with a more positive point of view. "We should be hearing more from India.Arie all the time. People who are doing great things out there should have the contracts."
The Rev. Al Sharpton says our goal should be to "lift everyone above this name-calling and this denigration that we've accepted. … It is a hole in America's soul, but we've got to fill it up," he says. "I think we've got to go at the music. We've got to go at the broadcast. We have to go everywhere that has engaged in the commercializing of denigration and marginalization of people."