The CBS popular radio announcer, Don Imus, who enjoys over two million listeners on the radio station WFAN, called the Black members of the Rutgers University team “nappy headed hoes”. As usual, he does not believe he is racist and leading Black leaders called for him to be fired. As a Black person, normally I would be against anyone losing their job or livelihood because of a racist remark, no matter how abhorrent. But this case is different for three main reasons.
First, Imus has had thirty years in his job, building up a sizable audience for his morning show; people who, no doubt, look to him for guidance and being a role model. One would have thought that those years in the job would have given him a sensitivity for the feelings of his audience and a respect for the listeners who keep him there. One would also have expected that such long years would have built up an expertise which fosters the kind of responsibility and respect we would expect from such an experienced talk show host.
Yet, his critics say that during his thirty years he has shown a ‘pattern of racially charged remarks’ which he retorted were either ‘misinterpreted’ or ‘satirical’. Regardless of misinterpretation, or otherwise, they were still racist, yet he did not desist. But racist remarks of any kind have no place in the vocabulary of someone on the public stage who is supposed to be serving a diverse audience. Being in a position of authority, especially with the privilege of being White in a majority White community, carries certain responsibilities as well as rights. We cannot attack people who are weak, or powerless, then say we are not bullies. Just as one cannot continue to use racist language down the years, aimed at vulnerable members of the community, then say one is not racist. It’s a contradiction in terms. If we use the language of the bully, we are bullies, and if we use the language of the racist, we are racist. We cannot use the language of hate if we aspire to love. The two are incompatible.
Language Conveys Meaning
Second, the language we use defines who we are. For example, the word ‘boredom’ does not exist in my vocabulary. I have never used it in my lifetime to describe my feelings because I have too much to do in any one day and cannot find the time to be bored at any point. The word NO does not exist for me either, especially when trying to achieve something, because I believe everything is possible. Someone else who does not believe that will think ‘no’ first before they look at the possibilities. Moreover, I have never thought of saying anything racist about another person because I value every person and treat them with respect until they show me otherwise. So language is not just something we learn to use for communication or our benefit; not just something we pluck out of the air at random. Language represents who we are, body and soul, and the meanings we wish to convey.
We cannot use negative language and achieve positive aims, neither can we put down others and expect to make friends with them. Language reflects our identity, ethics, beliefs, who we are and aspire to be. We give life to what we believe through language. We would NEVER use words we are not comfortable with unless we are coerced. We also stamp our own style on our use of words so much that when something comes from us which doesn’t sound in line with our personalities, not the ‘normal’ thing we would say, people begin to wonder. Language comes from the heart and the head to reflect exactly who we are and what we value. So when we use negative terms against others, we are actually demonstrating our fears, our insecurities, our low self-esteem, prejudices and, most of all, our feeling of power over them. We have the power to say such remarks, so we do it. Otherwise, why would this man, who has a job many would die for, wish to say something so awful about vulnerable women far away he didn’t even know – comparing Black beauty to White beauty which is culturally incomparable.
Finally, his responsibilities. Don Imus has a radio programme which goes out to a diverse community with sponsors from that community. When he disparagingly talks about certain people in such racist ways, what message is he giving to his Black listeners about their worth and value? Most important, how does he expect those listeners to react who thinks him worthy enough for their time in tuning in to his programme? Sometimes, as we get so bloated with our own power, we forget about respect to the people who put us where we are. The word RESPECT has sensitivity at its core. Where was Imus’ sensitivity to his diverse audience?
However, the comment which summed up the real effect of Don’s offensive remarks came from Senator Barack Obama about his children and went straight to the heart of the issue with its simplicity. “He didn’t just cross the line,” Obama said in an interview. “He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America. The notions that as young African-American women…..that somehow makes them less beautiful or less important. It was a degrading comment….”
Imus abused the authority placed in him as a public announcer, one who is supposed to be serving ALL members of his public, not just the White section of it. If he decides to make racist fodder out of others, he should know that carries consequences. By showing little sensitivity to his diverse audience and supporters with those awful sexist and racist remarks, he effectively relinquished the authority vested in him to act in an unbiased way and forfeited that respect. It depends on the society we seek if we can actually condone such discriminatory behaviour in the 21st century. The world has moved on a lot with our global interaction, a point that certain old hands are ignoring and resisting until they are foced to acknowledge it. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Don Imus is learning that certain actions have consequences, and free speech actually carries responsibilities for ensuring the rights of everyone.