On April 4, 2007, Don Imus, the famous mumbling radio grump, set his 30-year career as a shock jock back somewhere between five and fifteen years when he described the highly successful Rutgers ladies' basketball as "nappy-headed hos." He was trying to be amusing, yet cutting edge, but wound up being vilified in the media, by community leaders, and, of course, by most politicians. Based on what he said, he deserves every bit of it. To his credit, Imus admits as much.
Now a wider debate has begun regarding this kind of derogatory language, and I think it's a debate that is long overdue. What Imus said was abhorrent; as well, it was something you can hear every day if you listen to nearly any of the top 10 rap songs currently playing in the United States.
Michelle Malkin, syndicated columnists and Fox News Analyst, noted recently, "Imus gets a two-week suspension. What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music industry enablers who have helped turn America into Tourette's Nation?"
How massive is that "dehumanizing barrage" which emanates from the rap community? A search of SongLyrics’ database was quite revealing. Beginning just with the words Imus used on April 4th and running a search of rap artists’ lyrics, the word "nappy" showed up in hundreds of songs. Some of the lines include the following:
• "I can't stand no sneaker-wearing nappy head bit_h (word)" – 2Pac: Song lyrics from "Fu__ Friends"
• "Violent J won't be ganked by no nappy-headed, bare-footed, crackheaded sewer skank" – Insane Clown Posse: Song lyrics from "Ghetto Zone Lyrics."
• "Cuz she's got a gang o' kidz nappy-heads and all dirty and she's gettin pimped by a n___ that's thirty." – N.W.A: Lyrics from "Just Don't Bite It."
As for the term "hos," I don't think it's necessary to even go there. Referencing females as "hos" in the rap genre is so common that any given search will likely turn up over a thousand uses of the word. The same goes, of course, for rappers who use even worse kinds of language to describe women and who very often in their videos dress those women up in skin-tight outfits and put them on display like pieces of meat.
None of that excuses what Imus said during his show; instead, it underscores some problems in our culture. First, we have a growing number of artists who demean women. Secondly, this demeaning language is tolerated. Finally, tolerance for such language is highly inconsistent.
This inconsistency was perfectly illustrated by rapper Snoop Dogg during an interview with MTV where he stated that "Rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh–, that's trying to get a n—a for his money."
It sounds as if, here, Snoop Dogg is saying it's okay to demean any woman who has not "made it to the next level," but then he goes on to make his most revealing statement by saying, "we ain't no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls… I will not let them mutha—–as say we in the same league as him." In other words, if you're old and white, it's wrong; but if you're black — and young, I suppose — it's okay.
Unfortunately, the reality of this thinking is borne out by the overall reaction to Imus’ idiotic statement. Imus' career is faltering over what he said while rap artists rake in millions of dollars for saying that and much worse. Coming from Imus' mouth, it is "hate speech." Coming from Snoop Dogg, or 2Pac, or a hundred other artist's mouths, these are "..songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel," as Snoop Dogg so eloquently stated during his interview.
What we're learning with this whole Imus flap is that there is a complicated hierarchy of privilege when it comes to the way people in this country define “free speech.” As a white conservative male, I would appear to reside on the lowest rung of the hierarchy; meaning the rules for me are far more stringent than for anyone else.
I understand there’s some reason for this given the history of this country and rights that were denied to women and minorities for significant periods of time. I just don’t understand, though, how it is okay for women to demean themselves and for minorities to demean themselves ever! Why should it be okay for anyone to use race or gender slurs ever to insult someone else?
Snoop Dogg's comments underscore our stilted thinking when it comes to the meaning of free speech. During the interview, Snoop Dogg sounded more outraged that someone would dare compare his song lyrics and public statements (which are far worse) to an “old-ass” white guy who uses slang invented by the “gangsta rap” culture.
I think the translation here is this: What is free speech for me is not free speech for thee.
Just yesterday, Mediabistro reported that Joan Rivers, upon exiting an invitation-only lunch sponsored by Arianna Huffington for women in the media, spoke to reporters saying, "You’re better off out here! That was a roomful of bitches in there!" Funny if you're a woman perhaps, but what if a man had said such a thing? What we're dealing with is "gated-speech." There are certain people who can enter into that realm of derogatory speech, but those who do not belong are barred – with dire consequences should they try.
Turning Don Imus into a sacrificial lamb is not the path to creating a more civil society. Neither is passing more stringent laws via the FCC regarding what we should be saying and what we should not be saying over the airwaves. In a free society, you should say what you mean and mean what you say.
At the same time, is it ever really necessary and useful to bring down a whole class of people based on race, gender, or economic status? This is what we see with Don Imus' statement, and with Joan Rivers' comment, and from Snoop Dogg's interview with MTV, and with hundreds of rap songs that fill the airwaves every day across the country.
Am I wrong?