Imus: Racist vs. Sexist?

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One more voice enters the fray to support the minority report that Don Imus' primary offense is against women, with his offense against blacks only secondary. Roland Martin (who it is worth recognizing is black) argues that, while the nappy-haired qualifier restricted Imus' comment to black women, it's very clear that calling them hos made it an attack on women.

I wouldn't say some of what he says, and I'd word some more of it very differently than he does. I think you could be critical of Hillary Clinton as an opportunist without basing it on her violation of gender stereotypes that we'd prefer her to conform to. But I do think enough of the criticism she receives comes from what he's getting at. The same is true of Condi Rice. People can criticize her views or even slander her character without necessarily being sexist. After all, they do the same to other members of the Bush Administration, most of whom are not women. But sometimes it takes on a particular flavor with her in ways that you couldn't see if the attack were against a man. The same is true of Janet Reno. Just consider the SNL parodies of all three of these women, especially Will Ferrell's Reno.

Compare someone who refers to some black people (sex unspecified) as nappy-headed and someone who refers to some women (race unspecified) as hos. The former makes fun of someone's physical characteristics, deriding a distinctive characteristic of the appearance of black people. The latter invokes a double standard (men who are promiscuous have no similar negative term) and usually involves a moral judgment about sexual behavior based on evidence that often isn't closely (or isn't at all) tied to sexual behavior. It is a particular insult against women to take part in that game, regardless of whether the insult in a particular case is restricted to a particular sub-group of women, even if the context also insults that sub-group.

Both are immoral, but the second seems much worse to me. So when both are done together, why is it that people focus just on the former? Is it that we're just incapable of seeing an insult against black women as being an insult against women? Or is it that we've got a heightened sensibility toward seeing slights against black people that we don't have toward seeing slights against women? Or is it some combination of the two?

6 Comments

Very interesting. I would agree with it completely, except for the tiny little voice that says, "But most people are referring to black women when they use the word 'ho'." The word itself is the ebonic version of 'whore'. As a woman who has for years been fighting the use of the word "bitch" to describe strong, independent, outspoken, assertive women in the workplace, because it's gender code, I am very sensitive to slurs against women. This -- combining the two -- was definitely a double slur. But if he had just called the team "hoes", it still would have qualified as usage of a Black vernacular. It's possible that he'd use the same word for a team of white women, but not likely.

I have heard people refer to the majority of a women's hockey team as hos. The team members were all white, and as far as I know none of them even had any black culture wannabe characteristics.

It's true that in rapper misogyny black women are called hos, but that's rapper misogyny, not any black language thing. It's not as if there's some black language in which the word 'ho' is just the word for a black woman. It's a very particularized misogynist culture within hip-hop that treats women as hos and therefore calls them hos. But that doesn't mean it's really a black thing to do that. Even aside from the fact that black people don't express such attitudes as a rule, especially outright, it's not a black thing but just a particularization of a much more general phenomenon that white people I knew in college perpetuated.

Update: Venn diagrams about the relationship between black culture and hip-hop and the relationship between hip-hop culture and misogyny. Basically the same point I just made but with graphics.

The Venn diagrams are amusing. But if you inferred from my comment that I am placing blame in the black community or that I believe misogyny is unique to hip-hop, then...you did so incorrectly. Especially since I brought neither to the conversation.

We were discussing a word that white people use to sound like black people, and why it might be more offensive to all women than to all black people.

I don't doubt that you have heard someone refer to a women's hockey team as "hoes". I myself have used the word jokingly to a friend or sister. True, it is not a "word for black women". It is a word for "whore", but the word is used by white people mimicking the manner in which black people say it. White people love to speak like black people to sound "with it" or cool. Some do it benignly and out of genuine affection. (The Budweiser 'wassup' commercials would never have been that funny if three white guys had originated it, and we would never have had to listen to a year's worth of white guys walking around, saying it in reply to everything.)

Others mimic that which they despise and label it humor. That is what Imus did, and he is further in the wrong by attempting to co-indict the black community for his stupidity.

By the way, I came over by way of Amanda's Imago Dei. I really appreciate the thought you put into your posts. Thanks.

The Venn diagrams are amusing. But if you inferred from my comment that I am placing blame in the black community or that I believe misogyny is unique to hip-hop, then...you did so incorrectly. Especially since I brought neither to the conversation.

I'm inferring neither, actually. I took you to be saying that the language in question is particularly black, which your second comment seems to confirm. I was simply emphasizing (1) that it's only used in a loud-mouthed but unrepresentative group within black culture and (2) that this use is not exclusively black. Even within hip-hop culture, it's not exclusively black, but others do imitate it.

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