Shock jock radio host Don Imus surely learned this lesson this week, along with the thousands of rowdy fans who tune in regularly to CBS radio and MSNBC cable network for their morning dose of headline news laced with smutty, racist, sexist rants of all sort from the host and his cronies. A hailstorm of protest arose as a result of an abhorrent comment Imus made about some young women basketball players. The reaction led to both networks handing Don Imus, a powerful media figure, the pink slip.
What would possess Imus and his radio sidekicks to think that “nappy headed hos” was an amusing way to describe the Rutgers University women’s basketball team? Imus is just one in a long line of media hosts, politicians, commentators, entertainers, and even religious figures who has figured out that hate sells in America. Talk radio has proven to be a particularly powerful example of this phenomenon. After all, what better place to indulge one’s secret delight in listening in on racist and sexist insults being hurled at the “other” than in the privacy of your car? Safely behind the wheel, we can convince ourselves, "It’s just a harmless joke."
As an African American woman, I can tell you that hate language is not funny when others direct it at you, nor when we direct it against ourselves. Judging from the tons of letters posted on the Internet in defense of Imus, folks like me are being thin-skinned: after all, hateful and hurtful is in the eye of the beholder. But thank God that the thin-skinned people in America spoke out loudly and condemned this sort of speech for what it is.
Don Imus and his radio sidekicks have gotten away with their corrosive banter before, but this time was different. Imagine yourself a parent of a teenager or young woman somewhere in her early twenties, a young athlete still in her formative years whose only crime is that she’s been spotted shooting hoops with her friends. Then imagine hearing an old, powerful man with decades of media experience refer to your daughter on his nationally syndicated radio show as a “ho.”
Truly, Imus crossed a line. Dredging up centuries of racist and misogynistic attitudes about women in general and about black female sexuality in particular, to poke fun at young women athletes was not funny. And no amount of apologizing can fix the situation. Too much violence, too much hate, too many old wounds, and too many innocent victims are involved to make this insult go away.
“So, exactly how many times are we supposed to forgive someone who’s offended us?” Peter asked Jesus. Leave it to big-mouthed Peter to ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind. “Up to seven times, perhaps?” Peter added thinking he was being generous. “More like seventy-seven times,” Jesus responded.
Wow, I guess that really does make us a nation of Christians. We’ve forgiven Don Imus many times in the past. In fact, we’ve forgiven and looked the other way even when he was too smug and arrogant to ask to be forgiven for the cruel insults he has hurled. Imus was forgiven some years back when he called African American journalist Gwen Iffill a “cleaning lady. ” He was forgiven when he called New York Times Bill Rhoden a “quota hire” and when he referred to the New York Knicks as “chest-thumping pimps.” The American public overlooked his calling Palestinians “stinking animals” and calling former attorney general Janet Reno “the big lesbian.”
We even accept his apology and forgive him now, for the umpteenth time, for his umpteenth idiotic insult. But being forgiven doesn’t mean not being made to bear the consequences of your assault. I, for one, am inclined to believe Don Imus when he says that he’s a good person who just did a bad thing. But this is one of those moments when the spirit of the offense required other good people to turn off their radios, pit their megaphones against Imus’ microphone, and declare “enough is enough.”