Radio personality Don Imus has been an equal opportunity offender for more than three decades. His no-holds-barred brand of humor has assailed broad demographics of the American public, from heads of state to the homeless.
So why fire him now?
Any explanation that Imus’ firing is because his influence is more far-reaching and egregiously vile than the gangsta rap that Imus appropriates his language from is an example of modern-day Orwellian doublespeak.
Or was there a subtext in this imbroglio that eclipsed the purview of the queer community?
Underneath our culture’s watchdog approach to clean up the foul mouths in the public arena – like Mel Gibson, Ann Coulter, Michael Richard and Isaiah Washington – is a more insidious problem that remains unchecked – the systemic problems of racism and, yes, homophobia.
When asked by the Rev. Al Sharpton on his radio show “Keeping it Real” what possessed Imus to utter such vile remarks about a group of hardworking athletes and stellar students, Imus said, “I didn’t think it was a racial insult. I thought it was in the process of us rapping and trying to be funny.”
But “funny” for this shock jock has consistently crossed the lines of civility and acceptability of on-the-air commentary.
No doubt Imus’ retort about the Rutgers athletes was inexcusable. Why? Because jokes framed around distorted concepts of race and gender invalidate the behavior, culture and accomplishments of the group.
The ridiculing of the women’s physical features suggests a norm of beauty, femininity, class, and, yes, sexual orientation in both Imus’ and producer Bernard McGuirk’s minds that these women do not possess.
“That’s some rough girls from Rutgers,” Imus now-infamously said. “Man, they got tattoos.”
“Some hardcore hos,” McGuirk replied.
“That’s some nappy headed hos there,” Imus said. “I’m going to tell you that.”
Imus’ gender-specific racial invective struck a raw nerve in the African-American community – black women’s hair. It’s the other n-word in the African-American community.
Any acts of contrition by Imus, from going on the obligatory “beat down” trail by appearing on Sharpton’s radio show to expressing a heartfelt apology, both publicly on the airwaves or privately to the women’s basketball team, would not absolve Imus for jokingly stepping on this land mine.
But also not addressed in the Imus debacle by both the media and all the African-American men speaking on behalf of the Rutgers women’s basketball team was the veiled homophobia in Imus’ attack on the girls.
Had the girls been openly queer, would Sharpton and his mod squad of racial correctness come to the girls’ rescue?
The most effective strategy for discouraging female participation in sports has always been by raising questions about their femininity. And taunts like, “Man, they got tattoos,” and depicting the women as, “Some hardcore hos,” suggest that the women athletes might also be lesbians.
And the perception of black women in sports, especially in basketball, a sport dominated by African-American men in college, the pros and the street, is that of street thuggin’ “butch” women.
With the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 prohibiting discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities receiving federal funding, women’s participation in high school and collegiate sports increased. But with women’s increased participation in sports, the damaging stereotype of the lesbian athlete became prominent as a way to police unfeminine behavior. And many women who chose to participate in sports often went to great lengths to display traditional heterosexual markers through their clothing, hairstyles and mannerisms.
“I believe that the stereotyping of female athletes as lesbians has been one of the biggest hindrances to the development of women in sports,” Dot Richardson, a member of the 1996 gold-medal winning U.S. softball team who once considered committing suicide for fear she would never get a date with a man, wrote in her book, “Living the Dream.”
Gay and lesbian athletes must constantly monitor how they are being perceived by teammates, coaches, endorsers and the media in order to avoid suspicion. They are expected to maintain a public silence and decorum so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team.
Yanking foul-mouths like Imus off the airwaves won’t stop the repugnant language spewed at women, blacks, queers and other marginal groups in this country. And it will not change perceptions.
Because what also needs to be addressed is the total problem of the culture’s behavior and institutions that keep the problems in place. For example, just attacking Isaiah Washington for his homophobic vitriol, yet ignoring the systemic problem of “driving while black” in America, won’t stop homophobia.
Or avenging the dignity of the Rutgers women’s basketball team by attacking Imus’ racist and sexist diatribe, but ignoring the homophobia also present in his remark, won’t stop racism.
If anything, we are exploiting the issue and harming people.
So if we are going to call people out for their words and not their actions, we are watching for the wrong reasons.
Published in In Newsweekly, April 26, 2007.Â