Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April 14th, 2007

Imust ask…

Posted by digglahhh on 14 April 2007

Little noticed in the Don Imus “nappy headed hos” fiasco was producer Bernard McGuirk’s follow-up of “the Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes,” a reference to Spike Lee’s 1988 film, “School Daze.”

Spike Lee gets to make off-color, borderline offensive references to black people, in fact, he gets to make off-color, borderline offensive references to white people, as he does when Mookie and Pino trade insults in “Do The Right Thing.” But can a white person ever get to a point where he or she can make off-color, borderline offensive jokes about the black race and not get flamed for it?

Imus, needless to say, didn’t achieve such a coveted position, and he has paid a steep price for mistakingly acting as if he had. And it’s worth pointing out that that he crossed two lines, and the sin that isn’t being talked about much, the remark’s extreme sexism, was in my opinion more egregious and direct than its racism. I’m going to address the latter issue though, in part because it’s center stage in the public debate (in other words, because everyone else is), and because the Spike Lee reference is the perfect entrance point to the question that everyone isn’t talking about: are there any circumstances in which an Imus-style remark could be made?

Let’s look a little more closely at the Imus show exchange, going beyond the point at which the CNN’s cut off the tape. Here’s a clip of the whole thing.

The exchange went like this ( I did my best to label who said each, though I am not perfectly sure) :

Imus: Ah, some rough girls from Rutgers, man. They got tattoos, and…

McGuirk: Some hard-core hos.

Imus: (Chuckle) That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m gonna tell you that (laughter)… man, that’s some, whew… and uh, the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, y’know. Kinda like, uh, I dunno

McGuirk: Like a Spike Lee thing

Imus: Yeah

McGuirk: The Jigaboos vs the Wannabes, wha—was that movie that he had

Imus: That was a tough one,

McCord: Do the Right Thing

Imus: Yeah

As I say, when you look at the whole exchange, the sexism leaps out as far worse than the racism. It’s not just that “ho” is arguably worse than “nappy-headed.” The reference to the Tennessee women reduces the entire NCAA championship to a beauty contest between the cute girls vs the ugly ones. It’s literally impossible to imagine the men’s championship game being talked about the same way. But I digress.

As we can see, Imus’s cohost, Charles McCord responded by acknowledging the reference to “the Jigaboos vs the Wannabes,” but applied it to Do the Right Thing (The entire script can be found here; a simple search shows the absence of “Jigaboo” and “Wannabe.”) Imus affirmed McCord’s reply.

Now, if I’m a black guy listening to Imus and haven’t fully decided whether what I’m hearing is blatantly racist or just an attempt at off-color humor that didn’t work well, this is something of a litmus test. If, Imus gets the correct Spike Lee reference, at least that might indicate that he has an understanding and appreciation of black culture and perhaps earn himself some leeway.

This is a pretty basic concept, whether we are talking economics, politics, art or culture, you have to prove an understanding of the topic at hand before you can joke about it and not be perceived as simply ignorant. Especially when entering the no-man’s-land of race, sophisticated understanding of the experiences and culture of the group you are joking about is a prerequisite if you want your remarks to be understood as jokes and not insults.

Today, the hardest such line to cross is for a white comedian to make fun of black culture. In addition to the ugly history of slavery, we have its legacy in entertainment: minstrel shows, blackface, Amos & Andy. There are plenty of reasons why this joke telling privilege is rarely, if ever, granted. Many white people, too ignorant of the depths of our culture’s intact inner core of racism, chalk this up to simple and unfair double standard. Well, there is a double standard – and rightfully so. There have been different standards for whites and non-whites regarding civil rights, education, zoning laws, lending practices, etc. throughout the history of our country. Complaining about the few social double standards that are not advantageous to you is evidence of a substantial lack of historical and sociological perspective.

How may one arrive at this sought-after repercussionless comedic utopia where, even if they bomb, all jokes are taken as jokes? Jerry Seinfled even joked about this sought-after “joke telling immunity.” In the Yada Yada Episode, Jerry becomes suspicious that his dentist, Tim Whatley, has converted to Judaism just to gain the ability to make Jewish jokes. Seinfeld quips, “Don’t you see what Whatley is after? Total joke telling immunity. He’s already got the two big religions covered, if he ever gets Polish citizenship there’ll be no stopping him.”

The question remains, is there any white person out there who could make remarks like that with impunity? As far as I can guess, there are three potential routes to the promised land, some may have gotten there, but rarely are the most sacred boundaries tested, so it is hard to be sure.

The first possible route is to establish yourself as a very intelligent and extremely witty comic who is critical of all and well studied on the history of racism. Basically, you have to define yourself as somebody who is respected for their talent and understood as not harboring racism. In this land, George Carlin is the unquestioned ruler, but others who may reside there are the Bill Mahers and Jon Stewarts of the world. If I had to guess, Maher couldn’t do it; he supports racial profiling, at least in airports. Stewart has Jewish jokes in his repertoire, but it seems out of place for him to make a comment like Imus’s and that alone makes him unlikely to be bulletproof. Carlin is probably the best bet here, and of any of the groups, to be able to get away with a comment like that. But a joke that simple and flat wouldn’t even be found in Carlin’s trash can.

The other possible route is to be one of two types that both lead to the same outcome. Either you have just be plain crazy (obviously crazier than Michael Richards though) or you can be an over-the-top shtick driven personality whose basic act is to be crude, and offensive. The shtick based comedy is basically a caricature of a one-dimensional stereotype. For the former, maybe we can nominate Andy Dick, for the latter you have your Andrew Dice Clays. Imus is in a particularly precarious position because he is shtick heavy, but comes off genuine. It is hard to tell where his radio personality ends and his actual views and character begin. Howard Stern can probably be described most accurately as a shtick and non-racist hybrid. I’d say that he might have a chance at getting away with this comment, but he is disliked (and misunderstood) by too many women. Stern might be able to make the male-targeted equivalent of this remark though. This route of the “crazy” comic is unique because it is not that these types could potentially earn the right to say such things, but that nobody takes seriously what they say and the repercussions of one’s word can probably be only as strong as the speaker of them is credible. Perhaps, Al Sharpton (and he really is a comedian, albeit an unintentional one) is an exception to this rule, as the serious reactions to many of his comments and antics belie his almost non-existent credibility.

The third route is to be widely accepted as a white stepchild of the black community. I can’t think of any comics who have achieved this. Michael Rapaport comes close, but he’s more of a comedic actor than a comedian. (I’m really at a loss as to why Rapaport, specifically, seems to be embraced so much by black culture, but he clearly is, since he pops up in Jay-Z videos, in movies with nearly all-black casts. And so on.) This scenario is perhaps the most interesting to me. I remain undecided as to whether I believe that Eminem could get away with using the word “nigga” on a record, but he seems to think he can’t, or at least is not interested in taking the risk.

I’m not confident that any of these individuals have reached this immunity, but if I had to guess, I’d say Carlin has the best chances. Since I’ve raised a question I can’t answer, let’s close with some more questions.

How strict is the line Imus crossed and does it ever move, depending on who is walking it? Could Howard Stern, Bill Maher, Andy Dick, Eminem, George Carlin or any other white person make that comment and get away with it, and why? If you are a minority, who, if anyone, outside that group, have you granted permission to joke at the expense of the group, and why? How well does all this carry over to gender? Do gay comedians automatically get some kind of Rapaport/Eminem free ride?

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