Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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?

6 Responses to “Imust ask…”

  1. Clint said

    “Well, there is a double standard – and rightfully so.”

    Wow. You must think you’re really special. What a load.

    BREAKING NEWS! Shock jock says something shocking that offended someone. THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. Film at 11.

  2. digglahhh said

    Let’s see. In response to a post regarding racial sensitivities and dealing with somebody who was just fired for making a statement that was deemed offensive by the routinely trounced black community, you decide to take umbrage at the half a paragraph that belittles the whiny self-entitled white man’s complaints about, say, being picked last in a pick-up basketball game.

    Yeah, I’d say you just made my point.

    Let me know where to send the check!

    I’m assuming you are white. Would you be interested in trading, say, your credit line for the ability to freely be critical of, say, the size of rims one decides to put on his/her car?

    In the spirit of diplomacy, would you be content with “understandably so?”

  3. Clint said

    Guess what? A community being angry at something doesn’t give it a right to censor everyone else.

    Imus had fans (I was NOT one of them; he’s an uninteresting old fart as far as I am concerned) that can no longer listen to his show because some other people (who WEREN’T even fans) caught wind of what he said and had him removed — in a matter of hours.

    I’m trying to imagine some sort of parallel. Hmm… It would be like if Slayer fans were not allowed to buy the new Slayer album because the Christians complained about Slayer satanic lyrics. The only reason this hasn’t happened is because Slayer isn’t on the radio or television. It would be just as wrong as this Imus bullshit.

    Here’s someone ELSE’s comment on the matter: “I don’t condone what he said at all, but what Don Imus said was hardly worthy of his firing, and NOTHING Don Imus has ever said is worthy of all the attention he has received. When are P&G and Staples going to pull their advertising from the O’Reilly Factor for everything he’s said?”

    Another comment on another blog: “There have been numerous high-profile incidents of censorious and punitive bans on speech in the not-to-distant past. Without exception, the dialogue surrounding each incident reflects a single, unquestioned, axiomatic, wholly self-evident premise: expression is a privilege granted by capital. Over and over again people took to the airwaves this week to denounce Don Imus’ comments and defer to the judgment of Proctor & Gamble’s proxy, Leslie Moonves, as to whether America could – or should – continue to listen to Don Imus. The “right” here belongs to Proctor & Gamble (and other providers of advertising revenue) – it’s the right to pull funding, and, as a right, it has tacitly been awarded the sacrosanct title “Inaliable”. What this means, quite simply, is that corporate CEOs have usurped the responsibility of deciding what is (and what is not) appropriate material for your ears and your eyes.”

    Either way, I am tired of hearing about it. It did not warrant a firing. It did not even warrant a news story. Don’t like what someone has to say? DON’T LISTEN TO IT. This is America, and we have the right to say whatever we want. He has the right to say “black people are stupid and should be lynched”, if he wants. I wouldn’t recommend ANY civilized person listen to a show that said that, but I would fight for the right of someone to say what they want, as the forefathers of this country intended. (In secret, however, I would toss bottles at a KKK march from an adjoining dark alleyway, in hopes of giving a racist a concussion.)

    Either way, a show “belongs” to it’s audience. Not to Al Sharpton, who was the one who caused all this to happen. He is just a cultural mouthpiece for whiners.

    And it worked.

    I hope you are all proud of yourselves, because I had never heard the phrase “nappy-headed hos” before (incidentally, most of that team straightens their hair. I guess you’re allowed to dislike it if you are black, but you’re not allowed to talk about it if you are an old white guy

    Since the incident, I have heard the phrase “nappy-headed hos” said at least 100 times. And it wont go away. The huge whiners just created a meme that will perpetuate for decades. This backfired. The word “nappy” will probably remain in our collective consciousness for an extra 25 years due to this incident.

    A co-worker made a good point to me — if Carlos Mencia had said this, it would not be a news story. Imus was targeted because he was old, and white. It doesn’t matter whether he gets a Spike Lee reference right or not. That is your own personal criteria.

    “It is hard to tell where his radio personality ends and his actual views and character begin.”

    It doesn’t matter. It is a show. It is entertainment. Does it matter whether Andrew Dice Clay is really like his act in real life (he isn’t) or not? Only if you are one who must over-analyze things, and can only accept offensive humor if it meets your personal criteria for acceptableness.

    But again, that is YOUR personal criteria. Not everyone’s. And not the fans of the show.

    Next thing you know, scientologists are going to keep me from watching my favorite episode of South Park, because it offended them.

    Oh wait — that already happened. Tom Cruise got the scientology southpark pulled, never to be aired again.

    That is the EXACT SAME SHIT as this Imus situation. EXACT.

    Shocking show X offends group Y by saying Z, causing group Y to use it’s clout to remove shocking show X.

    X can = south park or imus or anything else that a group of whiners has gotten removed becuase they were too much of a baby to live alongside people who may have different beliefs.

    You want homogeny? Go to a country where everyone is one race and all believes the same thing. America isn’t it. America has a wider range of people and beliefs than most countries in the world. This means people will offend other people.

    Get over yourselves.

  4. There’s a lot to respond to here, Clint. Picking a few comments:

    A community being angry at something doesn’t give it a right to censor everyone else.

    A community being angry at something does give it the right to stop supporting it, for example with its advertising dollars. It seems misleading to call that censorship.

    When are P&G and Staples going to pull their advertising from the O’Reilly Factor for everything he’s said?”

    Do P&G and Staples advertise on the O’Reilly Factor? I suspect if they do, they’re rethinking that, but of the lists that quickly come up on searches, they don’t seem to be. It looks like Lowe recently stopped, in response to customer complaints.

    a show “belongs” to it’s audience

    Um, obviously not. That is, some do, in the attenuated sense of belong that seems to be flagged by your quote-marks, but many others don’t. And regardless of who owned Imus’s show (I assume it was a production company), others had a veto of sorts over it—the media companies that aired it, and the advertisers that collectively funded it.

    I hope you are all proud of yourselves
    that is YOUR personal criteria
    You want homogeny?
    Get over yourselves.

    You seem to have confused us here with some of the many other blogs that have discussed the Imus snafu. While we’re hardly shy about expressing opinions, and while we probably have some about whether Imus should have been fired, and while we might someday blog about them, this post isn’t that. So these comments seem misplaced.

    In fact, Clint, all the comments seem somewhat misplaced except the very interesting, all-to-brief observations about Carlos Mencia and Andrew Dice Clay. Expand on those and we can have a great dialog because those relate to what the post actually talked about, instead of what a lot of other blogs had to say.

  5. digglahhh said


    My personal opinion? I don’t think he “deserved” to be fired, but that is not really our decision (at least in the fully active sense that you imply). If the advertisers stop funding it, or the companies who air it decide (on the basis of public reaction or their own personal criteria) that the show has to go, it goes.

    The Spike Lee reference is not necessarily my personal criteria (criterion) when I determine what I, personally, feel is an appropriate reaction to his comments (especially, since as I said, I don’t think he “deserved” to be fired). I was raising some questions in regard to how we deal with racially inflammatory comments and how who speaker is and that speaker’s familiarity with the target of his comments influence how those comments are ultimately perceived. I think you are asking those same kinds of questions.

    You initially chose to focus on my remarks surrounding the double standard and that struck me, for the reasons I outlined earlier.

    I would also like to note that the patterns of “outrage” do not necessarily follow some sort of linear pattern of logic. We’ve all, at some point, made comments to others that offended them, to our surprise. We’ve all probably hesitated about saying something that we thought might cross a line and found that nobody batted an eye when it was actually said. So, I’m not really sure if citing “similar” incidents gets us anywhere. And, this post was, in a sense, pointing to the individual nature of these incidents as opposed to viewing them as a one of many similar ones.

  6. Gordon_yl said

    Check this out!

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