Thursday, April 12, 2007

If You Don't Know, You Better Ask Somebody

Something good almost always arises from something evil. I'm becoming more and more convinced of that.  Don Imus' remarks on his program last week have afforded us an excellent opportunity for some much needed dialog.  I was feeling a little remorse about my post calling for his firing when I heard that major sponsors were pulling their ads and that MSNBC had canceled his show.  When I actually saw that I was getting what I asked for, I felt a little guilt.  But, a couple of conversations I've had since then have convinced me that this is a good thing because it presents us with a teaching moment.  I often hear the phrase "If you don't know, you better ask somebody."   So, although you didn't ask, please allow me to share a few things with you concerning this incident.  And, more importantly, the larger lessons that can be taught from it.

My best friend is Jewish.  In many ways, we are very similar.  But, in many ways we could not be more opposite.  He and I are on completely different sides of this Imus debate. He has taken me to task for asking for Imus's firing and for my outrage over the remarks.  His reasoning?  Black people use this
type of language "all the time".  He watches BET (Why? Because he likes seeing how far society has sunk.).  He hears black kids in his neighborhood calling each other "nigger". So, he asks, why the double standard?  We should all be held up to the same standards.  He even told me to review Martin Luther King's speeches about judging a man by the content of his character, not by the color of his skin (as if Dr. King would have defended Don Imus' remarks).  Frankly, I don't give a rip about a double standard here.  Here's why he could hardly be more wrong.

First of all the language that Don Imus used is absolutely not mainstream black community language, as my friend claims.  The fact that rappers use it and some blue comedians use it does not make it mainstream.  The majority of the black community does not use this language on a regular basis.  I don't listen to gansta rap and I personally couldn't find BET on my television.  The fact that BET shows rap videos does not make it mainstream for black people.  Many people don't realize that 70% of hip-hop gansta rap is bought by white suburbanite kids.  Ludacris has a classic moment in the movie "Crash" where his character theorizes that gansta rap was invented by white people to keep black people down.  It was comical. But, it made you stop and think. If you are a white person who thinks that black people call each other "ho", "nigger", "nappy headed", etc. on a regular basis, I suggest you turn off BET and go out and meet some real black people (and make sure you don't use this language while you're doing it).  I'm not denying there is a subculture within our community that uses this language.  But, I would by no means characterize it as mainstream.  It was not used in my family or by most people I know.  Many black people recognize the problem with this language and we are trying to do something about it. There's even a website dedicated to banning the n-word (I don't think you can really ban a word).  This is very delicate territory we're treading on here.  I must confess I have found several of David Chappell's sketches fall off your chair funny.  I've busted a gut laughing at some of his humor that many others would find offensive.  There is a very clever one where there is a white family with the last name "Nigger".  The black community has, within itself, tried to take the sting out of the "n" word by using it ourselves. I can respect that.  But, that's a tactic that is questionable.  By continuing to use the words ourselves, others hear them and think they can use them in a different context and get away with it.  The language we use in a part of our community is not mainstream and it certainly cannot be used by white members of the mainstream media without repercussions.  This is the message that must be heard loud and clear.  No matter how "cool"  you may think you are, you need to think twice before using this type of language.  Imus's "joke" was not funny, was directed too narrowly at a particular group of young women and was way across any line of good taste.  Mr. Imus should have known better and the only way others will know better is if he is made an example of.  Black people have an issue we need to deal with in terms of rap music and the use of derogatory language.  But, that does not mean we have to tolerate it coming from outside of our community.  Double standard?  Perhaps.  But, as a group targeted by institutionalized racism for a few hundred years, we do have some issues to work out.  Those issues will not be helped by allowing this type of language to be used in mainstream society. 

A white neighbor said her son (in Middle School) asked what all the fuss was about.  He said he hears language like that all the time at school and didn't see the problem. You see, that is the problem.  I don't know who he's hearing the language from (we live in an area with almost NO black people).  My guess is he's hearing from other white kids.  But, someone has to teach him that the language he is hearing is not acceptable to most people and if he repeats it in the wrong crowd he might be fired, assaulted or even killed.  The Imus incident was an opportunity for her to teach her son about the origins of this type of language and just how insulting and hurtful it is.  Seeing Imus fired will cause her son to think twice about using this language in public.  This same woman's son called himself "pimping" last year because he had several girlfriends.  He had no clue what a pimp really is.  Fortunately, she took the time to teach him why she did not want to hear that type of language coming from him again. 

I want to make it very clear that I don't have anything personal against Don Imus.  I'd welcome him into my home.  I doubt he is a racist.  I think he's just a shock-jock playing a character.  I wish him no harm.  But, I hope this issue stays alive long enough for us to have some dialog about it and educate  people on what is and is not acceptable behavior. I find it fascinating how white America emulates black culture.  Our music, our way of dress (the pants sagging down) and even our language is taken and made mainstream.  I hear white guys calling each other "my brother" and just chuckle to myself. In a way, I guess that is flattering.  But, if you have a question about whether you can use a word or a phrase you hear a black person using, as we say, "If you don't know, you better ask somebody." 

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