It was at once the most unnerving and most liberating moment I’ve had as a college professor. Near the end of a three-hour freshman writing class several years ago, the discussion veered towards the differences between American and British English, so I wrote the word “queue” on the blackboard — which none of the students recognized as an English synonym for “line.” Next came “lift” for “elevator,” then “bobby” for “policeman.” I asked for more examples. One young woman, Renee, who’d spent a summer in London, called out “Bangers!” The class was amused to learn that the word meant “sausages” in England — especially since, in American hip-hop slang, “bangers” meant “gang members.”
I asked Renee if she knew any others.
She thought for a moment, then shouted: “Niggers!”
There was an audible gasp from the class — a racially mixed group of 18 students. My heart raced. Renee, meanwhile, was glancing back and forth, still smiling, trying to figure out why a sudden hush had followed her remark.
Finally, she turned to me and asked, “What?”
I managed, “Renee, we don’t use that word here.”
“I know. We say ‘underwear.’“
Several seconds passed before I got it. “Oh, you mean knickers.”
By the time I’d written the k-n-i-c-k on the blackboard, the students were roaring with laughter. As the black girl sitting beside Renee clued her in, Renee blushed beet red. “I’d never . . . I mean, I’d never . . . “ That elicited even more laughter. I wound up ending the class ten minutes early because every time I tried to talk, the students began to crack up again.
I recall that moment now in relation to the Don Imus controversy. The disgraced radio talk show host, who lost his job last April when he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s,” has just reached a contract settlement with his former employer, CBS, reportedly for $20,000,000, and is currently negotiating with several stations to return to the airwaves. I’ve previously steered clear of the subject of Imus for three reasons: First, because the black community, about which I’ve written critically on many occasions, has far more serious problems than the wisecracking of a radio clown; second, because Imus is such a spectacularly loathsome figure that defending him doesn’t seem worth the effort; and third, because I myself have used a close variation of the very phrase that got Imus canned . . . if you’re curious, you’ll find it on page 37 of my novel Africa Speaks.
Still, it strikes me that the Imus imbroglio is significant, if not quite a watershed moment in racial consciousness. Of course, every discussion about “race” should begin with the observation that it’s fundamentally a perceptual category, not a biological one. There’s more genetic variation within the most common racial groupings than between them. Even the narrower term “ethnicity” is ill-defined, based on long-forgotten tribal relations; sorting hundreds of ethnicities into arbitrarily drawn color-coded umbrella groups like “white” or “black” or “brown” or “yellow” is, to say the least, anthropologically dubious.
That said, it’s also undeniable that perceptions of race have exerted a profound influence on the history and institutions of American life. There was a time in living memory when black people were matter-of-factly thought of as a distinct classification of human beings with distinctly inferior intellectual and moral characteristics. Under such circumstances, it was natural that people who were perceived, and who perceived themselves, as black would share a broad range socio-economic interests. If you’re being victimized on the basis of a racial categorization, it makes sense to throw in your lot with other victims in order to work towards a more just society.
With time however, and with the disintegration of the barriers to black equality, those common interests have faded. That’s the reality, despite the tired rhetoric of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — the predictable ringleaders of the Imus lynch mob. “The interests of black people” is no longer a meaningful concept because nothing remains to differentiate such interests, in 2007, from the greater good. On the contrary, since it’s unquestionably the case that the overwhelming majority of black people are honest, hardworking, law-abiding citizens, their natural constituency should consist of other honest, hardworking, law-abiding citizens — in other words, people who share their socio-economic interests. But black people have been brainwashed, browbeaten and culturally cowed by the likes of Sharpton and Jackson into believing that their natural constituency is made up not of their socioeconomic peers but of a ragtag minority of sociopaths who superficially resemble them. Thus, for example, black people overwhelmingly want to repeal drug laws that land a disproportionate number of young black men in prison — despite the fact that returning them to their inner city neighborhoods guarantees more black-on-black street crime.
It serves the purpose of Sharpton and Jackson to beat the drum of black solidarity because their shtick — I honestly don’t know what else to call it at this point — depends on the continued perception by black people of their own persecution. To be black, according to those who recognize Sharpton and Jackson as legitimate leaders, including perhaps a majority of black people, is to be perpetually victimized; more than skin color, the belief in ongoing black victimization is now the unifying element of black culture. If black people ever cease to define themselves first and foremost as racial victims, then neither Sharpton nor Jackson has a following.
Which returns us to Imus’s transgression — and, in a roundabout way, to my student Renee’s “knickers” comment. What both incidents underscore is that outrage is a conscious act. It’s never necessary. It’s always selective. You need to work yourself up to outrage; in that respect, it’s qualitatively different than merely taking offense, which is immediate, visceral and, most often, fleeting. Renee inadvertently gave offense to the class, but the offense lasted only a moment, and her remark produced no outrage, because her intentions became immediately apparent. Likewise, no doubt, Imus inadvertently gave offense with his comment . . . and apologized abjectly, relentlessly, nauseatingly afterwards. Clearly, it wasn’t his intention to insult black people generically. More likely, his intention was to say something funny, something hip, something that underscored his familiarity with inner city lingo. The joke was pathetic and, ultimately, pointless. The rational response should have been a moment of general offense followed by a shrug. Who cares what Imus says? He’s a radio clown. Yet, despite Imus’s groveling, offense quickly gave way to outrage.
I’d suggest it was the very pointlessness of Imus’s remark that did him in. “Nappy-headed ho’s” meant nothing, in the context Imus used the phrase, except to indicate he didn’t find one particular group of young black women especially attractive. Insulting people is what Imus does; it’s his shtick. Did Imus’s words give offense? No doubt. That’s what insults do. Yet, on this occasion, Sharpton and Jackson were able to parlay the momentary offense into widespread outrage, to work up and sustain a tide of indignation that ultimately washed Imus from his job.
That could not have happened if the original insult had had a point. For example, in a November 2006 episode of FOX’s animated sitcom The Family Guy (a kind of nastier version of The Simpsons), Baby Stewie complains to Brian, the talking dog, that his mock marriage to the baby girl next door has hit the skids:
Stewie: “Why is it so hard? I didn’t know it was going to be so hard!
Brian: “Look, Stewie, you stood up before God and all your toys, and you took an oath to stick it out when things got tough. You wanted us to see you as an adult. Well, this is adulthood.”
Stewie: “You’re right, Brian. I can’t hide from this relationship. It’s my responsibility to deal with it. I mean, what kind of a man would I be if I ran off now?”
Brian: “Well, you’d be a black man.”
Stewie: “Wow, wow, whoa, what was that?”
Brian: “Ahh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, that was my father talking.”
Stewie (walking away): “You, uh, you gotta work on that, man. Bad dog.”
No protest ensued after that episode was aired — which is curious, since the insult was directed not merely at a handful of black women but at black men in general. It was a racist joke, in the purest sense. No doubt many black men who were watching took offense. What’s more, the offense seems intentional — as evidenced by Brian’s quick excuse that he’s inherited his prejudices from his father. Granted, Stewie and Brian are cartoon characters. But so, in his own way, is Imus.
So why weren’t Sharpton and Jackson all over this case? Where was the outrage?
Perhaps the answer is that Brian’s slip of the tongue, unlike Imus’s, contained an uncomfortable element of truth about black manhood. It was pointed rather than pointless — and thus of no use to Sharpton and Jackson. To work up public outrage at the writers of Family Guy, Sharpton and Jackson would have had to confront the content of the offense. They’d have had to acknowledge the fact that black men do indeed forsake their familial responsibilities in grotesquely disproportionate numbers, that 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock — that the phrase “my baby’s daddy” has by now become so intimately linked with black culture that white women cannot quite carry it off.
Indeed, if Sharpton and Jackson were truly concerned with the welfare of the community they claim to represent, they’d turn their attention to the dire implications of that three-word phrase and let pass the idiocy of “nappy-headed ho’s.”
— Mark Goldblatt is the author of the novel Africa Speaks, now available in paperback.