Don Imus controversy reflects us all

The following statement is endorsed by numerous University faculty members.

By Rose Brewer, David Chang, Roderick A. Ferguson and Karen Ho

Why weigh in at nearly the 11th hour on Don Imus when it appears that everything has already been said and done? As faculty, our students – particularly young black women most immediately debased by his remarks – look to us for insight and leadership, indeed, ways to address and inhabit everyday racism and sexism of this nature. In many ways, the brunt of the “Imus affair,” and the inevitable and painful mocking that typically accompanies such events, will be effectively borne by them and other young women of color on predominately white campuses throughout this country. It is our responsibility, then, to voice our views so that they may know, fundamentally, that Don Imus’ racist and sexist comments – unworthy of repetition – are not just another Michael Richards or Mel Gibson moment to be eventually forgotten or dismissed. Nor are his words merely an unfortunate reflection of our time. This was no unconscious slip of the tongue, a mimicking of misogynistic hip-hop lyrics, or “humor-gone-wild,” as the media would have us believe.

To suggest as much is to assume racial pluralism in our society, to assume that all groups have enjoyed the same power and privileges, that race and gender have played no role in our human relations and institutions, and that, ultimately, Imus simply expressed what could be an “equal opportunity” attack. No. Imus’ brand of insult is symptomatic of much more profound issues in our society, which is why these “shock jock” attacks will continue. Though the subject is avoided like the plague, minimized in its importance, or glossed as urban cultural pathologies, race interlocked with gender has been made to matter in our society, since its inception, and “the Imus affair,” if nothing else, exposes just how very much this remains true.

But what of the humor? Are not those remarks somewhere or somehow funny? To be thought of as humorous, these statements need to have a social referent; they need to resonate with a group’s understanding of the world and be recognized as an applicable (though exaggerated) description. Otherwise, the audience would be too confused to laugh, incapable of understanding what the joke was about and who was being made fun of. It would, then, be random, unintelligible, and frankly, not funny. For Imus’ comment to be a joke, it must link up with an underlying cultural belief. That is, for Imus to be funny, his insult-humor needs to, at some level, resonate with a cultural assumption inherent in our society about black women and who they are purported to be.

But let us not forget to whom Imus was talking. The assumed listeners to his bratty screeds and snickers are not black women or women of color. And, let us not forget what he told those listeners about themselves, which was the subtext of his comments. He said, “You have power. I’ll model that power for you, because your power and my power are the same – it is the power to define others, the power to debase black women as physically deviant sexual commodities, and the power to laugh together as we exercise that power.” Besides, “we hear worse statements everyday in the black community,” says this power and a public eager to believe it. This conveniently ignores, however, that the denigration of people of color and women did not begin with them. But power relies upon manipulation to exist, and manipulation relies upon consent.

Now, in the aftermath of Imus’ outrageous comments, people of color, especially black women, are answering Imus with righteous anger and brilliant insight. Yet, to raise those voices automatically invites both hate and accusations of “political correctness,” that label applied to anyone who seeks to call into question a status quo. “Diversity fatigue” becomes increasingly its twin brother in these debates, the idea that white Americans are tired of hearing people of color supposedly complain about discrimination. If a backlash ensues, well, we are to blame, rendering us its architect, not its object.

But, if we say nothing, treat this “affair” as one pedagogical moment or yesterday’s news, then we miss a rich opportunity to exercise our authority not only to identify our insult (rather than have it done for us), but also to assert that anti-racism cannot be the responsibility of people of color alone. In the final analysis, Imus’ inexcusable comments touch more than the Rutgers women’s basketball team. They touch us all. In the spirit of coalitional politics, then, we protest and challenge the racist misogyny of Imus’ remarks not merely as faculty, but also as human beings.

The following University faculty and additional faculty endorse this statement:

Rose Brewer, Professor of African American and African Studies

Hakim Abderrezak, Assistant Professor of French and Italian

Patricia Albers, Professor and Chair of American Indian Studies

Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló, Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity/Educational Policy and Administration

William O. Beeman, Professor and Chair of Anthropology

Colin R Campbell, Associate Professor of Pharmacology

Bianet Castellanos, Assistant Professor of American Studies/Chicano Studies/American Indian Studies

David A. Chang, Assistant Professor of History

Ananya Chatterjea, Associate Professor of Theater Arts and Dance

Brenda Child, Associate Professor of American Studies/American Indian Studies

Susan L Craddock, Associate Professor and Chair of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies

Evelyn Davidheiser, Professor and Director of the Institute for Global Studies

Jigna Desai, Associate Professor and Director of Asian American Studies/Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies

Kale Bantigue Fajardo, Assistant Professor of American Studies/Asian American Studies

Roderick A. Ferguson, Associate Professor of American Studies

Katherin M. Flower, Department of Sociology

Njeri Githire, Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies

Kamisha Hamilton Escoto, Postdoctoral Associate of Health Policy and Management

Karen Ho, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Leola Johnson, Associate Professor and Chair of Humanities and Media and Cultural Studies at Macalester College

Trica Keaton, Assistant Professor of American Studies/Institute for Global Studies/African American and African Studies

Josephine Lee, Associate Professor of English/Asian American Studies

Richard M. Lee, Associate Professor of Psychology/Asian American Studies

Enid Lynette Logan, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Elaine May, Professor of American Studies/History

Lary May, Professor of American Studies/History

Keith A. Mayes, Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies

Louis Mendoza, Professor and Chair of Chicano Studies

Kevin P. Murphy, Assistant Professor of History

David Noble, Professor of American Studies

Jean O’Brien-Kehoe, Associate Professor of History/American Indian Studies

Alexs Pate, Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies/Novelist

Jennifer L. Pierce, Associate Professor of American Studies

Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor and Chair of American Studies

Paula Rabinowitz, Professor and Chair of English,

David Roediger, Professor of History at University of Illinois

Gilbert B. Rodman, Associate Professor of Communication Studies

Abdi Ismail Samatar, Professor of Geography

Simona Sawhney, Associate Professor of Asian Languages/Literatures

Earl Scott, Professor and Chair of African American and African Studies/Geography

Shaden Tageldin, Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies/Comparative Literature

Klaas van der Sanden, The Institute for Global Studies

Harry Waters Jr., Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance at Macalester College

Eric D. Weitz, Professor and Chair of History

Margaret Werry, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Dance

John S. Wright, Professor of African American and African Studies/English

Please send comments to [email protected]