Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Power of Words

The old children’s saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The recent controversy surrounding shock jock Don Imus’s comments concerning the Rutgers women’s basketball team show this to be true. As you have probably heard, in an apparent attempt to be funny, Imus referred to the Rutgers women as “nappy headed hos.” There are a number of things that are troubling about Imus’s comments, particularly the racial and misogynist undertones of his words.

His reference to the women as “nappy headed” is directly related to the fact that the women are African American. We can be certain that if he was referring to a group of white women that he would not use that phrase. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the term, it is specifically a phrase that African Americans use amongst themselves sometimes to describe their unique hair texture. It can, at times, be used in a negative connotation. In this case of Imus’s use of the word, I can’t see any other way than he was using it in a negative context.

There is a common belief that pervades our American culture that bodily features that are more European are somehow more attractive than those that look more “African.” Within the African American community, there is even talk among women of those with “good hair” and those with “bad hair.” Good hair would be that hair which is straighter (more European looking) and bad hair is that which is in tight curls (i.e. “nappy"). Because of centuries of degradation in this country, many young African American girls are led to believe that if their hair isn’t as straight, their nose isn’t as skinny, or their skin isn’t as light as the white girls they see on television, then they are somehow not beautiful. If you don’t believe me, you may want to watch this video.

I have witnessed this belief recently on television’s most popular show, “American Idol.” There are some talented African American women this season and in seasons past. But something troubling has caught my eye this year. I’ve noticed that for at least a couple of the African American women on the show, the stylists that the show employs have changed their hair dramatically. They’ve straightened it out in order to give them a more “white” look.

Why is it that none of the black women on the show seem to have braids, locks or corn rows? I know a lot of African American women and many of them have these kinds of hairstyles and they look beautiful. Why is it that the stylists, in attempt to make these women look more beautiful, feel compelled to change their hair to something else? Far be it from me to tell women how to wear their hair… but I just wonder if this is the contestants doing or the urging of some white dudes from England in order to make them more marketable to mainstream white America.

Back to Imus... Not only is his use of “nappy-headed” reminding us of this negative perception of African American features, but his use of the word “ho” to describe these women can be construed in no other way than to be considered demeaning and disrespectful. I can think of absolutely no circumstance or situation where referring to a woman as a ho would be positive or respectful. A shortened form of the word “whore” (i.e. a prostitute), it is used to describe women with loose morals. For Imus to call these college educated women who he has never met nor knows anything about, is nothing short of mean-spirited and rude.

This situation has once again raised the question of what someone from one cultural group can say about someone from another group with it being “okay.” Some have argued that since Imus is white his comments were wrong. I would argue that anyone referring to someone else as a ho is wrong – regardless of the circumstance or the person using the word. Some have brought attention to the fact that African American male rappers have been using this term, in addition to the term b*tch, to describe women for years. This is also wrong. Some rappers, such as Snoop Dogg has done in recent days, are attempting to justify their calling women b*tches and hos is somehow alright because they are African American. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is offensive and disrespectful no matter your ethnicity or gender.

As a white male, I am offended anytime I hear a woman described in the preceding terms. As beings created in the image of God, women should be honored, cherished, cared for and respected. They should not be demeaned by these hateful words. I’ve had the privilege of meeting, being friends with, and working closely with scores of African American women over the years. The women that I know are beautiful, strong and intelligent and deserve better than to be degraded with coarse talk and references.

I see part of my role as a Christian man is to watch out for and protect those that are being treated unjustly. So for any men that are reading this, please don’t ever refer to another woman by using one of these negative terms (even in weak attempts at humor). Even when referring to one woman in these terms, we are doing this to all woman. When we make negative jokes about people of one ethnic group, we are making the joke about everyone of that group. As Ephesians 4:29 says,
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

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Anonymous said...

Well written, Scott. I would like to add that no one is responding to the fact that he followd up his "nappy" comment with comparing the women to the "jigaboos" from the Spike Lee movie "School Daze". The fact that he would use the words "nappy headed" and "jigaboos" in the same breath to describe these women clearly shows that he was making racial commentary.

scottmcrocker said...

That's a good point, Robyn. Obviously, they were familiar with School Daze and this further demonstrates the racial undertones of the comments.