Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed. This article was originally published in her blog.
My first thought, when the Don Imus scandal broke, was: What gives a guy with a full-frontal comb-over the right to criticize anyone’s hair? Don, Don, don’t you remember I am rubber, you are glue..? I had no idea what he looked like until he insulted the Rutgers women’s basketball team and got all over TV, but now that I know, and now that the discourse has descended to comments about people’s appearance, I see why he’s been confined to radio all these years.
Of course it’s the ho, not the hair, part of Imus’s comment that hurts, with its suggestion of unlimited sexual availability. Dream on, dirty old man, but there’s no amount of money that would win you the favors of these strong, smart, athletic young women. It was the senile lechery of his “nappy-headed ho” remark that creeped me right out. What did he think– that it was Bring Your Dotage to Work day?
But I changed my mind when I saw the whole sequence on the news. Imus didn’t utter those poisonous words in a tone of racist, misogynist, contempt, but with something that sounded like admiration. “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers,” he told producer Bernard McGuirk, “Man, they got tattoos …” It was McGuirk who introduced the ho theme, responding, “‘Some hardcore ho’s.”
Not to be out-done in the tastelessness department, Imus then muttered appreciatively, ‘That’s some nappy-headed ho’s there, I’m going to tell you that.” In the same way, an African-American might compliment a male athlete of his own race as “one bad-ass n-word,” or something like that. The Rutgers women were “rough”–which is good in an athlete, right?–inspiring McGuirk and Imus to flex their testosterone glands and act even tougher, and the only way they could think to do that was by adopting the argot of hip-hop. It was like watching a couple of suburban white boys slouching around in full ghetto get-up: Cute, in a way, but mostly pathetic.
This doesn’t excuse Imus, because he misses a crucial point: That an insult, used often enough, becomes the exclusive property of the insulted. Take the word “bitch,” as applied to any woman with the guts to offend. At first it stung, but then we appropriated it for ourselves. Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote a feminist book called Bitch, and there’s a feminist magazine of the same name. I can call my sister “bitch” in a jokey, tough-gal, way. But you can’t call her that, not if you’re a guy, unless you want to step outside with me.
You can blame hip-hop if you want, and the cable news channels have been quick to point out that the words “ho” and “nappy-headed” abound in that genre. But hip-hop occupies the realm of the carnivalesque, which aims to up-end white middle class sensibilities in the spirit of defiance and play. I cringe at the relentless obscenity of the lyrics, the misdirected disrespect for women. But I also recognize in hip-hop an anger that is not mine to share, at least not in the same words, because it’s a response to centuries of sexualized racial put-downs, often uttered by people who, embarrassingly enough, looked very much like me.
This isn’t only about race, though. Much of the commentary has focused on a multi-millionaire white guy’s unaccountable insult to aspiring young black women. Al Sharpton held up his own college-bound daughter as one of the injured parties; Gwen Ifill offered the painful revelation that Imus once referred to her as “the cleaning lady.” But at least two of the Rutgers players are white. What is the message here? That if you hang with the sistuhs your virtue will decline and your hair go bad?
No, what aroused Imus’s twisted admiration and antagonism (and possibly other things) was the reality of strong, determined, aggressive, women. I have straight blondish hair and have never sold any sexual services, but if the Rutgers women are “nappy-headed ho’s,” then I’d be proud to be one too.