Invisible Women? A Black Woman’s Response to Don Imus’ Sexist-Racist Remarks

The recent media frenzy around national radio and talk show host Don Imus’ sexist-racist comments about the women’s basketball team at Rutgers University (New Brunswick) is one more item in the evidence column of how women are regarded by men. With a natural fluidity, Imus casually referred to the Rutgers players as nappy-headed hos. Two […]

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The recent media frenzy around national radio and talk show host Don Imus’ sexist-racist comments about the women’s basketball team at Rutgers University (New Brunswick) is one more item in the evidence column of how women are regarded by men. With a natural fluidity, Imus casually referred to the Rutgers players as nappy-headed hos. Two days later (Friday, April 5), he read a statement that was supposed to be an apology. Today, he extended his apology by saying "I’m a good person. I said a bad thing."

When I first read the news, "What the hell…?" was all I could muster. Blood rushed. My heart ached and I lamented for Black women. Then I went back to doing what I was doing. It was surreal to not be surprised or outraged by his comments, but I wasn’t. From what I know about Imus, which is not much, he’s a veteran offender of everybody (except White men, I suppose). That men, be they Black or White, see women through idealized or dehumanized lenses, is not new. That Imus, in particular, would make ignorant comments, is status quo. So "shock jocks" are not shocking any longer.

Perhaps the hardening began as I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. LAPD’s death grip of choice for Black people was the choke-hold. That was one of my first understandings that some white people with authority had it in for Black people. And some non-authorative white people too! In 1998, James Byrd of Jasper, Texas was murdered by three racist white men. They hitched him to the back of their truck and dragged him for 3 miles. It’s believed that Byrd was alive for some of the time he was being dragged. A fast forward to recent times would bypass countless other racist murders and hate crimes, but it would bring one up to speed with Michael Richards’ rant about n##### at the Laugh Factory, as well as the NYPD murder of Sean Bell in New York, among other maddening things in this so-called civilized society.

No doubt my hardening is also cemented by the current all-time high sexist state of affairs of today’s hip hop. Grown Black men, aided by white affluent male financiers, over-saturate our multi-media landscapes with sex, sex, and more mega sex fantasies – which do an excellent job of animalizing women or only presenting them, as Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall so eloquently states in Byron Hurt’s groundbreaking documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, as "objects to be f#####."

But Black sexiest men, whether they care to admit it or not, take their cues from White sexist men. They reinforce each other and form unspoken alliances – all at our expense. But oppressed anybodies take their cues from dominating forces. It’s universal, scientific, and is part of the reason why women accommodate injustices from men.

Some Good Men

"If men had to go through what ya’ll go through today, the movement would have been started a long time ago. We couldn’t endure all that you put up with." A male friend’s comments one afternoon as we discussed a few sacrifices that women make in order to please men. Our rituals around hair, make up, and body, mostly, not exclusively, have their origins in our desire to indulge men.Another friend, who is also regarded as an anti-sexist male, told me that his activist work is largely inspired by a woman in his life who was killed at the hands of an abusive husband. "When I first started challenging men about our sexist behavior, I was very nervous." He confided. "I never knew what I was going to say, let alone how it was going to be received. But I woul conjure up Tara (not the woman’s real name) and she would "talk" to me. She would guide me in taking up her cause. I felt like I was defending her and other abused women. I was glad to do it and I became less and less nervous over time."

I know plenty men who understand that the discussions about gender must involve men. I’m baffled that I know many men wise enough to stand this ground. They are a rare breed and I don’t exactly how they arrived at this place in their lives so securely…there’s nothing in our society that nurtures such thinking.

The thinking that gets upheld in this country is the normal Imus, he and his bashing kind – Black and White (Howard Stern; Starr, formerly of Hot 97 and Power 105 in New York; and others). More often than not, these men get rewarded by default. Their sexist-racist views are not eradicated, but are suspended, as if in mid-air, for the world to behold and publicly criticize…for a time. They have jobs to come back to…somewhere in the entertainment field, no matter how irresponsible and violating the comments. So cozy is the old-boy network, Imus doesn’t have to pause from his job right away… even his suspension is held in suspension.

There have been meetings, marches, and mea culpas for a few days now. Imus’ firing has been called for by Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Brian Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalist, and many others. Despite my hardening to these sex-race fests that pop up on the national scene every few months, I am still jolted by a glaring factor.

The Mule of the World

The exclusion of Black women weighing in on this controversy is thunderous. In the immediate aftermath of the comment, I never got the impression that "the media" was even remotely interested in feedback from the young Black women hit, or from any other Black woman for that matter. The respondent faces of this controversy have been predominately male. In fact, the one woman who was given a national platform this night on CNN’s Paula Zahn was a white woman – an enlightened, well-spoken, and progressive one – but a white woman nonetheless. The by-passing of Black women is the kind of obnoxious, oppressive exclusion that "the media," and the white affluent men who own it, have embraced for decades. Black women don’t immediately come to mind in the search for analysts or independent thinkers, even when the subject is them. Black woman organizations are not who Imus sat down with when he offered a so-called apology. He bowed toward men first. Rev. Sharpton is the logical go-to person in a national controversy such as this, for he has consistently stood up for the disenfranchised. It is not logical or acceptable, however, that Imus by-passed the women of the Rutgers basketball team and Black women leaders in making his first, second, and subsequent statements about the matter. Another item in the evidence column that Black women can be the ‘ho, the b####, or even the reason for the gathering, but we are not to be engaged intelligently. It is not even assumed, by the so-called powers that be, that we can think, speak, or defend ourselves. If we take a stance at all, it must be after the men do their bidding. Zora Neale Hurston’s Nanny (of Their Eyes Are Watching God) said that the Black woman is the mule of the world. That would be an ascent in some eyes.

Amongst Black women, perhaps even we assume that White men just have too much power for our own good. Perhaps we also assume that if our transgressors are Black men, then well…maybe there’s no dignity or progress to be made if we dare challenge them. That’s just too disloyal. I disagree. There is a time, a place, and the power of reason to stand up for ourselves, even amongst family.

Part of my work, ironically, is in the media field (and, up until two months ago, I co-hosted an African American talk show on a prominent national cable TV show). In my work, I have come across narrow-minded decision-makers whose job it is to book commentators in the media. They often whine that in situations like this, they don’t have enough Black women resources to pull from. A lazy person’s out. There is a solid body of work (be it literary, media, programming, or activist works) by highly intelligent African American women who have been doing anti-sexist work on the ground level for decades: Sister Souljah, Monfia Bandele-Akinwole, Erica Ford, Yvonne Bynoe, Joan Morgan, Farai Chideya, Toni Blackman, Rha Goddess, and countless others across the country – some known, some not. Either way, there is a deep-rooted knowing of injustices that only Black women, regardless of their station in life, can properly articulate.

To Black Women

When she reached adulthood, an enslaved African named Isabella Baumfree changed her name and identity to the one we know today: Sojourner Truth. When Harriet Tubman fully grasped an understanding of the world she lived in, she mapped out her own survival, that for her family, and for her larger community.

Both women, and others like them, were keenly aware of their unique skills, talents, and missions in life. They were self-permitted to think, organize, speak, and lead. The weight of racism and sexism was ever present, but not immobilizing. When they weren’t invited to help solve or speak about the problems of the day, they crashed the party. More importantly, they were not only pro-active in standing for their right to be free and live well, but for that of their communities too. Tubman, for example, was one of the first social entrepreneurs in our ancestral line. She owned 27 acres of land in upstate New York that she acquired for the hospital and other properties that she built for her family and her community. Truth and Tubman are sacred models of woman leadership, a legacy of power that is our ancestral golden inheritance. Though from over a hundred years ago, their examples are eerily relevant today.

Fast forward: modern models of leadership range from Camille Yarbrough to Sonia Sanchez to Fannie Lou Hamer to Shirley Chisholm to Afeni Shakur and countless others. Our models also include the millions of unrecognized Black women in this country alone who have made a hard decision to combat hate – from within and without.

So we need not dig so deeply into our bloodline to be encouraged and empowered, but we need to pull from something…and now! If you are a writer, write on our behalf. Let some of your stories be about helping us heal from this often loveless world. Or heal…with us in mind. Dance with us, sing about us…more. If you are a mother, nurture and discipline the children with our longevity at heart. And if you are without a means to support yourself at this time, or without a loving partner to ease the burdens of the day, keep pushing anyway. Never mind about finding fault, find another way, as my mother says. In every single aspect of our lives, we must be self-permitted to tell the truth about our lives and stories that shape them. Somebody, quite naturally, is going to be offended in the process. Invariably, someone is going to tell us how wrong we are, but that’s not anyone’s call to make but ours. And I strongly believe that we should partner with Black men, especially, but with anyone else who stands in principle support. But the battle for the respect of Black women, however, is ours to lead.

© 2007, April R. Silver