CAN’T OR WON’T?
I’ve been mesmerized by white Americans’ responses to the Imus incident that’s unfolded these past two weeks. For the record and as I’ve indicated in the comments section of the previous entry, I think it’s good for Americans to talk about racism because it still metastasizes our country, like it or not. And albeit Imus’s comments were both racist and sexist, it’s important to note that the national debate about the remarks centers more on racist language and what it means; but I don’t want to suggest in any way that his comments weren’t also sexist.
There’s no need to rehash in detail Imus’s long-standing history of being a shock-jock, of using defamatory language, or of him being a good man because he does great things for charity. Suffice it to say, it’s unfortunate that he said what he said. I’m more interested, though, in the patterns of white peoples’ responses to this incident, which range from the truly sympathetic to the truly inquisitive to those truly in denial to those who are truly insane. I’ve found that white people—and I’m considered white myself— fall into one or more of these categories. My non-scientific, anecdotal analyses come from what I’ve read, what I’ve seen in the media, and what discussions I’ve had with friends, family, colleagues, and students.
The truly sympathetic include those folks who express—to one degree or another—a sense of perspective thinking about the targets of Imus’s remarks and about the redemption that Imus seeks. Put simply, we’ve all made mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, and many of us have been truly sorry for what we’ve done and whom we’ve hurt. Those that seem to recognize this engage in some sort of perspective thinking, demonstrating the ability to think or see things, as Atticus Finch suggests, from someone else’s shoes. It seems that more of us need to revisit the lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The truly inquisitive include those folks who are raising legitimate, non-racially charged questions, like why Imus? Why now? What’s corporate America’s involvement in all this? What about the other hate-mongers out there? Why is it important to determine what’s appropriate and when? The good news for America, at least, is that it seems many folks have raised similar questions that beg a consideration of not just Imus and his misstep, but moreover, what it all represents. Questioning is good for America, it’s good for this incident, and it’s good for racism.
The truly in denial group, which seems to be overwhelmingly populated, include those folks that solely rely on shifting the focus form the incident itself to blaming rap music, popular culture, and black folks themselves. I’ve heard everything from blaming Russell Simmons to conflating the Imus incident with Nelly’s lewd videos to the inane charge that if black people address each other with certain terms that unequivocally permits everyone else outside of their racial context to use those terms AGAINST them. A BROAD, open discussion on decency in all facets of American culture is something most people, I believe, would welcome. But let’s not deny Imus’s serial bad behavior by shifting and blaming all over the place in an effort to avoid the obvious: racism is alive and well in America—just ask black folks, and the Imus incident is but a minor representation of it. Let’s be honest.
Last but not least is the truly insane group. These folks include the lunatics, supremacists, and hate mongers who unabashedly take such actions as, oh, sending the Rutgers female basketball players hate letters. Nice. These folks just don’t get it, and maybe they never will. Three cheers for Deirdre Imus who was particularly courageous and effective in her charge to these folks to send the letters to Imus rather than terrorizing these young women. Clearly, looking at the response of Mrs. Imus further indicates the seriousness of Mr. Imus’s misstep and the importance of talking about race to avoid something like this from happening again.
All this observing, pondering, and analyzing about the Imus incident has forced me to consider the following major question, for which I don’t have an answer: is it that most Americans can’t or won’t be honest—with themselves and others—when we talk about racism?