Why Imus Matters

By Malena Amusa Apr 11, 2007

(Rutgers women’s basketball team, fans, coach)

"It’s no accident that this talk show host, a powerful force in our commercial culture, hangs black women by the very thing that culture seeks to straighten – our hair – and, by extension, our identity."

Racism is inherently gendered, was one of the points we at RaceWire made in our New York Daily News opinion today: "Imus’ hurtful words are no surprise". Read below and tell us what you think. There’s been no shortage of people lining up this week to criticize Don Imus’ now-infamous remarks. National organizations, political leaders and pundits have all gone on record – as well they should. But in the race to condemn his racism, a big piece of the puzzle has fallen off the table: namely, the fact that Imus chose to degrade black people in general by attacking black women in particular. Imus has proven, yet again, that in America today racism remains gendered – and gender is undeniably seen through the prism of race. No, black women, thank God, aren’t still standing on auction blocks, having their hair and bodies assessed for quality. But from the birth of the nation to this moment, the lives of black women have been subjected to unrelenting degradation in the media and culture. Imus’ remarks must be seen through that history – which, unfortunately, is alive and well. Think about it. Top-rated daytime shows have more baby-daddy drama than real-life Family Court, invariably presenting black women as oversexualized and vindictive vamps. And these shows don’t claim to be hyperbole like mainstream rap music, which has practically built an entire industry by tearing down black women. Or look at "Flavor of Love," the hit VH1 show built around a bevy of scantily clad women, mostly of color, throwing "b—h" and "ho" at each other to gain the affections of veteran rapper Flavor Flav. Most famously, we all remember the welfare queen, the mythic, greedy single black mother who pimped the system and our taxes for her own benefit. That image helped turn whites against public assistance, fueling the welfare reform movement of the 1990s. Imus is just the latest chapter in this long, twisted American struggle. What he makes clear is that the battle between men and women doesn’t just intersect race; it runs parallel to it all the time. In fact, American culture is so addicted to race-based gender intolerance that when it begins showing symptoms, as it did with Imus’ hate speech, our national leaders can’t call it out for what it really is: evidence of this awful legacy. It’s no accident that this talk show host, a powerful force in our commercial culture, hangs black women by the very thing that culture seeks to straighten – our hair – and, by extension, our identity. Imus cannot be blamed for the whole sordid story. He didn’t create the stereotypes he parrots. But we can blame the stations that showcase him and others like him. In the end, if we learn something from all of this, it must be that we can’t be vigilant about beating back racism without understanding and challenging the racialized sexism that results not from individuals but from the institutions that drive popular culture and politics. And so, as we respond to Imus personally and politically, we must find opportunities to celebrate the contributions of everyday black women. If instead we spend our news cycles repeating that Imus has got to go – then perpetuating the same old stereotypes – we will have fueled the very cycle we aim to break. Rutgers sophomore forward Heather Zurich – ironically, one of the white players on the team – put it this way yesterday: "Our moment was taken away. … our moment to realize how far we had come." Unfortunately, the same can be said about what the culture has done to black women throughout our history.