What’s Really Offensive in the Discussion on Race

For an issue which shouldn’t even be an issue we sure spend an awful lot of time talking about race.  We talked about race during the Super Bowl when, for the first time, two black men were the head coaches. We talked about race during the Duke Lacrosse case.  And we talked, ad nauseam, about race last week when that talk radio host (whom I shall not call by name lest I contribute to the celebrity created by his buffoonery) called the girls on the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos.” 

There is no doubt that what He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN– with apologies to JK Rowling) said, was deplorable and should be condemned in all circles and at all times. But, as much as we don’t like it, HWSNBN has every right, under the First Amendment, to say whatever he wants.  Similarly, however, we have the right to not listen.  In fact, I contend we have an obligation to do just that.  Moreover, that obligation extends beyond HWSNBN and to every person, artist, or media who puts these words and images into the public arena.   

The problem isn’t just that HWSNBN said such things.  He was only acting in accordance with behaviors which create listener-ship and generate revenues.  Our country has a fascination with the outrageous, scandalous and nearly obscene. The problem is also that others are allowed to say similar things.  If what HWSNBN said is unacceptable, racist, sexist and deplorable then those words should be deemed as such regardless of who says them.  If a rap-artist or hip-hop artist or comedian says the same things, then those words should be viewed as unacceptable, racist, sexist and deplorable.  The fact that we allow some people, any people, the leeway to give voice to such words and attitudes is an indictment against our own hypocrisy and fear.  

GE owns NBC which owns MSNBC.  MSNBC cancelled HWSNBN’s program.  Yet The Tonight Show, with Jay Leno, on NBC, had Snoop Dog as a guest last November. Why is one man allowed a forum for his ugliness and another man is not? Honestly, I’d like to know how many girls on the Rutgers basketball team have Snoop Dog on their iPods.  Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers coach referred to the team as being “the target of his remarks.” Why is she not saying that the girls are the “target” of the lyrics in songs? 

There are many things I don’t understand, but I’m comfortable with that. I am not a black man.  Neither have I wrestled alligators. Having not had the experiences, I shouldn’t be expected to understand the details.  It is not a criticism of me, simply a comment on my life’s experiences. Perhaps there is something about being black in
America which makes language that is acceptable no where else, acceptable in the black community. But forget acceptable, how about edifying?  I believe that we should use our tongues as a blessing to other people; to edify and build up rather than to tear down.  So someone please explain to me what is edifying about the use of otherwise vile language when blacks say it to other blacks?  How are women edified? How is the community built up?  What don’t I get?  Explain it to me.  I’d like to understand this.

When this language exists anywhere in the public discourse, even when it’s used by blacks to blacks, it tempts people like HWSNBN to use it themselves.  He is not to blame for this. He IS at fault. But he is not to blame.  We are to blame for creating an environment where any of this language is met by other than outrage. We are to blame for buying CDs and concert tickets. We are to blame for laughing at off color jokes. We are to blame for creating a market where the business of racism and sexism can profit. 

But the problem runs deeper, for not only are the standards of language hypocritical but the indignation at his remarks is hypocritical.  The black community should indeed feel indignant, as we all should. But where is the indignation within the black community towards black artists who perpetuate these phrases, images, and stereotypes. Sure it’s easy to take on HWSNBN. But apparently it’s too difficult to take on those within one’s own community.  How might the black community respond if black leaders–those with the public’s ear–took on other blacks speaking or singing these offensive words to snuff them from our language and society?  That’s a fight that would meet real resistance and which would take real courage but which must happen if we’re ever to make headway in this battle. 

Why should I feel indignation (and I do) towards HWSNBN when he speaks like this when I’m not asked to feel indignation when others sing about it?  I feel like I’m being asked to enforce a double standard. If I respond one way I’m a racist. If I respond another way I’m a hypocrite and a fraud.  I don’t understand the subtle nuance. I want to be supportive, but I don’t get it.  

Coach Stringer went on to say “I want a moral standard we can all live by.” I agree whole heartedly. We need to never accept this language. We need to teach ourselves and our children that no one can be allowed to say these things without it affecting the collective determination of the perpetrator’s character and values.  These words will not be tolerated in any context, venue or media.  People have the First Amendment right to say it, but we have the right to ignore it.  People who wish to put these ideas into the public forum will find no venue—no concert halls, no Tonight Show, no radio, no audience.  It’s time we spoke as one people, indivisible, with one voice that this is wrong. It’s degrading ALL THE TIME regardless of the messenger. We won’t tolerate it because it offends my friends, my neighbors, my daughters, my sons, my fellow Americans.  This isn’t about free speech it’s about free listening.  

People are concerned, and rightfully so, that what HWSNBN said is offensive–that it dehumanizes blacks and objectifies women.  It does.  But when we allow this racist and sexist language in our society in other areas, we say we don’t care.  It demonstrates our indifference to how blacks are treated by each other and in other venues. And what could be more offensive than indifference?

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 8:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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