Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Rutgers, race, history... heavy stuff

David Seaton's News Links
Right away, I have to say that Don Imus should be fired because he's an idiot. Did he think he was being "down"? Nobody could be so stupid as not to realize that the young women's feelings would be hurt by being called "nappy headed hos". Publicly calling a young lady a "whore" can get you (and your network) sued for defamation.

In a purely American context, however, "nappy headed" caused equal pain and was considered equally offensive, and that's what I'd like to talk about. I'd just like to use the incident as starting point for some personal observations made from having lived so many years away from the States.

I come from the suburbs of Chicago, which were, and probably still are at heart, as racist as Alabama, but in my family of liberal Democrats, the "N" word was never, ever pronounced, even by the Saint Louis Missouri branch. African-Americans who worked with my stepfather (a musician) came to dinner with the same regularity as his white fellow workers did... although there were neighbors of ours that didn't like that. I went to integrated public schools in a university town with a large, old, African-American community with no overt, or vulgar redneck type racism. Still the tension was always there and flavored all areas of life. There were so many things you couldn't say, gestures of friendship that were frowned upon (by both races) etc, etc. Until I went to school abroad I thought that this was universal and something intrinsic to relations between races, I found out, in fact that it was really about history.

Over here I went to school with dozens of Cubans. Most of them had some African blood somewhere, "la gotita" or "little drop", what Cuban author Gulliermo Cabrera Infante called, referring to a parisian Cuban intellectual, "the Congo was a tributary of his Seine". Some were white as the driven snow... I was blown away by how little that meant and really blown away how they talked to each other. Everybody, white and brown alike called each other, "Negro" (pronounced "naygrow") and "Negra" and mulato and mulata. I had a drop dead beautiful, Cuban girlfriend who insisted that I call her mi Negra... she said it made her feel sexy... she liked to call me her "chinito" ("little Chinaman" and I was redheaded little mick). Racial terms, were terms of affection!

Then I went to art school in England with several African-Africans and again discovered that relations between people of different colors could be perfectly natural. Even with fellow students of British Caribbean origin you didn't have to walk on eggshells like with African-Americans.

Funnily enough it was the war in the Balkans and the hatred between the Serbs and the Bosnians that suddenly made it all fall into to place for me. Serbs and Bosnians are both Slavs, they both speak the same language, but history has made them enemies.

Color in the United States is just a "warning signal" that history has walked into the room. America is millions of little Bosnias. That history of slavery is pretty horrible, but slavery was horrible in Cuba too. I think it has something to do with America's puritanical steak, with its hatred of vulnerability and slavery is total vulnerability. Anyway, I would really like it if the scandal was about calling a nice group of young ladies "whores" and not about mentioning their "nappy" heads. DS


Anonymous said...

I'm not black, but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I wasn't white.

Frank Zappa

Anonymous said...

Well, I've married a Vietnamese and a Russian American Jew, and I started out Irish Catholic...what you can say at home, or in the bedroom, or over a cosy table in a barroom is NOT necessarily what should be said over the air.

The First Amendment, as I read it, means you can say anything you want, and no agent of the US Government can punish you...but it doesn't guarantee you a reputation, a job, or an audience.

Imus has been disgusting for years, as is his whole market share...

Aging fratboys, jocks, working-class sexist yahoos...the plague of many a life, including mine...

Funny you should mention Bosnia in this context.

Huh? Bosnia was Muslim, Croat, and
Serb, not "Bosnian" vs. Serb.

Each group had its own language, and it was and is, the same language...Big deal!

"History" did not make them enemies, unless you class current events as history.

Their political order collapsed. Yugoslavia disintegrated, and much like the Iraqis you see today, they started going to ground, looking for leaders who'd speak for each little group, and those leaders were trash...

Well, I have a soft spot for Alija Izetbegović- a soft spot my Bosnian Muslim and Kosovar Albanian co-workers do not share.

I don't quite get your post, tell the truth. "Nappy heads" is a disgusting racist way to refer to the texture of African hair. "Ho'" is a disgusting way to refer to African-American women...

Don't overthink it.

But think a little bit more about Bosnia as in this alarming story

Questions Arise on World Court's Ruling

Some countries have real problems, as opposed to moral problems.


David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Wobbly doesn't seem to get my point. Color isn't what it is all about in the USA. What I found among Cubans and not just in the bedroom was a cheerful and natural acceptance of what we pretentiously call "difference". The reason being is that there was no hostility. You can't imagine Aretha Franklin singing Celia Cruz's signature tune, "Con la Bemba Colorá"... La "bemba" being a frank afro-Cuban reference to (how shall I put it in American-speak?) sub-Saharan, African labial morphology. The hostility is not racial, it's ethnic and tribal (like Bosnia), that is why so many white people are so enthusiastic about Barack Obama... his color is nice: black is beautiful, but Obama is not ethnically African-American, he is not part of America's ethnic history. Therefore people can admire his "tan" without confronting their own hostility and guilt.

I just with that the fuss was about Imus calling a group of nice young women whores, but of course American would be a different country if that were the case.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Here is a link on what I am after here:


David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Whoops! that link didn't turn out, did it? Try, try again:

Imus: the good-natured racist - Los Angeles Times

The idea is that the problem is really about the treatment of women here.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

cut and paste it:

Anonymous said...

What do you call "racial" in contrast to "ethnic" or "tribal" there? Are you sure this isn't just English language. This "race" thing is an English language specialty, most people never think like that.

This is more like the puritan attitude attempting conscious self-censorship because of the Christian good/bad dichotomy.

Plus particular US-American definition of "racism" is very much worthless following political propaganda terms like "anti-americanism", trying to frame criticism of the White House as "racist". Most people don't take that seriously either.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Every American uderstands what "racial" and "racist" mean... that's about 300m people for a start.

However what an American calls racial in another culture might be tribal or ethnic. This is becoming clearer thanks to Barack Obama. African-Americans are not turned on by him and they ask themselves why. The answer they give is that he has not shared their common history of slavery and discrimination.

A common history is one of the factors that identify an ethnic group. Like a common dialect, language (Ebonics?)myths or art forms. A shared identity.

So until now, to be of color was to have that history. In that way race, tribe and ethnic group have become confused.

Anonymous said...

It IS about mentioning their nappy heads and should be...

Try this page http://www.blackvoicesblogs.com

and see the rest of what Imus and his co-host said.

Also follow the discussions the girls on the team are having with the media and their linking the sexualization of black women in hip hop music (plenty of "bemba" moments there!) with the way Imus got so comfortable with his slurs.

Also see "Black voters like Obama" in the Nation
campaignmatters?pid=170194 even though they know he isn't the kind of African American they are.


David Seaton's Newslinks said...

I am not denying that the "nappy" business is important in the USA. What I am saying is that this particular sensitivity is particularly American and contrasts with the culture of, say, Cuba.

I think their is a much stronger feminist case for protest than an African-American one. I still maintain that color in the USA is a coding for an ethnic/tribal problem (on both sides)... The problem is much more one of poverty and exclusion than anything else and "race" is used as a way of keeping the poor in America from making common cause.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

It seems there is a generation thing. This cover article from Time on Imus has a bit of the "Cuban" thing to it:
Now, however, we live in a mash-up world, where people—especially young people—feel free to borrow one another's cultural signifiers. In a now classic episode of Chappelle's Show, comic Dave Chappelle plays a blind, black white supremacist who inadvertently calls a carload of rap-listening white boys "niggers." The kids' reaction: "Did he just call us niggers? Awesome!" The country is, at least, more pop-culturally integrated—one nation under Jessica Alba, J. Lo and Harold & Kumar—and with that comes greater comfort in talking about differences.

But that's a harder attitude for older people—who grew up with more cultural and actual segregation—to accept or to mimic. Part of the problem with Imus' joke was that it was so tone-deaf. "That's some rough girls from Rutgers," he said. "Man, they got tattoos ... That's some nappy-headed hos there." The joke played badly in every community, raising memories of beauty bias (against darker skin and kinkier hair) that dates back to slavery. Tracy Riley, 37, of Des Moines, Iowa, who is of mixed race, said the incident was among her four kids' first exposures to overt racism. "Our kids don't see color the way we do," she said. "They don't see it as much. 'You're my friend or not, but it's not about race.'"

The line was as damning as anything for what it suggested about Imus' thought process: a 66-year-old white male country-music fan rummaging in his subconscious for something to suggest that some young black women looked scary, and coming up with a reference to African-American hair and a random piece of rap slang. (Maybe because older, male media honchos are more conscious of—and thus fixated on—race than gender, much of the coverage of Imus ignored the sexual part of the slur on a show with a locker-room vibe and a mostly male guest list. If Imus had said "niggas" rather than "hos," would his bosses have waited as long to act?)

It's a pretty good summing up and it brings me, as an expat, up to speed.