I learned of radio personality Don Imus’ filthy remarks (link requires NY Times TimeSelect subscription) about the conference-winning Rutgers University women’s basketball team while laying in a hospital bed three days after they were made on his WFAN-FM morning show simulcast on cable’s MSNBC and the CBS radio network. In calling the Rutgers women “nappy-headed ho’s” he unleashed a firestorm of denunciations that ended in his firing from both broadcast outlets. For once, big media did the right thing. Frankly, I was shocked, though extremely pleased. In one fell swoop, Imus had turned what should have been a celebratory moment into one of hurt, confusion and anger. Not being an athlete on any level, nor particularly being a sports fan, I cannot say whether it was worse for those young women to get to the NCAA women’s basketball championships and lose or to then be denigrated by a sexist bigot with a national audience. I only know that these beautiful, talented young women–someone’s daughters, sisters, girlfriends–did not in any way deserve to be diminished by a man with a malfunctioning brain. In the end, they were not diminished. They were held up as examples of grace and maturity in the face of ugliness, meeting with Imus and his wife at the New Jersey governor’s mansion, respectfully expressing their pain and, ultimately, accepting his apology. Brava, Rutgers women! Brava!
Don Imus is symptomatic of an illness in America. We live in a society that does not value women or people who are not white, no matter their accomplishments. In effect, it is a society that causes people of color to devalue themselves. This is especially true for women of color in general and black women in particular. Young black women are bombarded by images of singers like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Rihanna–ligher-skinned, long-haired and slender (though, in Beyoncé’s case, with curves), or; actresses like Halle Berry, Gina Torres and Thandi Newton, if there are any black actresses at all. If I am nothing else, I am a black woman. However, I don’t look like any of the above-named celebrities and neither do most black women. Yet, the message we receive from various media is that we are all supposed to have long, luxurious, straight hair and lighter skin. The idea is that the closer one is to being white, the more acceptable one becomes. Anything less and that person is easily discarded. In black society, this takes the form of “colorism,” the idea that lighter-skinned blacks with “good” hair are more valued than their darker, kinkier-haired kin. Colorism was born during the slave era when mulattos were allowed to live and work in the master’s house and not out in hot, often dangerous, fields. It was a way for slave owners to keep their property in line, turning them against each other. The effects were devastating and can be felt even to this day.
The celebrated 2005 documentary short A Girl Like Me from then-16-year-old New York City filmmaker Kiri Davis is a powerful modern introduction into the minds of the black female teens who were interviewed for the film. They speak of being devalued in their communities because they have darker skin and/or kinkier hair when the ideal is lighter skin and chemically-processed or naturally straight hair. In other words, these are the “nappy-headed” young women of Imus’ comments. They don’t stop there, however, the young women touch on what it means to be black in general. One particularly heart-breaking portion comes near the end when Davis reproduces the “doll experiment” originally performed by Dr. Kenneth Clark and used in the historic United State Supreme Court case Brown v. Bd. of Education, argued by future Supreme Court associate justice Thurgood Marshall. Clark’s experiment placed two dolls on a table and asked young children various questions relating to likeability and beauty. The same questions asked more recently resulted in an eye-opening and disheartening look at the deleterious effects of racism on the self-esteem of black children.
I am extremely fortunate to have been raised in an environment that eschewed images of white skin and long hair as the only examples of beauty and intelligence. My mother was an educator and educated. (Believe me, there is a difference.) She taught me to love black American history as well as the history of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. It is a love I carry and feed to this day as it carries and feeds me. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when black really was beautiful and old practices of bleaching skin and straightening hair were on the wane. It was the days of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Huey P. Newton. Women young and old were encouraged to wear their hair naturally and the darker skinned the more “authentic” was one’s blackness. Music actually said something to listeners not only about love, but about politics and the wrongs being done in our name. To be a black child in a black neighborhood with supportive and accomplished black adults around to guide young people was to be in an enriching soup. Times do change.
By any sane person’s measure of decency, Imus’s remarks were despicable and he deserved to have his cowboy hat handed to him on the way out. However, no one can doubt that his actions began a conversation in America about the intersection of race and sex that is a long time coming; and so it will be here at Words From A Wicked Woman. For the next six weeks, this blog will focus almost exclusively on race and sex in its varied forms, but I need your help in doing so. I would like to include personal stories of women, especially, who have been adversely effected by discrimination based on sex, gender expression, race, skin color or grade of hair. While I include workplace discrimination, I am particularly interested in discrimination from peers and social groups. Members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities are specifically encouraged to write. I’d also like to know of the joys of being who and what you are. Do you adore being a woman? Do you like having “nappy” hair and darker skin? Do you feel comfortable in your lighter skin and straight hair? Tell us what you think. Feel free to write to me at thewickedwoman at adelphia dot net. Yours may be the story I tell next.