Sunday, April 08, 2007

Teachable Moments

I'm sorry to expose my highly sensitive fans to Don Imus's disgusting comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, but the video provides us with what my moms like to call a "teachable moment." (Remember how in school your teachers always said, "There are no stupid questions?" Well, look, technically that is not true. Between them, my moms have been teaching for about a hundred years, and they have confided to me that they have heard literally thousands of stupid questions. Some of them, Moose claims, can only be described as spectacularly stupid. And yet, they patiently embrace and address all questions in the fervent hope that a light bulb or two might turn on and learning might happen. Their faith in this possibility after so many years of disappointment and plagiarism is touching in the extreme, but that, gentle readers, is why every stupid question and every rude racist, sexist, homophobic remark is euphemistically referred to as a "teachable moment.")

Readers of Roxie's World know well that the moms and I had been pulling for C. Vivian Stringer and her feisty young team in the NCAA women's basketball tournament following the tragic upset of our beloved Lady Terps in the second round. You might also recall that we had taken to referring to Rutgers as the "Scarlet Women," which we intended as a clever homage to the team's actual name, the Scarlet Knights. Imus, as you know unless you've been vacationing on another planet this week, mentioned on Wednesday morning's show that he had watched the final game between Rutgers and Tennessee (which Rutgers lost by a score of 59-46). He referred to the Rutgers women as "rough girls," noting that they had tattoos. When his executive producer Bernard McGuirk chimed in to describe them as "some hard-core hos," Imus one-upped him by chortling, "That's some nappy-headed hos there."

For a better quality video of the exchange and a transcript of the remarks, go to the Media Matters for America web site.

To get a sense of the dignity and class of the women Imus was assaulting in his remarks, check out the post-game interview with Coach Stringer and the Rutgers team here.

Now, class, let's try to figure out what's wrong with three middle-aged white men (former Imus sports announcer Sid Rosenberg was also involved in the exchange) talking (into open mics) about a group of talented young and mostly African-American women (coached by an African-American woman) whose only crime was daring to contend for a national championship. To start with, of course, there is the cringe-inducing issue of rich white guys who think listening to hip-hop gives them the right to engage in their cheesy imitations of street talk. Imus has a home in Westport, CT. Reckon the fellows there at the country club refer to the women in their lives and social circles as "hos"? Nah. Me neither.

It's hard to imagine a more toxic combination of insults than Imus and his sidekicks managed to toss out in a few mercifully brief moments. The toxicity arises in part out of the differentials of social power between those who were hurling the insults and those who were the objects of them. Such behavior violates a basic sense of fairness, particularly when it seems motivated by a desire to intimidate the less powerful in an effort to keep them in their place. People--and male people in particular, I am sorry to say--love to try to bully women by insinuating that strong women are lesbians, which is what Imus's ridiculous comments about "rough girls" with tattoos aim to do. Just to make sure the point was clear, Imus noted that "the girls from Tennessee. . .all look cute." "Rough girls" also has nasty race and class connotations, as it implies that Stringer's team is a gang of violent thugs--when in fact the Rutgers women simply played the smartest and most devastatingly effective defense in the tournament this year, at least until the final game. The phrase "nappy-headed hos" is in a league of its own. If Roxie's World were an academic blog, I'd give you a long list of books analyzing the sordid history of racist insults aimed at black women's bodies, appearance, and sexuality. Since this isn't, happily, an academic blog, I'll just point you in the direction of the work of bell hooks.

In some ways, what's most troubling to me in the case of Imus v. Rutgers is the casualness with which he and his pals engage in their assault. They are not screaming into their microphones, off on some howling rant that just slipped out of control. They sound like three guys shooting the breeze over morning coffee. Insulting women, tossing out racial epithets, trying to turn a basketball game into a semi-pornographic fantasy of "rough girls" defeated by "cute" girls--For these guys it's all strictly routine. Just another day at the office.

Philadelphia Inquirer sport columnist Stephen A. Smith has a piece on the Imus insults in Sunday's paper. He has reactions from Coach Stringer and Spike Lee, who objected to terms he used in his film School Daze being taken out of context and appropriated by Imus. Smith also astutely notes the damaging subliminal impact Imus's insults might have on Stringer's recruiting efforts, since some parents might be made nervous about letting their daughters play for a program that has been spoken of in such terms. Read the column here. And don't think that's paranoia. There is also a long, sordid history of coaches in women's basketball using homophobic tactics of negative recruiting to scare players away from competitors' teams. Read about that here.

It's enough to make this old girl wonder: What do you think Imus and his buddies would have said if the wonderful women of Rutgers had managed to win the game?

Update: Make sure Imus learns the lesson of this teachable moment. Join in NOW's campaign to DUMP DON. (With thanks to Goose, fabulous teacher and proud Rutgers alum, for putting this link in comments.) To all the rough girls and guys out there, let's do a little pointing and clicking for justice this morning. Get Imus off our airwaves!

The Latest: CBS Radio and MSNBC both announced late Monday that they are suspending Imus's show for two weeks starting April 16. The News Hour on PBS aired a discussion with Tom Oliphant and Clarence Page on whether Imus should be fired on tonight's broadcast. Oliphant argued against firing and for using this moment to educate Imus and the public (hey, Tom, you stole half your argument from Roxie's World!), while Page argued for firing him on the grounds that his history suggests he is not educable (hey, Clarence, you stole all of your argument from Roxie's World!). You can hear the conversation here.


  1. My dearest Roxie -- I am glad that you addressed this despicable behavior on the part of sleazy white men. As one of the members of your household who PROUDLY CALLS HERSELF A SCARLET WOMAN, I thought your legions of loyal fans might like to visit the NOW website and participate in a petition of CBS Radio, MSNBC, et al to get rid of Don Imus. It can be found at:

    You know, as an alum, I always thought it was funny that a Rutgers Scarlet Knight Woman could be called a "Scarlet Woman," and I touted that as a joke, calling myself and Moose Scarlet Women. That moniker was a badge of honor, one that made fun of those sanctimonious folks who set themselves up as moral authorities and condemn others for their sexual behaviors.

    You are correct about the fact that this sanctimonious, hypocritical sleaze was uttered all too casually. And speaking of looks. . .who is uglier than Don Imus anyway? But that's really beside the point. He should be dismissed for this, and people shouldn't protect him with labels of "Shock Jock," and so forth.

    Thank you for pointing to stories about the fabulous Vivian Stringer and all of first-rate, marvelous women on the Rutgers basketball team. They have a firm place in this old Goose's heart.

    Legions of loyal fans, DEMAND THAT IMUS BE FIRED.

    I love you, Rox.

  2. Right on, sis! I'm just glad that Imus does radio because he looks as though he fell down the ugly tree and hit every branch on his way down.

    BTW, I love the categories for this post: basketball, cultural studies, lesbianism, my moms. These are a few of my favorite things!

  3. Anonymous1:11 PM EDT

    Hey y'all. Check out the press conference held by the RU women's team. It's up on the MSNBC site:

    (aw, just click over to MSNBC if that gobbledygook doesn't translate)

    That C. Vivian Stringer is a class act. Wonder if "Classy" is what the C stands for?

    I hope that, now that the air has been cleared, all those marvelous freshmen can get back to work on their expository writing papers! Don't forget the student in student-athlete. . . .


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