Danville Express

Living - April 27, 2007

The 411: Demeaning language creates a forum

by Katharine O'Hara

In light of the recent scandal involving radio talk show host Don Imus and his highly offensive reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos," it seems only appropriate to explore the nature of an issue that may be at the root of the Imus controversy - the derogatory language and vulgar nature of hip-hop culture.

Don Imus' abhorrent comments were certainly worthy of the consequences he has and will continue to face (Imus' radio show, Imus in the Morning, was canceled by both MSNBC and CBS), but at the same time, is it right that as Americans we hold a double standard? It is America who is appalled at Imus' remarks, yet did it ever register that it is America whose warm embrace of the demeaning hip-hop culture is quite possibly responsible for desensitizing him to the point that he felt his remarks might have been humorously well received? Perhaps it is necessary to note that we may be holding Don Imus to a higher standard than we are willing to hold ourselves to by permitting the widespread consumption of music that portrays disgusting and degrading images.

As responsible as Imus is for his offensive and deplorable comments so, too, is our society for openly accepting and adopting aspects of the hip-hop culture, which openly denigrate the female gender, casually and often referring to women as "bitches" and "hos." Rap artists who make equally as or more demeaning remarks than Imus are embraced and financially appreciated, further encouraged rather than held accountable. Widely respected rap icon Snoop Dogg even appeared at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards accompanied by two women wearing dog collars around their necks and attached to leashes. Because of America's open and continued toleration of this despicable behavior, the public becomes desensitized to the flippant use of demeaning language, and internalizes these degrading terms. It is hardly surprising, yet nonetheless offensive, that before long, suburban, white, teenage males - or 66-year-old men for that matter - think it is OK to refer to girls as "bitches" or "hos."

The issue is not exclusive to males: I am disgusted all too often when I hear girls at school referring to their fellow female friends as "slut," "bitch," "whore" or the like. I begin to wonder if their friends realize that the dictionary definition of a slut is "a dirty, slovenly woman" or that they are being defined as "malicious, unpleasant and selfish" when addressed as a bitch. I can't help but attribute the casual use of these words to the widespread exposure and support of the same language used in rap music. It makes me cringe and quite sad, to say the least, to think that each time one of these girls tolerates being pinned with one of these abominable titles - whether by rap artists, or even her friends - she is in a way forsaking her identity as a strong, independent and respectable woman.

As many have pointed fingers at rap music amid this controversy, many members of the hip-hop community are speaking out. Rather than blaming hip-hop for Imus' comments, "pointing at the conditions that create these words from the rappers should be our No. 1 concern," said Def Jam records founder, Russell Simmons. He argues that hip-hop merely reflects the injustices of society, notably poverty, which have afflicted many rap artists, and these injustices must be explored before blaming those rappers who merely portray them. However, it is important to note that it is not as if hip-hop artists simply describe their afflictions or rap about the deplorable misogyny that afflicts many black women. Rather, it seems many of them glorify this situation. To write off the offensive language in rap songs as artistic expression absolves rappers of any accountability for their offenses.

Though these rappers cannot be excused, Simmons does make an important point. There is no denying that rap music is offensive, but it is absolutely necessary to explore the reasons why the offenders feel the need to offend. It is through hip-hop that the consequence of the sin of slavery is readily apparent. Most likely a result of the emasculating nature of slavery, the male African-American psyche was severely damaged, and men were left feeling utterly powerless with a need to somehow reassert their control. Unfortunately, this need presumably resulted in the degrading treatment of women that pervades modern day hip-hop culture.

On another note, one might wonder why it is only now that the American public has taken offense at such racist and sexist comments when rap artists have been allowed and even encouraged to use the same dehumanizing language for decades. It is reasonable to assume that seeing the faces of the women Imus was referring to rather than listening to the general and blind references made in many rap songs, brought the issue to a more personal level, evoking a greater sense of shock and outrage. It is time for women to say "no" to the denigration of their race, regardless of who is saying it. Once women do this in a public forum, the blind shots rappers make toward the female gender will be taken as personal offense on a wider level. As a country, it is time to think about what we are willing to accept.

We must take this whole issue above simply firing and denouncing offenders like Imus to a level of personal unrest and offense, and continue to discuss and push these issues until significant changes are made.

"The object was not to bring Imus down, it was to lift women up ... We must lift everyone above this name-calling and this denigration that we've accepted. It is a hole in America's soul," remarked Reverend Al Sharpton, the aggressive civil rights activist at the forefront of those pushing for Imus to be fired from his radio positions.

In the end, it is Don Imus we should thank for bringing about this forum to discuss issues that have been overlooked for far too long in a country such as our own, whose greatness is based on the freedom, tolerance and equality it boasts.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.


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