Monday, April 23, 2007
The editorial below appeared at Adweek.com. A brief MultiCultClassics response immediately follows…
Art & Commerce: What Imus Taught Us
By Debi Deutsch
“This has scarred me for life. I was shattered by Don Imus’s comments.”
This reaction from a Rutgers University women’s basketball player greatly disturbed me. Here is a young lady who has already accomplished so much and seems destined for great places traumatized by Don Imus’s offensive rhetoric. As executive director of the TORCH (Together Our Resources Can Help) Program—created to help underserved high-school students with an interest in media-related careers—I wondered if her reaction would be shared by the young African-American women, and future media and advertising stars, with whom I work.
These bright and talented teenagers and young adults tend to share their opinions freely and candidly, and this hot-button topic turned out to be no exception. The students condemned Imus’s remark and could barely believe that the shock jock uttered the words, “nappy-headed ho’s.” But they were also surprised that some of Rutgers’ Scarlet Knights players were so devastated by the comment.
“What [Imus] said was completely unnecessary and I feel sorry for those girls on the basketball team,’ said Nordia, a TORCH alum who attends Borough of Manhattan Community College. “But I don’t think they should let what he said ruin their lives. Unfortunately, you are going to go through life and people are going to say hurtful things about you at some point. It’s up to you if you let it bother you.”
Ernestine, a high-school senior and current TORCH member, said, “At first I was shocked, but then I realized he’s not the first, the second or the last person to say something like that. He’s not important enough to destroy the African-American community.”
Their comments reflected solid self-esteem and made me proud that TORCH participants are acquiring the tools and maturity to navigate the challenges of a competitive and not always fair world. Equally important, our young women have learned to question the role of the media.
Joezette, a Baruch College freshman, observed, “The media needs to focus not on what they think people want to hear, but on what they need to hear—they shouldn’t just go after a story to sensationalize.”
When I further questioned our program participants and alums about the controversy, they also found fault with the music industry—specifically, those involved in hip-hop. “The hip-hop community needs to be more responsible,” Ernestine argued. “They need to be more conscious about what they call each other and women, and how they portray women in videos. They make people in other groups think it’s OK to say these things.”
This critique was especially interesting in that Imus and his supporters were using the fact that hip-hop artists use derogatory language as a crutch and defense in the fallout. (Is it possible that he’s never heard the expression two wrongs don’t make a right?)
I wish I could assure my students that they will never have to face racism as they progress in their professional careers. However, what we can do as a program and what we can all do as individual mentors is to help young people gain the confidence they need to feel that they can compete on level ground. Furthermore, it is our collective obligation to help all young aspirants in our field feel empowered to create dialogue and lobby for change. Ultimately, giving them that kind of support will help them become leaders not only in the field of communications, but in their own communities as well.
It is encouraging to see that many of today’s youth are increasingly savvy in questioning the messages sent from those within and outside their own community. Perhaps it will be this generation of young adults that demands a higher level of consistent respect and civility.
If the self-confidence I heard in my students is indicative of the new generation of communication professionals, then perhaps Imus will have a positive legacy after all. His negative example may just help forge a new generation of leaders to speak up eloquently and forcefully whenever the industry crosses the line of respect—regardless of the skin color of those who demean others.
Ms. Deutsch means well. And her humanitarian endeavors are commendable. But she should more deeply consider her own observations.
The Rutgers player claims to have been scarred for life. Why does Deutsch question her pain? After all, this woman’s once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment has been forever tainted. Imus and the millions of people he represents essentially told her, “You may reach the highest level of achievement, but you’re still less than the majority of society.” That certainly sounds like the cause of a legitimate scar, despite the fact that it’s total bullshit.
One student said, “At first I was shocked, but then I realized he’s not the first, the second or the last person to say something like that. He’s not important enough to destroy the African-American community.” It’s sad to hear a young person declare Imus won’t be the first, second or last racist to spew hateful obscenities. But let’s be glad the Black community—and the collective community—stood up and denounced the shock jock. The protests were in support of the Rutgers team as well as our entire society, with special emphasis for the TORCH program members. Given her role, Deutsch should have a better-than-average understanding of the destructive nature of idiots like Imus.
The students acknowledged the adverse contributions of hip hop. So what? Imus tried to use rap music as his alibi. Sure, nasty rhymes may have indirectly influenced the poor, impressionable radio personality. But the bigotry behind his words belongs to Imus. Hip hop is not a force for evil. Need proof? In 2004, the TORCH held a benefit event where the honorees included hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.
Deutsch wrote, “I wish I could assure my students that they will never have to face racism as they progress in their professional careers.” Lady, if you’re steering them towards the world of marketing and advertising, you can confidently promise them that they will encounter racism. Guaranteed.
Finally, please don’t suggest Imus may ultimately leave a positive legacy. It would be more proper and respectful to credit Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for any good that comes from this incident. They are among the ones who led the charge against the negative legacy of Don Imus.