Beyond Imus: It's the Hypocrisy, Stupid!
Periodically, some new wound rips the scab off our national, livid scar where sex and race intersect: the young law professor, Anita Hill, shaming Congress by her dignity and inspiring women with her truth; the O.J. Simpson circus trials; the Duke-Lacrosse mystery; Don Imus v. the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team.
We're an adolescent country, ahistoric, not that well educated. Most Americans still don't know that "races" do not exist, that what gets termed "races" are miniscule physical variations across our species, due to different survival adaptations we've developed since our human ancestors migrated from Africa to other geographical regions. (One instance: in a sun-drenched sub-Saharan climate, melanin in our pigmentation created darker skin as a protective necessity; under cloudier northern skies, paler pigmentation suppressing melanin became necessary so we could absorb more Vitamin D from the sun.)
Yet ironically, while believing "race" is real, many Americans think racism, sexism, and other bigotries are myths -- a staggering feat of collective denial. How many times have you heard someone start (or finish) a diatribe with "Well, I'm no racist (sexist, homophobe, etc.), but ... ?
Michael Richards follows his melt-down by proclaiming he's not a racist; Mel Gibson weeps he's not an anti-Semite; actor Isaiah Washington calls a colleague "faggot," but insists he's no homophobe. Politicians spew blatant or coded hate speech, then muster blame-the-victim, nonapology apologies ("Sorry if anyone mistook what I meant"). They all scuttle behind the excuse of work-stress or alcoholism while fleeing to the latest damage-control hideaway: rehab.
Howard Stern, who built his career on every form of bigotry, "libertarian" Bill Maher, and new neocon Dennis Miller all boast about attacking "the Establishment" while they parrot and reinforce its basest values, and hide behind the "equal-opportunity insulter" justification -- as if pain lands with the same impact on the powerless as on the powerful. A few others walk a fine line of satirizing prejudices while trying not to reinforce them. Stephen Colbert has built a not-so-bright, archconservative character deliberately to skewer that character's politics. Yet even Jon Stewart, whose work I admire, at times jettisons his political conscience where sexism is concerned -- perhaps too eager to court that age 18 to 24 pale-male consumer demographic?
But all of these "truth-telling," "ground-breaking," "ballsy," so-called rebels, however much they might now tiptoe around "the N word," tiptoe more around words that would be really dangerous to use, especially in self-examination:
The R word: Racist. The S word: Sexist. The H word: Homophobe.
Well, after a lifetime of activism -- from the civil-rights movement through antiwar, antipoverty, the birth of lesbian and gay rights, the founding and flowering of the contemporary feminist movement in the United States and globally -- I am still a racist, a sexist, a homophobe. How could I not be? How can any of us -- no matter our sex or ethnicity -- not be sexist, racist, and all the other -ists? Our society sowed these seeds in our formative consciousness.
I remember my mother and aunts -- good women, liberal whites, working-class, apostate Jews, proud members of the NAACP -- unthinkingly saying "That's white of you," or "I'm free, white, and 21," or even "You can't wear those new shoes yet! Stop acting nigger-rich." Yet these women once soaped out the mouth of a playmate who used "nigger" as an epithet; all the while they chuckled at "Amos and Andy" stereotypes on the radio and made "No tickee no washee" jokes at the Chinese laundry. Conveniently, they didn't connect the dots.
As a child, I sure got their double message, though. Never since have I been able to cleanse myself totally of those messages, not under the blast of Southern sheriff's fire hoses, not on picket lines or at sit-ins or in jail cells. I wrestle with those toxins -- whispery, seductive, semiconscious -- every damned day, in myriad ways, and will do so until I die. Hannah Arendt termed this a necessary vigilance about "the Eichmann within," who gets loose only when not acknowledged. It's the hypocrisy. I believe that each of us truly commits to fight bigotry only when we get royally pissed at how it has warped our own humanity. At least then, with enlightened self-interest, we're less likely to play Lord or Lady Bountiful but abandon the direct victims when the going gets rough. There's no vaccine for these poisons siphoned into our systems, no individual-case cure. But recognition is the prerequisite step in treating such diseases until we can eradicate them outright. For that we need to come off it and tell the truth.
It's not about blame, but about responsibility; not about guilt, but about change.
The same is even truer of sexism -- where denial and collaboration are epidemic. Racism is still taken more seriously because men suffer from it, too -- and whatever any men do or feel must be more important than what happens "only" to all women. When a man says "I'm no sexist, but ... " I groan inside. But when the rare guy begins, "I guess I must be a sexist, but I don't want to be, so how ... " he gets my attention: he's owning up to reality, and already addressing not what but how.
Everyone over age 45 shares some version of my childhood brain-soiling experiences. Younger Americans share different pernicious messages: It's cool to make fun of geezers, fat people, spastics, amputees. If certain hip-hop lyrics reek violent woman-hatred, it's hip for everyone to echo that (and it rakes in dough for the pale-male-owned record companies). If chic fashion spreads celebrate sado-porn rape poses, well, that's just edgy. If talk-radio's crude propaganda spews words like "feminazis," "retards," "Lezzies," "ragheads," and "wetbacks," gee, lighten up, nobody takes that seriously. (Who is nobody?) If "Hey, man," "What's up, dude," or "You guys" have been resurrected as generic terms for greeting a friend/friends, then to point out wearily that these terms erase female presence is to invite rebuttals revived word-for-word from the 1970s: to be overly sensitive, uncool, and, naturally, one of those humorless, dreary PC types. (About 15 years ago, I wrote a Ms. editorial explaining "PC" as really standing for Plain Courtesy.) D'uh. We've been here before, oh yeah. But it still hurts.
It hurts. What part of "It hurts" don't they understand?
I know, I know, it's positive (however maddening) that our memory-challenged pundits now claim the Imus affair will "open" a national dialogue about which some of us Americans are already hoarse, yet still babbling. I know patience is not my strong suit. I know that over time, consciousness is contagious. Once you start connecting dots, you can't help but connect more. Rep. Linda Sanchez recently suspended her membership in the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, the second to leave the group charging sexism; her sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez resigned after accusing caucus chairman Rep. Joe Baca of referring to her as a "whore." Star athletes, members of Congress, law professors, single moms dancing at frat parties to support their kids, presidential candidates -- when in doubt, call 'em whores. We're none of us immune to the hurt. And we're none of us immune to being agents for the hurt.
I don't only mean obvious offenders, serial right-wing purveyors of hate like Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, et al. What about liberal compartmentalizers? Wasn't that left-leaning Hollywood awarding an Oscar to the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp"? In a coyly intellectual version of "Ooops, my bad!" progressive politicians and journalists -- Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Rep. Harold Ford, Frank Rich, Jeff Greenfield, a depressingly long list -- now sheepishly admit to having been (caught as) enablers by appearing on "serious" segments of Imus shows, while they conveniently overlooked vicious sexist and racist "jokes" bracketing their discussions. I've heard feminist spokeswomen defend appearing on shock-jock shows or political shout-fest programs claiming the "need to reach those audiences." To help generate more heat than light? To be a guest or a dartboard? To do outreach or to collaborate -- conveniently compartmentalizing while hyping a book or oneself?
Language reflects and defines attitudes. Attitudes reflect and define action. It's the hypocrisy, stupid.
From the media, as usual, we relearned Compartmentalization 101: Whatever Men Say and Do is More Interesting than Whatever Women Say and Do.
Feminist movement support for the Rutgers team has been close to eradicated in coverage, which positioned Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as leading the protests. Most pundits chose to play a sick Competition of Oppressions game, presenting the Imus debacle as more a racist story than a sexist one -- as if human suffering should be compared, women appear in only one skin tone, and bigots can't hate and chew gum at the same time. The Sunday morning TV political shows ignored the sexism entirely. Some commentators justly praised pressure brought by a 200,000 member African American women's organization joining the protests, but neglected to mention that The National Council of Women's Organizations -- 11 million multiethnic women in 210 organizations -- was among the first to demand firing Imus and his producer. Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation met privately with the team at the start, and her speech brought down the house at their Rutgers rally. NOW's President Kim Gandy has been denouncing Imus for years, and from the first moment this story broke, she, together with heads of other national feminist organizations, attended those same pressure meetings with CBS and NBC executives. These were meetings where Sharpton and Jackson -- each bearing personal baggage as an apologist for his own past sexist actions and ethnic hate speech -- garnered the media spotlight.
The fall-out from such destructive divide-and-conquer reporting implies that African American male leaders cared, but women of all other ethnicities did not. Erasure again -- partial-truth reporting that feeds racism and sexism.
By now, we ought to know better, right? We ought to know that, despite persistent, erroneous media references otherwise, women are not another minority: we're 52% of the population -- and of the species. And you can damned well bet we come in all sizes, shades, shapes, ages. You name it, we are it. That's the F word: Feminism.
At least the women athletes from Rutgers (two of whom are stereotype-breaking European Americans, by the way) got it right. Refusing to compartmentalize, and continuing to demonstrate not only physical but moral grace, they made clear they felt all women had been degraded by Imus's remark. As team captain Essence Carson said: "We're just trying to give a voice to women who suffer from sexism. ... Not just African American women, but all women."