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The new third rail in public discourse

When Don Imus apologized for calling the Rutgers University women’s basketball team a buncha nappy headed hoes the other day, he made it a point to note that he realizes that he crossed the line in this case, but my guess is that he had no idea this would be such a big deal. As Howard Stern pointed out, shit like this has been Imus’ MO for as long as he’s been in radio.

In fact, political website Slate recently put together a list of other inappropriate comments Imus has made over the years that didn’t result in nearly as much controversy. A few of my favorites included referring to the New York Knicks as a buncha “chest-thumping pimps,” referring to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post as a “boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy,” and referring to NBC political correspondent Chip Reid as a “limp-wristed ‘mo.”

Which begs the question: What’s the difference between all of the above (plus any number of other such incidents) and calling the Rutgers squad “some nappy headed hoes?” I’m going to go ahead and put forth that this controversy has hardly anything to do with the actual phrase nappy headed hoes itself. The real issue here is that Don Imus just so happened to stumble upon the new third rail in public discours, which is the black woman’s personal appearance vis a vis white women.

The media has made it a point to focus in on the phrase nappy headed hoes because, let’s face it, it’s fucking hilarious. But if you notice, the scope of the conversation in which said phrase was uttered had to do with how rough-looking the Rutgers squad compared to the Tennessee Lady Vols, many of which are relatively lighter in skin tone. Imus and his cohost Bernard McGuirk even went so far as to compare the match up to the Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes in the Spike Lee film School Daze.

To wit:

IMUS: That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and —

BERNARD McGUIRK: Some hard-core hos.

IMUS: That’s some nappy-headed hos there. I’m gonna tell you that now, man, that’s some — woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like — kinda like — I don’t know.

McGUIRK: A Spike Lee thing.

IMUS: Yeah.

McGUIRK: The Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes — that movie that he had.

And here’s the thing: as long as there’s been such a thing as women’s basketball, there have been men making fun of how masculine and ugly female basketball players are. Remember when the WNBA began back in the 1990s? All you heard about it was a) how no one actually showed up to the games, and b) how the players were all a buncha dykes. Even Spike Lee himself, who’s been calling for Imus’ head, couldn’t help but poke fun at WNBA players in his film She Hate Me.

So obviously the issue here wasn’t just a matter of an old crackety-crack suggesting that a black female basketball team is a buncha nasty-looking bulldaggers. The issue is that an old crackety-crack suggested that the darker female basketball team was even more nasty and bulldagger-ish than the lighter-skinned team. Black women found this especially hurtful because it essentially suggested that white women are better-looking than black women.

And I think we all know that’s the real issue here. Whether or not you believe that to be true (and I’m not gonna say it is, because I think it’s wrong to generalize), this obviously wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue if most people didn’t. But at the same time, it’s a man’s prerogative to like what he likes, right? I can’t help but think that what’s really going on here is the criminalization of the idea that white women are better-looking than black woman, which is of course just wrong on so many levels.

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