For the past week it has been impossible to visit a news website or to watch CNN or MSNBC for more than 5 minutes without some comment on the Don Imus affair. Referring to a group of 18-22 year old black women as "nappy-headed hos" is of course offensive, even from a so-called "shock jock".
But offensive statements and overtones abound in popular media and culture. What about rap music? The few times I have actually read the lyrics to certain rap songs, I have been literally shocked and often disgusted by the things being said. I still listen to rap and hip-hop because I think it's fun and great to dance to. But turn on BET or MTV. Watch a few hip-hop music videos. Offended? I hope so.
So why is Don Imus losing his job while rap lyricists' fortunes continue to grow? It's because America is upset over Imus' racism, not his sexism. If he had referred to a team of white women as ho's (I'm sorry, I still don't know how to pluralize "ho") it would be shocking and offensive, just like lots of things he says, and he would still have a job. Apparently we have no problem with Fifty Cent, Lil' John, Kanye West, Eminem, and countless other male artists disrespecting the entire female gender - in music and on albums that are geared toward people even younger than the women on the Rutgers basketball team, no less. We only get mad when a white person attacks the African-American race.
Similarly, Michael Richards made headlines for days because of his racial outburst against an African-American member of his audience. Have you ever turned on Comedy Central or been to a comedy club? There aren't enough hours in a day to count the number of insulting jokes comics make about women and the female gender. And yes, they use derogatory and offensive slang words to refer to women. But to my knowledge, their careers aren't tanking (well, not because of sexist jokes, anyway), they aren't issuing national apologies, and they aren't checking into rehab (well, not because of sexist jokes anyway).
This relative tolerance of sexism was made apparent to me in my Constitutional Law class earlier this term, too. If a state law discriminates on the basis of race, the Supreme Court will subject it to a withering "strict scrutiny". If a state law discriminates on the basis of gender, the Supreme Court will only look for some rational basis to support the law.
There are arguments for this - blacks are traditionally subjected to greater discrimination than are women, blacks have had a harder time in this country, racism is more alive today than is sexism. I happen to disagree with those arguments, but even if they are true, so what? Turning a thick-skinned other cheek towards sexism is not okay, no matter what the history has been. Perhaps more realistically, the cause behind this seems to be the tremendous political clout that the African-American community has mustered for itself. Somehow women have failed to exercise their voice at the same volume.
Since this seems to really have ruffled our country's feathers, let's hope that the racism dialogue does not overshadow the equally important discussion about sexism. I'm not advocating censorship in any form, I do believe this verges on censorship, and I don't beleive Don Imus should have been fired. But if we are willing to make the judgment that we cannot excuse a performer's open expression of racist sentiment, we should maintain the same standards and expectations when it comes to sexism. The fact that we have so far failed to do this shows that we continue to underestimate the prevalence of sexism in this country and the impact it has on individuals as well as on society as a whole.