When Don Imus and other racist jerks appropriate African-American terminology

by guest contributor Meera Bowman-Johnson, originally published at Our Kind of Parenting

In the best of times, being black is absolutely beautiful (let the choir say “Amen!”). In the worst of times, it feels something like this:

Three men went to hell.

The devil said to them “You have come to hell, and you must now choose whether to spend eternity in room 1, 2 or 3″

He then opened the doors to the three rooms.

Room 1 was filled with men standing on their heads, on a hard wooden floor.

Room 2 was filled with men standing on the heads, on a cement floor.

Finally, room 3 had just a few men, standing in human feces up to their knees and drinking coffee.

The men thought for a while, and decided to go with room 3, as it was less crowded and they could drink coffee.

They entered the door to room 3 and just as it was closing behind them, the devil said “OK men, coffee break’s over. Back on your heads.”

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. Because just when it looks like everything’s cool, that no public figure has acted out in a while and offended black people, some modern-day Jimmy the Greek has to come out of their face with a racist insult. For no good reason at all (not that there ever is one). By now, just about everybody in the black blogosphere has weighed in on Don Imus’ ignorant and offensive remarks about the Rutgers’ Women’s Baskeball Team. The comment that referred to the impressive athletes as “nappy headed hos” (for those who’ve been under the mommy – or daddy – rock for the couple of weeks).

I’ve read countless, incredibly astute reactions to the “shock jock’s” remarks, but thought one of the most pointed came from Deborah Dickerson’s The Last Plantation: “You never see the racism coming. You’re minding your own business, say, playing basketball or buying groceries or eating at Krispy Kreme when an Imus comes along and forces you to be ‘black’ so he can be ‘white’.” As a woman who deeply despises misogynistic language and has has proudly worn just about every natural style known to 125th Street, all I could think was, (to quote The Millionaire’s Wife from Gilligan’s Island): “Well (snif). I’ve never!”

Oh, wait a minute. Yes I have.

Like my friend Field Negro so eloquently alluded to, this Imus business is par for the course for those of us LWB (Living While Black). I don’t like it, I don’t condone it, but do I expect it? Sadly, yes. Because, just in case anybody is late coming to the party, there are a lot of ignorant people in the house. To narrow the group even further, there are a lot of ignorant racists dancing poorly, to their own rhythm. And to whittle it down even one degree further, there are a lot of ignorant racists throwing their hands in the air like they just don’t care, ’cause they really don’t think they’re racists. I’m fairly certain Don Imus is one of those clueless types. The type that thinks that having a couple of black drinking buddies gives them free reign to say whatever and end up getting left at the bar (or in the studio) wondering “Hey…where did everybody go??”

I say this for one reason only: the term “hos” is one highly offensive thing, but how many white guys do you know actually even know the word “nappy”…until now? Hugh Grant thinks it means diaper. So does Paul McCartney. Of course they do, they’re English. But what about white American guys (the ones that aren’t married to black women)? Sure, terms like “diss” began popping up on sitcoms back in the early nineties and “bling” crossed quite seamlessly, thanks to people like Puffy (who I blame for many things). “Hos” I could see (rappers throw that one around all the time which is a seperate post altogether), but “nappy”? Where’d he get that one from, BET’s Comicview?

All I can assume is that, much like the old anti-drug commercial, where the hysterical dad confronts his adolescent son when he finds weed in his room (“I learned it from watching you, Dad!”), Don Imus learned the word “nappy” by watching black people (not that I, nor my fellow ethnicists are personally to blame for any of this nonsense). Whether it was through listening to hip hop, watching School Daze, or hanging out with Robin Quivers, somewhere along the way, Imus caught on to another N-word and assumed the word was fair game. Or maybe he caught somebody proudly sporting one of those old school “Happy to Be Nappy” t-shirts I picked up junior year of high school at The Greek Picnic. I don’t know.

What I do know is that there are words that are okay for black folks to say in present company that other people just can’t use (sorry). Is it a double-standard? Yes. Is it a rusty, jagged, double-edged sword? Sure. Is it fair? Hell, yeah. It’s called code-switching people, and it’s high time black folks get back to that. If every word that is a part of African American vernacular is pumped into the mainstream, a critical part of the culture will be lost. I’m not saying we should go around speaking Gullah, but I do think there’s a certain power to the A-B conversation. If for no other reason, then to prevent racist jerks from appropriating African American terminology and then using it to insult people.

Maybe there should be a Negro Lexicon of sorts, for words that are an historical part of the vernacular, meant only to be used in certain company. That way, they’ll never be used incorrectly and nobody’s feelings could get hurt. Everybody with some African ancestry would receive the book; it would be sort of like the National Do Not Call Registry. But for black people. I’m not talking about words like “pimps”, “playas” or garden tools (which the Rutgers Women’s Team is far from by the way, and I resent that, too). I’m talking about the words your Nana used to say when she was doing your hair in the kitchen Saturday night before church. Does Don Imus know what “baby hair” is? What “edges” are? Dear Lord, let’s hope not.

It seems like every time I think the coast is clear, somebody has to slip up and say something stupid to inform me that they really think I need to forget the college degree and go scrub dirty toilets for a living. In this particular instance, what we can take from Don Imus’ comments is that to some, hardworking, talented and college educated young black women will never be seen as anything more than hypersexual chicken heads. Those young ladies deserve better than that. We all do. Right now, OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” (and that mesmerizing video on the treadmills) is stuck on continuous play in my brain. Here it goes. Again.

Okay black people, coffee break’s over. Back on our (nappy?) heads.