Yesterday’s post on Don Imus and the Rutgers Nappy Headed Hos has sparked a secondary discussion in our moderated comments area that — because of bad language and cruel intent — cannot be published here. The topic those horrible comments are trying to enlighten — Where is the Humor Line Drawn When it Comes To Race in America? — deserves wider, but calmer, critical attention.
I love editorial cartoons and this is how some of them are framing the Imus issue this morning. Sometimes a public correction is felt deepest in the bones under the guise of humor:

Here’s my question for you today: Does anything go in American Racial Humor when you try to make a funny?
Are Blacks allowed to make fun of Whites? If yes, how and why? If not,
why not?
Are Whites allowed to make fun of Blacks? If yes, how and why? If not,
why not?
Where is the Humor Line Drawn in the Asian and Native American
Is there such a thing as Universal Humor?

If yes, how it is defined,
drawn and exploited for laughs — and what is never allowed or
Or is funny only narrowly relegated to certain communities, intended
cultures and ethnic coteries?


  1. Race humor is stupid humor, period. Like blond jokes, woman jokes, or any other kind of ethnic joke, race jokes require the speaker and listener to believe–or to pretend for a minute–that an entire heterogenous and diverse demographic can be flattened into a stereotype worth derision. The “nappy headed ho” expression is only funny if you pretend that all black women have nappy hair and that nappy hair is amusing because it is somehow inferior to other types of hair. Where’s the humor?
    That said, it’s definitely less okay for white people to make racist comments or jokes. I skimmed through the comments on the other post, and one commentor seemed to be raging that it was a double standard for society to accept hiphop’s racial/sexual slurs while Imus is vilified. (1) It’s unclear that Imus is actually suffering for this slip, (2) I don’t hear anyone saying that racial/sexual slurs are okay in any context, (3) I scoff at any white person who says it’s not faaayyerr to hold whites more accountable for racist humor than other people. Any type of racist remark from any person is unproductive, homogenizing, and potentially divisive–I hope I made that clear above–but the racial abuse, humor, and mythology circulated by whites in previous decades is irretrievably linked to the enormous racial injustices perpetuated in this country, past and present. To suggest that white-spoken racial humor is okay, or even just as bad as minority-spoken racial humor, is to deny that history. Irresponsible.

  2. Thanks for the excellent comment, Tanglethis, and I agree that when you make fun of a person’s skin color — something they cannot change — it burns harder than if you shared the same color.
    Slavery in America is still a rich fountain of pain and heartache and to deny its reverberations between Blacks and Whites for the last 300 years is to be insensitive to the earthquake movements of a people and a nation in bloody historical conflict.
    Imus’ show this morning is another three hour apology — but today he added a new twist in that he didn’t invent the phrase “nappy headed ho” — and he said that phrase was initiated by the Black community and the real examination needs to come from within the Black community for the creation of that phrase and FOR THEM to reason why they are putting down their own women inside their own culture.
    Now Imus is arguing that Blacks are Racist in their own communities between light-skinned Blacks and dark-skinned Blacks and how Black male athletes “only want to date White women in college” — and that, too, is an issue he did not create.
    He still doesn’t get it — but how can he ever get it when all his lily-white friends call in all morning long to tell him what a great guy he is and how Racist he isn’t.

  3. That’s pretty disgusting. No one would deny that intraracial conflict exists–not just in the black community–but that hardly evens the balance, making his wrong less wrong.
    I’d call it an example of blaming the victim, except that the word victim isn’t really appropriate here–I love the cartoon of the Rutgers girls just walking away unruffled. Do you have a suggestion for a better phrase that implies “attempting to displace patriarchally privileged prejudice onto the heads of a historically oppressed demographic”? I think such a phrase could also handily apply to flamers on some of the feminist blogs I frequent.

  4. Hi Tanglethis —
    I agree that for Imus to use the Black community’s hatred, norms and memes against them to justify his own form of Racism and Bigotry is the height of, well, Racism and Bigotry.
    He is certainly blaming the victim here while pretending he never intended any harm.
    The Rutgers team will walk away and probably go through the motions of publicly forgiving him. This is nothing to them, really, I’m sure. They’ve all endured much worse in their lives than this, but when this sort of hatred seeps out from the private and into the public mindset in the morning, on simulcast TV and radio and for 10 million people to watch and listen — scope takes on greater meaning than context or intent.
    My feeling with people like Imus is that they have no really good Black friends. If he did, and if others did, they would know in the depths precisely how these kind of phrases sear the soul and scar the skin. This sort of insensitivity cannot be hidden or excused because, if you haven’t lived it directly, or at least experienced it through the eyes and bodies of your Black friends, you really cannot begin to comprehend the hurt it inflicts on the entire being.
    I suggest the phrase “Consequential Context” for what you describe. All contexts create their own consequences and sometimes those outgrowths and responses cannot be pinned down or expressed until inflicted if you are not a whole-body aware person. If not… then… watch out!

  5. Hi David,
    I always cringe when I hear racial or sexist humor. There’s never anything funny or humorous about it.
    I suspect it comes from fear and a lack of empathy and understanding of other people.
    I think a lot of it comes from people wanting to keep other people “in their places.” You can see it when rich people are afraid of the less fortunate that they may have never taken the opportunity to meet. Stories about excesses and exaggerations of danger surrounding people keep the fear alive for those who worry about losing their power or positions in the community.
    Not too long ago in my area, a real estate agent got into trouble trying to “blockbust” a neighborhood by preying on people’s fears that it could become a part of Gary, Indiana.
    A lot of racial humor is designed to keep people downtrodden — whether they are African-American, a new immigrant arriving in the U.S. or the member of some other group deemed “dangerous or weird.”
    Also, a lot of racial humor is just the product of being insensitive and not thinking before speaking.

  6. Hey Chris!
    I, too, cringe at that kind of Racial and sexual humor. I also cringe when people curse at each other — especially when they’re married to each other… or friends… or dating!
    I realize a lot of modern humor and music is based in abject cruelty — but I also realize now what Bill Cosby has been arguing for all these years: Cruel humor and blue humor are easy; it’s hard to do family friendly humor that still makes people laugh. I respect Bill’s sense of doing the right thing the hard way: Don’t go for the cheap sexist or Racial jokes. Aim higher. Be funnier. Don’t go lowbrow. The “new comedians” laugh at him for having “old fashioned values.”
    I read that strange diatribe from Mrs. Edwards. It was really sad. A cup of tea shared between neighbors might heal a lot.
    When a neighborhood “turns” or blocks get busted — it can be a terrifying time for both the old neighbors and the newcomers. “White Flight” from the urban core is something the Bronx, especially the South Bronx and Fordham areas — never really ever recovered from that abandonment of fear and so you have pockets of excellence and wealth stuck in the midst of utter and complete despair. That incongruity of meaning and substance — and even sustenance! — is something that every New Yorker should be working to heal.
    Did you watch any of the Rutgers press conference today? I thought the women served themselves really well. They were professional and kind. They weren’t looking for blood or revenge. They were more hurt and confused than anything — and that alone stings Imus more than blind fury ever could.

  7. Hi David,
    I heard part of the press conference as I was driving back from Illinois today and thought team captain Essence Carson did a great job.
    I caught the press conference by accident — I flipped to the radio all-news channel because I saw a bunch of Hammond, Indiana police cars chasing someone westbound on the Kingery Expressway in Lansing, Illinois and wondered if it was anything exciting.

  8. I’m so glad you were able to listen to part of the Press Conference, Chris. It was an hour of necessary healing. The administration was angrier than the players. Rightly so, I think — they understand how that kind of outrageous talk can really wound a people and an entire institution — if it goes unchallenged.
    You’re right about Essence. A star was born today. She was nervous, but her words were smart and on target. When she said the line about the team not being players or students but women and your daughters before you — it was an amazing moment about why this matter matters so much beyond the obvious original insult.

  9. Essence is a cutie and an all around gifted person not just in athletics, but also in music, according to her biography.

    (Essence Carson) Is a gifted musician who plays the piano, bass guitar, drums and saxophone … Is majoring in music at Rutgers College.

  10. Here’s an excellent article that goes back a bit in time last week to show how Imus tried to brush this off until he could no longer do so and had to “repent” this week:

    But last Thursday, the day after he made his controversial comments, Imus just couldn’t see what the fuss was all about.
    “I don’t understand what the problem is, really,” the talk show host told his 2.25 million weekly listeners on 70 stations. “People gotta relax, really. Calm down.”
    The problem for Imus was that he had taken a look at the women of the Rutgers University basketball team — eight of the 10 players are black — and declared that they were “nappy-headed hos” and “rough girls.” Oh, and they resembled male basketball players, he agreed. His executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, said Rutgers and Tennessee reminded him of “the jigaboos vs. the wannabes,” and Imus said the Tennessee players, by way of comparison, were “cute.” There was much laughter on the show’s set. (Last week, Rutgers lost to the University of Tennessee in the women’s NCAA basketball final.)

  11. These things are like speeding tickets. Nobody gets caught the first time speeding — at least most people don’t.
    I wonder how many times Imus has displayed this type of behavior and was never called on it before now?
    Another local star is Naperville, Illinois’ Candace Parker who played with the Lady Vols.

    A product of Naperville, Ill., Parker came to Tennessee as perhaps the most decorated high school player in history and as only the second Lady Vol hailing from the state of Illinois (Carla McGhee)…The only two-time USA TODAY National Player of the Year (2003, 2004) helped Naperville Central H.S. to a 95-4 mark in the final 99 contests of her four-year prep career as well as to two Illinois AA state titles.

    Too bad we weren’t talking about all of these talented women before Imus maligned the Rutger’s team.

  12. Chris —
    Back in 2000 Imus took an on air “oath” with Black journalist Clarence Page that he would “no longer refer to Blacks as simians” because the Imus show sportscaster was making fun of Venus and Serena Williams as monkeys or gorillas:

    The bad-boy sports-talker underwent rehab earlier this year for an admitted addiction to crack cocaine.
    Four years ago, he was suspended for saying tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams were better suited for National Geographic than Playboy.
    He has also called female soccer players “juiced-up dykes,” claimed “faggots play tennis,” and said Palestinians were “stinking animals.”

    Clarence Page was not invited back to the Imus program.
    This quote from Media Matters lifted from the Imus show today suggests Imus is just “playing along” with the whole apology and suspension — indicating he is disingenuous in his current appeasement:

    So, and there’s a lot of stuff that we can do, but at some point, I stop playing. So I don’t deserve to be fired. And I am not going to be fired without consequences. So, I should be punished and I’m being punished and not insignificantly, by the way. I’m not whining, because I don’t feel as bad as those kids feel, and I’ve said that several times. But, I’m not going to play forever.
    I agree it’s too bad we haven’t celebrated these fine women before. Sometimes it takes darkness to see the light.
    Candace Parker looks like a winner!

  13. – If two Bengalis meet – they start a Durga Puja. When four meet, they start two different Durga puja.
    – If two Marwaris meet, they start a business.
    – If two Tamils meet, they start a tech college.
    Well, these are jokes. Each and every ethnic group in India has their own traits; Bengalis are stereotyped for jealousy and backstabbing, Marwaris are known for their business efficiency and south Indians for tech-skill.
    – Indian languages are phonetically very different from each other, as the hapless Bongs (common nickname for Bengali) do not have a ‘z’ sound in their vocabulary – unless they are cautious – they will always enjoy a cool “brij” (breeze) in a summer evening.
    – The Tamils would enjoy reading ‘Yevery’ word of ‘Yevery’ tech book under the Sun – can’t help it – because it’s how their language demand to pronounce ‘E’.
    Well, we laugh at each other for this too.
    We laugh at each other’s accents, food habits, customs – but calling someone a “ho…”… I don’t think so. I don’t understand how come calling someone a “ho” can be funny. Joking about someone’s religion? There will be a communal riot in our country. I think the reason we don’t degrade each other for their look/ appearance because we fought together when it needed, regardless of our ethnicity. There was time when the ruling administration called us “bloody niggers” – regardless of our look, so we know it hurts. Now after independence, we are fighting amongst ourselves for various reasons, but the majority still believes in “unity in diversity”. That’s our uniqueness.
    Wanted to conclude with the following –
    If the Titanic was made in India:
    1) There would be 10 times as many people on the ship.
    2) There has to be a song with a girl wearing a white dress, singing in the rain.
    3) It will be seven and half-hours long.
    4) The hero, heroine, his mom, dad, sister and brother will float in the cold water for days and yet survive. The villain will drown in the first drops of water.
    Does it hurt? No, because it is true in terms of Indian movie and it is funny.
    Does it hurt being called a “Bong?” Well, not as much as “Paki” does.

  14. Thank you for the fascinating comment, Katha! I appreciate your honesty and your analysis very much. I am also thankful for you bringing us back on the topic of humor for investigation.
    What is “Durga Puja?”

  15. You are welcome David!
    According to my roommate Don Imus is a “J**k”, he always was. Also, he added – “j***” is a race that comes in different shapes and sizes and USA needs to send them to an exile. My roommate is white, Caucasian.
    Durga Puja is the biggest religios festival of Bengalis.
    We do make fun of each other, but we also recpect each other from the core of our heart. We know who is capable of what.
    I am yet to meet a foreigner who can pronounce my name correctly. So when one of my colleagues says – “you have a very cute (!) accent!
    I am bound to say – “thank you, so do you!” If that confuses her, I make it clear – “The way you pronounce my name!”

  16. Thanks for that great link, Katha!
    I like how you compliment others on their accents. 😀
    What is the proper pronunciation of your name?
    Imus is not a nice guy as your roommate suggests — that’s his draw, I guess.

  17. You are welcome!
    First of all, there is no accent, no stress on any syllable.
    “Ka” should be pronounced as “co” as in “collie” – with a soft ‘k’. It’s close, but not correct.
    “tha” should be pronounced as “th” in “thermal”, again, it’s close -but not correct.
    “kali” should be pronounced as in “collie”.
    I know it’s utterly confusing. It’s very hard to explain because phonetically there is no sound in English that can come close to the pronunciation.
    I don’t expect anyone to pronounce my name correctly; I even try to make people’s life easier by introducing myself just as Katha.

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