< Color Commentary

Transcript

Friday, April 13, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
Meanwhile, as of this moment, the offending minute-long clip taken from MSNBC's simulcast of the Imus in the Morning radio program, has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. Like it or not, this has become a national conversation mediated largely by cable television and the Internet.

But what exactly is this conversation about? Leon Wynter, author of American Skin, says that Imus misappropriated a black expression and chose a particularly bad target in the Lady Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.
LEON WYNTER:
How they play the game and the passion and the purity of it, they work very, very hard at that image. I think that anyone who watched any part of that tournament is especially outraged. I mean, these would be the perfect victims.
BOB GARFIELD:
Part of this flap has to do, it seems to me, with cultural appropriation - black slang, having had such a pervasive influence on the larger culture, that even older [LAUGHS] extremely white guys like Don Imus think they can borrow it and be hip, or at least current. Is that partly what's at issue here, who gets to use which terms?
LEON WYNTER:
It is, but I think we should be clear. It's much deeper than slang. The very term "nappy-headed" points to this very long sense of belittlement in the face of European standards of beauty. And for the very longest time, African-Americans in general, black women in particular, have struggled with this question of the appearance of their hair. Just in one deft and very ugly sentence, Imus managed to put his hands right under our collective wig.
BOB GARFIELD:
It's a black thing, and not everybody has the permission to get into it, no matter how much the question of hair, "good hair," as the saying goes, and "nappy hair" may undergird the cultural conversation among blacks.
LEON WYNTER:
Well, you know, that's at one level. You can't use those words. You can't appropriate our particular pain. But at the same time, we defend the right, both amongst ourselves and also commercially, for those of us who happen to be rappers, comedians, etc. I have a strong feeling that we can no longer maintain that wall.

Too many people, including in right-wing talk radio, are pointing out the hypocrisy of saying, well, we can say it and we can even make money saying it, but he can't.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, I'm Jewish, and I tell some Jew jokes. And I've got to tell you, some of them are just absolutely fabulous. And I like hearing them from other Jews. But when I hear one from a Gentile, you know, my antenna are immediately up, and sometimes my eyebrows too, because I'm trying to figure out what right has this person to tell that joke? Is it anti-Semitic? I get a little suspicious. Is this the same phenomenon we're discussing?
LEON WYNTER:
It is, in a sense. We're talking about the arc of arrival, if you will, in American culture. You had Jewish comedians making, for a long time, a good portion of the Jewish populace uncomfortable. However, over time I think you can safely say that most of Jewish America feels they can afford it.

The real issue, though, is can black America now afford its particular brand of self-deprecating humor? It's as if as much as black America has arrived, the commodification of this aspect of black culture has far outstripped our advances within the society as a whole.
BOB GARFIELD:
Since this story broke and since this phrase has become part of the national vernacular, I personally, in my joking communications with just about everyone, have called them a nappy-headed ho’. And everybody laughs, laughs, laughs. Do I have permission to do that, not from you, but from, say, the culture at large?
LEON WYNTER:
I don't think so. If I were David Letterman or certainly Bob Garfield or any number of people who are hip and with-it and so on, they're going to have to find a new way of actually certifying their hipness and their coolness, besides sort of appropriating these things that they don't necessarily understand the impact of.

Before the I-muss, as I call it, the idea was that you had relatively little at stake for playing this game, for sort of, you know, bumping up your hipness quotient by dropping whatever it was. Now I think the stakes are a lot higher.
BOB GARFIELD:
You're right. So henceforth in my little personal email jokes I'll just start calling people schlemiels. I should be safe there. Leon, thank you very much for joining us.
LEON WYNTER:
My pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:
Leon Wynter is the author of American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America. His blog, The American Race, will be linked to at onthemedia.org.