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'Beauty Shop' Discusses Imus, Racial Insensitivity

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'Beauty Shop' Discusses Imus, Racial Insensitivity

'Beauty Shop' Discusses Imus, Racial Insensitivity

Warning: Language May be Offensive to Some

'Beauty Shop' Discusses Imus, Racial Insensitivity

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Web Extra: 'Barbershop'

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In a special Beauty Shop edition of our regular feature Barbershop Pulitzer winning journalist E.R. Shipp and media executive Nick Charles talk about Don Imus' official return, Hilary Clinton's gender woes and reality star Duane "Dog" Chapman's racial rants.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, we're going to step out of The Barbershop for just one day, so I can talk it up with my girls in the beauty shop. We have some things to work out.

But first, as you heard just a few minutes ago from his new boss at WABC in New York, Don Imus will be back on commercial radio as of December 3rd. Now that he's coming back, the debate over his comments and his style will rev up. Commentator Mary Curtis says news organizations would do well to find the right voices for that discussion.

Ms. MARY CURTIS (Columnist, The Charlotte Observer): So I've heard Al Sharpton answering Meredith Vieira's questions on "The Today Show," and Michael Eric Dyson sparring with Pat Buchanan on "Hardball." They were all discussing whether Don Imus deserves another chance. Now I have nothing against Sharpton, Dyson or Buchanan. Well, maybe a little against Buchanan, who in that interview told Chris Matthews that "Amos 'n' Andy" was a great television show.

But tell me, who's missing from this dialogue? Black women, of course. It's ironic that the very people who were disrespected continue to get no respect. They don't even have a voice in a debate that centers on their image and their morals. Nothing seems to have changed from a little more than six months ago when Imus-gate broke.

Back then, only a few black women got the chance to talk about why Imus's comments cut so deep. Just one here or there explained how the assault on the femininity, the morality, the humanity of black women has been a relentless thread in the fabric of America. Only a few academics were given the time to lament the image that no amount of Condoleezzas or Oprahs or Beyonces has managed to shake. Mostly, the Rolodex has spit out the usual suspects: Sharpton, Jackson, rappers, pundits.

Nothing is changed. Maybe things have gotten worse. Imus has more fans than ever, standing up for his First Amendment Right, not only to spew bile but to do so with the high profile megaphone. For him, it's redemption without penance, or even a promise to do better. The scandal may be the best thing that happened to his career.

In 2007, black women are still fighting for the basic right to be themselves, to be beautiful, talented and smart. They're still fighting for the right to be heard. I'm black. I'm a woman. I don't like what I hear. There, I said it even if no one is listening.

MARTIN: Mary C. Curtis is a columnist for The Charlotte Observer. Well, Mary, you know what, we are listening. And I say, we, at this point, because I'm joined on this Friday by a slightly different group from our usual Barbershop quartet. In fact, today, we're going to go to the beauty shop, in part, because we heard what Mary said and we wanted to talk more about the Imus story. We thought it was important to get some, you know, women's voices in the mix, so I'd like to welcome Pamela Merritt. She blogs at Angry Black B - it's the B-word - that's the name of the blog. We're also joined by E.R. Shipp. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. And Nick Charles, the head of Digital Content at BET.com. A Barbershop regular is sitting in. Nick, you know, we know you're going to sit there and pretend to read, but, you know, you can…

Mr. NICK CHARLES (Vice President of Digital Content at BET.com): I'm double-parked outside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you can, you can jump in occasion. So thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. CHARLES: Thank you.

Mr. E.R. SHIPP (Journalist): Thank you.

Ms. PAMELA MERRITT (Blogger): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Don Imus back from professional exile, and his boss at Citadel Communications said that he has been punished enough. So Pamela, has he been punished enough?

Ms. MERRITT: Probably not. I think - I mean, radio is about money, particularly when you have the kind of powerhouse radio personalities that WABC has on. And I think the punishment for Imus would come from the public. And what I find fascinating is the debate over whether women of color found it offensive or whether we would come back or listeners would come back because - I was never a listener of his show - is fascinating to me just because that's where the punishment would actually take place. If people aren't listening and they're not listening to the advertising that happened, then that's the real punishment for Don Imus. So I don't think he's been punished enough but we'll have to wait and see if that happens.

MARTIN: Shipp, what do you think?

MARTIN: Shipp, what do you think?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, no, he's not been punished enough but we are, as Pamela said, in a capitalist society where it's the money that counts. So his corporate bosses have decided that they can make money off of Imus. What we need to decide is whether the advertisers come back to Imus, and I think that's where we have power to exert. But let me do a disclaimer. I'm not in a beauty shop; I'm at the Atlanta airport - but my momma's in the beauty shop because her birthday — is she's turning 80 years old. She's getting that hairdo done today.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIPP: But in any case, Imus is described as talented and bright, and WABC is saying his program is going to be issue-oriented. I think that those of us who are out here who are in media, who are also in academe, should call upon him — and I hope his bosses are listening still to your show — about once a month. Let's come in and weigh in on how is he doing?

MARTIN: Well, Nick Charles, what do you think about that? You're - I'm curious also what you thought about Phil Boyce's comments - that he is just great radio.

Mr. CHARLES: Oh, I don't know if he's great radio. I know that I think before in this whole flap started, he was sinking into irrelevance. And I think this may have been the best career move he ever did. As far as, has he been punished enough, I don't know what enough punishment would be. My thing is, you know, I like Nick, now he's on parole.

Prof. SHIPP: Nick, I forgive you from punishment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES: I think he's on parole, and everybody's going to be watching and everybody's going to be monitoring. But I still think, you know, as Pam said, you know, I was never a listener. I would see it now and then in the simulcast. I think the audience for Imus is still there, the same hardcore folks. But the thing about it is I don't think he's going to get new people. I think he's going to have folks who are going to be listening - just waiting for the next screw-up, the next offensive comment.

Prof. SHIPP: But don't you know, though - I'm sorry to butt in…

MARTIN: Go ahead, Shipp.

Prof. SHIPP: …but WABC is always been kind of on the edge when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity and gender.

MARTIN: Well, you heard when Phil Boyce talked about their talent lineup. We're talking about Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity…

Prof. SHIPP: Right.

Mr. CHARLES: It's a boys' club. It's a boys' club but unfortunately, radio is a boys' club. And the sad thing about it, you know, is there aren't any black women's voices out there who can be heard. Even though I lived (unintelligible)…

Prof. SHIPP: You got a problem right here?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, even though I lived…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES: …like, beside's Michel's show. You know, something like Air America. You know, how many black women who had voices and were upfront those programs? My thing is…

MARTIN: (unintelligible)

Mr. CHARLES: …until we have those voices, this goes both ways. It's not just a concern; it's just the liberals also. Until the liberals back up their whole spiel about, you know, we're for everybody and inclusive to, inclusive…

Prof. SHIPP: Hold on. How do we suddenly become women and liberals? Can there be…

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I'm not talking about…

Prof. SHIPP: …conservative women?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, what I'm saying is that this is both sides of the aisle. There aren't any voices on either one. And I would suspect that on the liberal side, there would be more.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about where that whole Imus conversation has taken us, subsequently, and I think — I'd like to bring in a story that's just been all over cable in the last couple of days that A&E reality star Duane "Dog" Chapman, "Dog the Bounty Hunter" is in trouble for making racial slurs in a taped conversation to his son.

We're going to play a little bit of that conversation, which was leaked to the tabloids. And I have to say there is offensive language in this clip so I just want to warn our listeners about that. And here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dog the Bounty Hunter")

Mr. DUANE CHAPMAN (Host, "Dog the Bounty Hunter"): It's not that you're black, it's none of that shit. It's that when you use the word nigger, we don't mean you (bleep) scum nigger without a soul. We don't mean that (bleep) but America would think we mean that.

MARTIN: Well, he was suspended. And he's - it's the highest rated show on A&E but he was suspended immediately. I wanted to ask if - Shipp, do you think that this is, you know, fallout from Imus, and if Imus coming back opens the door to tolerating more of that kind of language in the public domain?

Prof. SHIPP: You know, that's a tricky question because there's still too many black people out there using that word, too, and that confuses what's going on. This "Dog" guy, who's a bounty hunter, was apparently talking about his son's girlfriend using that language. So I can't easily forgive him because obviously, that's in his head. When he sees his son's girlfriend, he's seeing the N-word. It's not like, oh, I slipped because I heard somebody do it in rap music. That's what he feels. So A&E did the right thing business-wise, but "Dog" himself needs to figure out where he's coming from.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of the use of certain words, let's talk to Pam. The name of your blog is Angry Black B, and I'm not using the word because this is, you know, public radio.

Ms. MERITT: This is radio.

MARTIN: This is public radio. And so there is this part of the dialogue that says that black community women using certain language is what validates it for other people and that really, frankly, was part of Imus' dissent. So what do you say about that?

Ms. MERITT: Well, and, you know, I've discussed this before. I think the context in which he was using it is key, and I think, you know, when I hear the entire tape of what he's saying, it's very clear to me exactly what he's attempting to do. Words coming from — and I do think context does apply. I think we - it's a hard road to walk, to balance what we demanded to society and as a people to be discussed in a language we want to use to discuss ourselves, and then also what we expect and how we expect to be framed in the overall. So I think the response was a verdict when it comes to Imus, and when you listen to the context of what he was saying, it's very clear what he, where he was coming from. And I think he…

Prof. SHIPP: Where was he coming from?

Ms. MERITT: I think he - I mean, I did a little research and I think he has a history — clearly, Don Imus has a problem with black women, in particularly educated black women. And I think clearly, his way of putting us in our place is to use, you know, to hearken back to the language of, you know, the pre-civil rights era. And basically — particularly what he said about Gwen Ifill was to put her in a definition that makes him more comfortable with her because he's intimidated by her, and the fact that…

MARTIN: But just to clarify, for people who may not know, Gwen, when she was a New York Times reporter, had declined to appear on his show, and he was annoyed with her and referred to her as the maid. But I have to say that I think his defense would be and those who defend him would say that he — let's say equal opportunity offender; that he made comments, which many people consider anti-Semitic; that he denigrated…

Ms. MERITT: Right.

MARTIN: …a lot of people, including his wife. And he used some language to talk about her, which she evidently doesn't mind. He just — he's generally offensive.

Prof. SHIPP: She's (unintelligible).

Ms. MERITT: But I have to step in here because I think that's — that to me is the real discussion and I think sometimes, we get — we boil everything down to the specifics. And to me, I'm more alarmed that people listen to this and that results in listeners, who then become attractive when you break down their demographic, to advertisers. So when I think about Don Imus on the radio, and I think about who's listening to him, it scares me that these people clearly break out demographically in such a way that a major advertiser would say I've got to reach them. So…

MARTIN: I want to get Nick into that because I think Nick is part of that demographic that they supposedly are going after.

Mr. CHARLES: Exactly. And, you know, this week, (unintelligible) sing — this week, Nas, the rap artist, had an album come out and it's titled the N-word. And you know, I think we have to be very, very careful here when we talk about who can own the word, who can say the word. Pamela says she wants to use the B-word, and Nas says he's using the N-word to educate.

Now, you have Duane "Dog" Chapman who obviously, if you ever look at a program has this cool pose kind of black man's swagger. And as he said to his son, we use this word. This is not just about him talking about his son's girlfriend; he uses this word every day. Why does he think he has the right to use it? I don't know. Maybe because he does hear hip-hop was using it, and maybe he does hear other folks use it, comedians build those whole careers on that word.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, Nick, I think in fairness, BET is a major purveyor of culture, by and for, the African-American community. So is there a standard there about what you think BET ought to be doing in this regard? Do you think that they ought to be, have certain guidelines about how this word should be used, and the B-word for that matter?

Mr. CHARLES: I think they have a list of words that you can't say and they have the clean version that, as long as they don't use those words in videos anymore and then, there's the X-rated version, which is especially labeled when you go to buy the CDs. I don't think they allow — they bleep it out. I was amazed that in the "Dog" Chapman tape, what they bleeped out as supposed to what they left in. But if you look at videos now on the BET, you don't hear the B-word. You want to hear the N-word. If you want to hear those things, you have to buy the CD and you have to buy the explicit version.

MARTIN: Should (unintelligible) - Shipp, go ahead.

Prof. SHIPP: We can whiteout, if we can use that phrase, such word. But it's in people's hearts and souls and in their notion of power. That's what we ought to be addressing somehow, and all these conversations we're having are about, okay, can we use the word today? Can we use the word tomorrow? But how can we get to people? There was a piece on CNN the other day about the noose and a whole lot of people didn't know that the noose has something to do with lynching and racism.

Ms. MERITT: Right.

MARTIN: What do they think it had to do with?

Prof. SHIPP: They just thought it was corny fun.

Ms. MERITT: Right, right, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERITT: And I think that's where…

Mr. CHARLES: That speaks to American education.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERITT: Right. (unintelligible)…

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask and should just follow up that point — Pam, I'm going to get to you in just a second — but we should follow up on that point. Do you then think that perhaps this whole Imus episode was useful in terms of sparking the kind of conversation we're having now?

Prof. SHIPP: It ramped up the conversation because the conversation had already been going on for a while. Within the black churches, within the NAACP, within other organizations, there had been this discussion. But when it got to the Imus level, it got to white people's faces and to corporate America's faces.

MARTIN: Okay.

Prof. SHIPP: So it ramped up the discussion. The discussion had already been going on.

MARTIN: And Pam, very briefly.

Ms. MERITT: I think — well, clearly, we have a lot of education to do. I think there's a lot of assumptions on the part of black America as to where America is right now. And so when we hear that people don't know the history of the noose or when we start mentioning things from an historical context that people clearly aren't aware of, that's an opportunity for us to say we have some work to do. But I think, again, the proof is going to be in the pudding when he goes on the air, if he gets the listeners and if he gets the advertisers and if black people's response to those advertisers being on his show is to just say, oh, well, then that's a pass of tolerance for something that we have expressed — offended us.

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. MERITT: So I think we have a challenge.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there.

Pamela Merritt blogs at AngryBlackB. She joined us from KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. E.R. Shipp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an academic. She joined us from Atlanta. Nick Charles is vice president of digital content for BET.com. We let him hang out in the Beauty Shop today. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you all so much for joining us today.

Mr. CHARLES: Thank you.

Ms. MERITT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And for our listeners who need their fix of our weekly Barbershop gathering, you can go to our Web site for an extended version of that conversation, npr.org/tellmemore. And that's our program for today.

(Soundbite of credits)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday.

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