Pyschologist Offers Reaction to Imus Remarks

How are African Americans reacting to the controversy around the public use of an ethnic slur? Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, talks to Farai Chideya about Don Imus' comments and how to talk with children about what was said.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Don Imus' words have finally caught up with him. Last week he called the Rutgers University basketball team nappy-headed hos on his nationally syndicated radio show. Late yesterday the cable TV network MSNBC, which simulcasts the show, said it's had enough. Here's NBC News president Steve Capus.

Mr. STEVE CAPUS (NBC President): I take him at his word when he says he's not a racist. But I also believe that those were racist comments, and I believe that it comes, that there have been any number of comments that have been enormously hurtful to far too many people. And my feeling is that that can't, that there should not be a place for that on MSNBC.

CHIDEYA: The announcement came after big name advertisers like General Motors, American Express and Procter & Gamble pulled their ads. Still, CBS says it will put Imus right back on the air after a two-week suspension.

Everyone's got their own opinion about Imus. But how are black folks, grown-ups and those still growing, dealing with the carnival atmosphere around this incident? I spoke with Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard's Medical School and director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. I asked how he would explain the situation to a girl or boy old enough to play on a basketball team.

Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Harvard Medical School): It's not just a question of being on a basketball team. It's any black child probably 10 and over, or nine, who heard the remarks, know that it's a put-down of black girls and black women and something that's been a very sensitive issue for them anyway, calling them nappy-headed, and also depicting them as kind of vile, low-life sexual objects. I think that affects all black teenagers, as well as leave an impression with black men and black boys about respect and regard for their own women.

I think for a younger child who gets kind of a glimpse of this, I think you have to explain to them that someone said something that was very vicious, that was something that was very anti-black, that something's wrong with people of that type. It's a problem of a lot of racism that still exists in the American culture.

CHIDEYA: Now, in our own workplace here at National Public Radio, some black staffers seemed less surprised by the controversy that some non-black staffers. So do people who belong to a racial group that's historically been verbally targeted experience a kind of racism fatigue where each incident becomes less of an outrage, or do people have those feelings of outrage and just internalize them?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think they have feelings of outrage. I think they internalize them. I think some people might get a little bit fatigued, but they're angry about it. We've always been angry about the racism. You know, even recently, with that comedian who used the N-word and so on.

CHIDEYA: Michael Richards.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Michael Richards. We feel very hurt and damaged by that. And in a sense, I think we're very, very tired of it.

CHIDEYA: As someone who grew up dealing, as a child, with racism, and still does today, 37 years later, if I had a magic wand, I would wave it over the AIDS crisis, or the violence crisis among kids. Something like these verbal insults would come way down the line of wishes. Is it something where either among African-Americans, or among leaders who get airtime to talk about issues like this, that these issues have to be put in context of material losses, material losses through disease, material losses through violence? Or is it important to talk about this as much as it is to talk about the other?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think it's important to talk about this because I think black people, and particularly black children, need to feel protected by their parents and by their leaders from people attacking them and putting them down and making them feel low self esteem. The lower the black child's self esteem, which comes from insults of this type, and self doubt that they may have because of it, I think it's worth attacking right out front and to show that we as a community have the strength and will fight back and will not sit back and take this type of abuse. That doesn't mean that we should neglect all the other things that we should be doing with our children and in our communities.

CHIDEYA: Is there a way to measure the mental health disparities or the pain in a more scientific way? Is there a way to measure how much it hurts black families to have to deal with the repeated controversies, not just this one, but the continued discussion in some circles in the media over whether black people are like certain types of animals, whether black people are smart, whether black people are beautiful - all of these discussions?

Dr. POUSSAINT: All of that is a form of psychological trauma that we all have to experience and pay a price for, and it's also a chronic stress and a distraction. Just as slavery did, just as segregation did, ongoing racism and attacks takes a psychological toll on black people as a community, but also individually they have to cope with it, and then have to cope with answering questions coming from whites. Well, how does that make you feel?

That's a big burden for us to have to carry around, and it's just an additional stress and aggravation. I don't even think it's right that those black basketball players should go meet with Imus. Why meet with Imus after he has insulted them in such a vile way? He doesn't deserve to be met with by those young women who he's already psychologically traumatized.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Poussaint, thank you so much for your time.

Dr. POUSSAINT: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Alvin Poussaint is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He's also director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

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