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Whitewashed Speech

by Decker Ngongang

May 6,2007

The controversy surrounding Don Imus touched off many water cooler conversations. A common theme among many was the role of censorship in our society; not the beeping out of curse words, but the regulation of slang language, and how it has pushed us further down a slippery slope.

Many of us agreed that Don Imus’ statements were horrible and offensive, but many of us are having a hard time seeing the social benefit of the abrasive censorship that followed. Censorship will never solve the problems of this country. In fact, using these misstatements to insight conversation is the only way we can enact the social change we hope to see. Instead, we prefer to shut out opposing voices, showing our fear of healthy tension and insecurity of having to talk through the many “ism’s” that proliferate our culture.

Early last month, Al Sharpton seemingly single handedly shut down Don Imus. With the help of the black oligarchy, Sharpton was able to stifle the $20 million machine that “was” Don Imus. In the media frenzy and the subsequent removal of Don Imus, the world was put on notice that Al Sharpton is a powerful force in the “race censorship” game. I call it a game because in our quick trigger censorship of racial insensitivity, it leaves no resolution, but simply a winner and loser (e.g., Sharpton and Imus).

Like a round of poker, the mainstream media saw the masterful public execution of Don Imus’ career and seemed to say “we will see your Don Imus and raise you a hip-hop.” In my 25 years of living as a “hip-hop baby,” I have never seen such a coordinated attack on a genre of music as we have seen on hip-hop following Don Imus’ removal.

Don Imus isn’t the first person to make a racist comment in America. The elements of racism that prevent the advancement of minorities are rooted in silent ignorance and in strategic manipulation that require thoughtful discussion of topics and research into the motives driving community decisions.

Conversely, to heap on hip-hop the weight of determining social mores is a cheap ploy. The degradation of women has been a longstanding part of our society. Elizabeth Cady Stanton battled it in 1848 and women today still fight for respect. To heap the responsibility of “respecting women” on hip-hop is an easy scapegoat for a nation that is yet to have the conversation about our perpetuation and marketing of our isms.

The issues around sexism, racism, poverty and social justice will never be satisfied when the discussion about them is limited to CNN, FOX NEWS or talk radio. We must also address the many ills of our society in platforms like this magazine and in conversations in our homes and at work. Engaging in excessive censorship without laying the foundation for the exchange of ideas will have us running in circles.

In order for this society to mature past our many struggles, we must tackle these issues. Sometimes that means engaging the very person or issue that we find offensive. I didn’t want Don Imus fired, not because I agreed with his statements, but because I knew his quick removal would rob him and our society of the conversation of the many manifestations of racism. In the rush to pass judgment, we failed to discuss that racism and sexism are manifested more so in subliminal subversive acts than in episodes of someone using an epithet or crude slang term.

In the fight for power over the national conversation, we end up not having one at all. The issues and topics that effect the livelihood of millions gets lost in power plays designed solely to score political points for one person over another. I never realized how important conversations were until I stopped having them. We need to slow down how quickly we censor speech, even if we find it deeply offensive. Is the punishment of censorship really worth it if all we do is perpetuate the problem?

As for Charlotte, conversations and the outlets that support conversations must continue. Only through candid interaction on the job, moments of courtesy and intentionally constructive conversations, can we make the difference in the growth of this “community.”

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