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Perspectives: ‘Hair’ We Go Again: Race Talk and Non-Authentic Dialogue

Somewhere between the news pundits and politicos debating on “Paula Zahn Now” and the self-proclaimed leaders of the moral majority featured on “Anderson Cooper 360°,” I seemed to have lost what the focus of the true argument surrounding Don Imus’ statements actually was or actually should be. Not unlike the vast majority of citizens who watched this story unfolding, I too was in utter shock by his vitriolic comments. My feelings were soon accompanied by shock’s typical date partners — anger and outrage.

The question that rang in my head like the synchronized chimes in a watchmaker’s repair shop was, “How is it that in contemporary society we can make quantum advancements in science, medicine and technology, but we seem to be devolving in our efforts at diversity, multicultural understanding and racial harmony?” And, “Why do we fail to look beneath the veneer, beyond the smoke and mirrors, to focus on the true issues that seem to represent a number of recurrent themes?”

Would the treatment of this particular malady be different this time, mainly because the victims of this crime were members of the academy? If any cohort could lend a “voice” to the “voiceless” and set the agenda for fruitful dialogue, it would be the faculty, administrators and staff in the halls of academe. Yet, what I often witnessed from the talking heads inside and outside of academe was a recapitulation of the same themes. The same discussions seemed to beg the same dialogue, and ultimately prompted the asking of the same questions — my thought, “hair” we go again!

Many of the discussions surrounding this public fiasco have been misguided and should be recast in an effort to spark more critical thinking and dialogue. The first topic of misguided focus has been the many attempts at legitimizing Imus’ comments, this based on his use of inflammatory terms that are also used by some members within the African-American community. What I thought was important to note is the fact that the African-American community is not a monolithic group and thus the actions and choices of a select few can never stand for the many. The if “they” said it, then why can’t we use it approach to dealing with this issue shrouds the true argument; namely, Imus’ words are disdainful not simply because they are coming from a White male — they are even more disdainful when they are uttered by members of the African-American community. Falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is harmful regardless of the racial or ethnic profile of the yeller.

The second topic of misguided focus is the false dichotomy that is often erected when race and gender are discussed. Much like Grillo and Wildman’s argument in their article “Obscuring the Importance of Race: The Implication of Making Comparisons Between Racism and Sexism (or Other-isms),” so often we are pulled into a zero sum game of pitting race against gender and treating the heads of these two hydra like they were not connected to the same grim monster. Unfortunately, what often happens is that race takes on a distant second place role in ensuing discussions. However, it is important to view Imus’ descriptive moniker holistically — race and gender were both implicated in his statement. Thus, dialogue surrounding his statement should not seek to disaggregate and diminish the importance of either term. Related dialogue should assume a “both/and” as opposed to an “either/or” approach to viable solutions.

The third and final topic that appears to have taken on a misguided focus has been the oversight of generational influences related to Imus’ statement. I have just recently completed a co-edited journal edition with my colleague Robin Hughes at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis that focused on African-American millennial college students. What the completion of this project provided for us was a clearer understanding of how the current generation of African-American undergraduate students — typically students from the Millennial cohort (those born after 1981) — differed markedly from their predecessors. Using a generational sieve reveals differences among the views of Traditionalists, Boomers, X’ers and Millennials. Each generation has a very different set of markers that serve as the cues for their cohort experiences. Therefore, the range across generations spans markers from Jim Crowe and racial segregation to civil rights and affirmative action.

These are but a few of the antinomies that I have witnessed in our efforts to address and quell tensions surrounding Imus’ statements. Perhaps a more intentional focus on getting at the core of the issues will provide us with an outcome in which we can triumphantly say, “Hair’s the solution” instead of the common refrain “Hair we go again.

Dr. Fred A. Bonner II, is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University.

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