By Oyeronke Oyewumi
Racist and sexist. That was the verdict of my sociology class on Don Imus’ ignominous attack on the women of the Rutgers basketball team. I seized this unfortunate but teachable moment to reiterate the fundamental lesson of Gender 101: gender as a social fact cannot be understood independent of race. Thus in my first post Spring Break sociology of gender class at Stony Brook, the Imus debacle provided enough fodder for reinforci ng the idea that gender inequality cannot be isolated from other forms of inequality such as race and class. As Gwen Ifill summed it up on the op-ed page of the New York Times: Imus’ remark that the young sportswomen were ‘nappy-headed hos’ was a “shockingly concise racial and sexual insult.”
But as I listen to other media reports and commentaries, I am struck by the fact that many journalists and commentators name Imus’ attack on these young women as racist. However, they leave out the fact that it was also sexist. Why? It is clear that erasing the sexism by not naming it as such, at the very least compounds the insult. At the core of the horrendous stereotypes that Imus hauled at The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers is the idea that they are something other than women, and as such, do not meet his feminine ideal, or merit his respect. Hence the despicable names he called them. Other writers have highlighted the deep-rooted and historical nature of such stereotypes whose objective is to strip black women of their femininity, dignity, and humanity. The reason for the assault on the Rutgers sportswomen is the fact that they are black and they are women. Therefore the insult was both racist and sexist. It is not either one, or the other. It is both: intertwined and indivisible.
Clearly, in addition to the social problems of racism and sexism, we have an added issue of finding the language, a word able to name, and express the specificity of certain kinds of discriminatory behavior. We need a concept that would succinctly express the simultaneity of racism and sexism encapsulated in the Imus-type behavior. REXISM is the word. What is its defintion? Rexism is discriminatory behavior that is directed toward a group or person on account of their race and sex. The adjective is rexist. Don Imus’ remark was rexist. Given our history, rexism is a concept whose focus is long overdue. In fact, credit for re-inventing the word goes to my twelve-year-old son, who in the productive flow of our dinner-table conversation declared that Don Imus’ comment on the women of Rutgers basket ball team is rexist. I am gratified that at the very least, my seventh grader gets it.
The writer is author of “The Invention of Women,” Associate Professor of Sociology, and Chair of Women’s Studies at Stony Brook University.