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Social Studies

Protesting Too Much

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/27/2007

A couple of weeks ago, during a visit to The Tonight Show, comedian D.L. Hughley discussed the past Don Imus controversy, observing that, in fact, "there were some nappy-headed women on that [Rutgers women's basketball] team." Hughley went on to opine that the players were "some of the ugliest women" he had ever seen.

Obviously, this didn't go over well with many people; preachers, bloggers, and activists have been calling for protests and sanctions against Hughley as well as The Tonight Show for airing the comments. Here's where it gets interesting, though: Hughley responded to the criticism with a press release saying that free speech is a zero-sum proposition, and challenged the protesters with the question, "Isn't there a child you can help teach to read, a war to help stop, an unjustly accused man you can help out of jail?" And, whether you agree with Hughley's humor or not, I think that's a legitimate question. At what point could the time spent on cultural activism be better spent on some type of pragmatic movement? Even though I often engage in this same type of cultural activism in this very column, I have to admit that I've been guilty of wondering the same thing every now and then.

To be clear, I'm specifically talking about the sort of social/artistic protest that has been a part of the American landscape for the last hundred years or so, not the more overtly political kind. God knows the last eight years have given us all a good deal to protest, politically. And there's certainly enough disagreement about the manner in which animals, the environment, and the general rights of the disenfranchised are treated that there's no shortage of reasons to let our voices be heard. For the most part, I've never really questioned that. Politicized protest and outrage have directly helped lead to things like emancipation and women's suffrage so, y'know, I'm always down for a little civil disobedience.

But, again, when folks protest hip-hop or, like, a television show, often my default response is, "Aren't there some kids they could be feeding or something?" For instance, we're a month or so away from another Harry Potter movie as well as the final book in the series, so you know that means the protests against the series' supposed glorification of witchcraft are going to gear right back up. Now, I don't profess to be the holiest person--at all--but it just seems to me that feeding the poor and taking care of some kids falls much more in line with WWJD than running around jabbering about some book, whether it's a Harry Potter book or The Catcher in the Rye.

Similarly, it always seemed to me that a better strategy to diffuse and undermine the negative imagery in hip-hop would be to directly address the root causes which lead to said imagery. I think it's an inarguable fact that the vast majority of popular hip-hop glorifies crass materialism, violence, criminal activity--specifically drug-related criminal activity--and a disgraceful degree of misogyny and hatred toward women--specifically black women. But this music doesn't come out of a vacuum. In 2007, we are entering almost 40 years since large swaths of the black community were decimated by incidents such as the rarely commented-on black flight of nearly the entire black middle-class from inner cities, the loss of industrial jobs, the infestation of a drug culture, and all the nihilism, violence, and chaos all of these factors bring with them. If you want to address the images in hip-hop, address the world that hip-hop comes from. Recently, another group of activists in Chicago posted a billboard showcasing what they deemed the "trashiest" rappers, and while I certainly don't think someone like Lil Wayne does anything to forward the black community with his depictions of women, I also think the rise of HIV in black women might be a more important issue to use a billboard to address.

And now it's gotten to the point where folks are protesting a riff on an incident that has been protested to death. Do I think the Don Imus uproar was a waste of time? Not at all, but then I would argue that Imus' Rutgers comments were just one example among many in a long line of what I've always perceived as his racist activity and speech. Still, I do find myself asking the same question Hughley did about his situation: Could the time we all spent on the Don Imus-type of cultural oversight be used in a better manner?

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