While I am repeatedly on record talking about how much I love a good smack, I’m not a fighter, not a fan of violence, and I have never smacked anyone in my life. I’ve thrown a couple of punches, but I think I can be forgiven for those since the target of my punches was trying to rape me.
I make a lot of jokes about smacking people. I totally stole and adopted “dope slap” from Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Car Talk guys. I loved it the moment I heard it. It fit so well with my love of the visual of doling out a well-deserved smack. But again, no actual smacking has been meted out by these hands.
I don’t want to be #TeamWill or #TeamChris. Mostly because that hashtag-team shit is diminishing and stupid when discussing real things. And also because I couldn’t possibly be on Chris Rock’s side of this mess. At the same time, I can’t … quite … exactly … fully … condone that slap. But really, anyone who knows me even a little has to know I’m not mad at Will Smith.
And I’m not not-mad at him because he was “defending his woman,” as so many have praised him for. Jada wasn’t in physical danger, in need of someone to jump to her defense. But I can empathize with the anger that would have been triggered by Rock’s comment, and I can imagine not thinking all the way through my actions if I chose to get up and slap him.
People keep talking about how Smith was laughing at first and how that shows he wasn’t really upset by the joke and thought it was funny. I suppose there’s a version of this story where that can be true. What seems more true to me is the version of this story that is more like what we saw Venus and Serena Williams do at the Critics Choice Awards when Jane Campion went full White Woman on them as she accepted her award. Serena laughed and clapped, while Venus kept a desperately-full and painful smile on her face while her eyes widened and she leaned forward to look hard at Campion and tried to absorb that hideous moment. Both women knew they couldn’t respond as they might have in private. To show any displeasure at that completely disgusting comment would have made them the bad guys. Articles about the awards show would have focused on how “angry” they were, how incapable of taking a joke, how much they had overreacted. They had to swallow every response they might have liked to have and give a show of gracious good humor or at least acceptance.
Will Smith knew that he was supposed to be amused by Rock’s joke. That was his job in that moment. That’s always his job. He’s made a whole career out of being a smiling, gentle man. But his ability to laugh at jokes at his wife’s expense — or his own expense, or his children’s expense — isn’t as unlimited as his smiling face has allowed us to believe because (SURPRISE!) he’s human. But he knew he was supposed to laugh. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Even Pinkett Smith tried to shrug it off in the first second or two.
But it hurt. They were in that audience for what could be a huge night for Will. They were happy and excited and probably thought they could be safe from ridicule for the time they sat in that audience. And then they weren’t.
But I’m not here to defend Will Smith. That man has the money and the staff to take care of his current situation and a lifetime of other situations.
I’m here to talk about the joke.
I’m here to say a solid “fuck you” to everyone who has ignored what happened to Jada Pinkett Smith last night.
I’ve spent a lot of time this month talking about my hair, about Black women’s hair, about the denigration and pain and insult and violence that gets braided and twisted and pressed into our hair. I said very explicitly that it’s never “just hair” for us. And last night was all about the truth of that.
One of the ways that Black women are shamed about our hair is about length. Having super-short hair is held against us. We are called bald-headed when we wear short hair, and trust me that it isn’t meant to be funny or endearing. It is meant to let us know that we are unattractive and unacceptable because “good” hair is long and silky and flowing, not short and nappy and close to our heads.
Plenty of Black women (more every day!) choose to wear short hair and revel in their hair. That doesn’t mean they can’t be insulted or hurt by microaggressive comments about their hair.
Jada Pinkett Smith has worn short hair at various times in her career, so short hair isn’t a surprise on her. She looks lovely with short hair, and she looked fabulous last night. But she has been public about her struggle with alopecia, and public about her current look being a result of that struggle.
For a woman, and particularly a Black woman, to feel comfortable stepping into the spotlight bald, to attend an event that will be aired around the world, has to be difficult and stressful. But you know you’ll be surrounded by friends and colleagues, so that probably helps you feel a little more at ease. Then this man — a Black man who made a whole-ass documentary about Black women’s hair in which he acted like he learned something and felt something akin to sympathy if not empathy — this man on the stage looks at you and decides that he will use your baldness for a cheap, out-of-date reference joke. And you know you are supposed to laugh it off. You know you are supposed to laugh because this night is about you as the glamorous and proud plus-one, and you are supposed to keep your mask in place and show the façade that has carried you through in the past.
But what you feel is exposed. Exposed as if that man had pulled up your skirt and pulled down your panties in front of all those people and all those cameras. A Black man looked at you and called you bald-headed, an insult that has been hurled at countless Black women by countless Black men. A Black man with his very specific knowledge of our history and our hair made a joke that wasn’t a joke, a joke that he knew you would hear in a way that many people watching wouldn’t.
I’ve read so many takes today saying Chris Rock made “a so-so joke,” “a bad joke,” “a joke.” Each time, the writer has wanted to make the point that, even if it wasn’t a good joke, it was “just” a joke, it was “just” about her hair. Nothing to get so upset over.
But even Chris Rock knew better than that. He knew it the moment he finished the joke. And I don’t mean because of the slap. Even before Smith left his seat and headed for the stage, Rock was trying to minimize the damage. He makes the joke, then he tries to brush it off — literally brushing his hands in front of himself as if he is erasing it from the stage. And then he tells us that the joke “was a nice one,” as if he can speak that wish into reality. But by then Smith is on his way to the stage and the rest is history.
But Chris Rock knew. Even if he didn’t know about Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, he knew he’d said something that wasn’t quite as okay as the other jokes he’d made.
And I just keep coming back to Jada and how she must have felt when Rock told that joke.
I dealt with alopecia areata as a young woman. I lost my first patch of hair when I was 25. I didn’t know what was happening, just knew I suddenly had a bald spot where I hadn’t had one before. I went to the ER — I don’t recommend this for a lot of reasons, but I was new in the City and didn’t have a doctor yet. I went to the ER and the doctors made fun of me. One teased me about having ringworm. Another said I should hope that all my hair would fall out because that would be an improvement. When I began to cry, they told me I was overreacting, that they had been kidding around and I should toughen up, get thicker skin, learn to take a joke.
That first patch grew back, and it grew back brown — because there is always the possibility that your hair either won’t grow back or that, if it does, it will be grey. Over the next dozen or so years, I lost patches of hair again and again, sometimes I’d have a couple of patches at the same time. My room mate helped me figure out ways to hide them, but I was constantly aware of them, constantly aware that I could lose all of my hair. Those ER doctors were assholes, but they certainly weren’t the only people who were rude to me. A man on the subway told me I shouldn’t even be outside, exposing everyone to my ringworm. The whole car of riders moved away from me and people yelled at me to get off the train at the next stop.
Ayanna Pressley and Jada Pinkett Smith are stronger women than I am. I don’t know what I would have done had I lost all my hair. I don’t think I would have had Pressley’s courage, releasing a video to introduce myself to the world without my hair. And I don’t imagine I’d have made it to the Oscars or been able to keep anything like a game face on after being mocked in front of the world.
If Will hadn’t slapped Chris Rock, we might have spent today focused on the poor taste of that joke. I think most of that focus would have been on Pinkett Smith’s alopecia and the cheapness of making a joke about the visible manifestation of a medical condition. I think there would have been some people who would have zeroed in on the misogynoir — because Rock’s joke had the weight it did because of race and racism — but the louder conversation would have been about the alopecia.
And I still keep thinking about Jada, about how it must have felt to sit in that moment with the world watching, knowing she had to keep her face right. It’s never “just hair.”
It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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