The slap felt around the world

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Content warning: anti-Black genocide, violence

By now, you’ve probably seen the infamous pimp slap that Will Smith — one of the most prominent actors of all time — gave Chris Rock — one of the most celebrated comedians of all time — at the Oscars after Rock made a “G.I. Jane” joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith, the actress and wife of Will Smith who experiences hair loss due to alopecia.

Much of the discourse that ensued after this incident echoed how inappropriate Smith behaved, that Rock should have smacked Smith back, that Rock’s lack of physical response made him look weak and that Smith should have handled this “in-house” and outside of the gaze of a white audience. This would mean either sitting down and doing nothing or waiting until he saw Rock backstage to slap the taste out his mouth. 

However, I disagree with most public discourse on the “Will and Chris” situation, as it woefully omits Pinkett-Smith’s experience and the larger elephant in the room: The acceptance of Black womxn being humiliated as a form of entertainment in this country. 

With this past closure of Womxn’s History Month, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to briefly jog your memory on the ways anti-Black discourse and discursive silence against Black womxn are accepted and upheld in our society, before elaborating on my hot take on the slap felt around the world.

This country was founded on the desires and phobias of toxic white cisgendered heteronormative men! I believe that womxn — particularly Black womxn — are the punching bags, sex toys and butts to society’s jokes, and we all have been indoctrinated to accept this as a normal way to exist. However, the dangers associated with normalizing anti-Black genocide against womxn have profound effects on the Black community and the larger context of society as a whole. In his work “Never Meant to Survive: Genocide and Utopias in Black Diaspora Communities,” João Helion Costa Vargas defines anti-Black genocide as “a race-based process — one that, as such, necessarily encompasses a gamut of social processes that produce, reproduce, and contest social class, gender, sexuality, and other ascriptive categories.” This further manifests into the beliefs that Black womxn don’t experience pain and that Black womxn aren’t credible enough for their issues to be taken seriously. 

You can see it in the staggering number of Black girls and womxn who go missing in this country daily with little to no media coverage. Sexually, Black womxn have also been made to feel less desirable if they display attributes typically associated with white heteronormative male norms like masculinity, independence, strength, boldness or anger. And we will not forget to mention the painstakingly long history of Black womxn being brutally raped, killed and forced into chattel slavery as an accepted practice in this country — with long-standing trauma that has been passed on throughout generations.

Now, keeping this rundown in the frontal lobe of our collective memory, my interpretation of what took place at the Oscars is that Rock attempted to use his power and status to make a joke of Pinkett-Smith, a Black womxn, to get an easy laugh out of his white peers. He was caught in the act with his hand in the “Uncle Tom” cookie jar, pandering to the white elite at the expense of his own people. 

Unfortunately, this act of portrayal is handsomely rewarded in this country. 

And Rock isn’t unique in his desire to please his “masters” by entertaining them with anti-Black and anti-queer rhetoric, with his proceedings comparing Pinkett-Smith to G.I. Jane. The unspoken undertone of this comparison implies Jada is ugly because she is bald! She looks like a man because she is bald! She doesn’t look feminine because she is bald! She looks masculine because she is bald! She looks scary because she is bald! 

The fact that Rock, one of the best comedians in the world who is highly skilled at the art form of joke-telling, suppresses his intelligence and abandons the importance of subtext — as well as his willingness to reject his collection of primary-sourced research conducted for his documentary “Good Hair” (a movie that highlights the dark reality and extreme lengths Black and Brown womxn go to for their hair to fit inside the appeasement of European beauty standards) — leaves me genuinely disappointed in him. Why? Because he chose to make fun of Pinkett-Smith by publicly promoting the types of humiliation Black womxn endure daily, which are violent, often unprovoked and always normalized.

As a response, what I saw was Smith perform one of the only things that could somewhat compare to the violent humiliation faced by womxn, which is slap a grown man in a room full of his peers. And while I don’t condone violence, I’m not in the business of respectability politics that normalizes one form of violence as acceptable while drawing a line for another.

I understand that this stance by Smith to stand up for Pinkett-Smith might not have been comfortable to witness, accept or agree upon, especially in the Black community. However, it highlighted the widely-accepted participation in anti-Black genocide against Black womxn that occurs — and the extreme measures that can be taken to combat it.

Amber Griffin-Royal is an African American studies major at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.