Last night my wife and I caught up on last week’s episode of “This Is Us.” After watching and discussing the Kate and Toby marital breakdown, we flipped over the socials. The first thing we saw was video of Chris Rock joking Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith slapping Chris on national TV during the most highly-anticipated awards show in America.
So, last night was a lot! Like a lot of people, we spent the next hour trying to figure out what happened and how to feel. I still don’t know completely, but I have reactions.
I hope this isn’t a “think piece,” because it seems evident most people don’t need or want one of those—whatever they are. But I do have thoughts, reactions really. “Thoughts” suggests too much. I’m still processing these things. In no particular order, here are some of these still-in-process reactions.
- We don’t need to be cruel to be funny.
I’m tired of the cruelty of the world. It’s exhausting. Hurtful. Embarrassing. And it ain’t funny. Chris Rock took a cheap shot—whether or not he knew of Jada’s medical condition. He was taking an aspect of her appearance and making it the brunt of a joke—in front of the watching world! That’s cheap. That’s personal. That’s cruel. We all know that most women—in fact, most men, too—struggle with body image and the host of things connected with body image. So, any man that has even a passing familiarity with women knows we don’t joke them about their appearance unless we are being cruel. It’s wrong. We need to stop sanctioning cruelty by calling it “a joke.” It ain’t.
2. Most of the time, we don’t need to be violent to be protective.
So, I ain’t mad at Will. That’s his wife. They are supposed to be one. Another man clowning his wife in from of a watching world calls for a response. Now, I put the line in a different place. You probably draw the line someplace different as well. But, hopefully, every husband has a line and crossing it requires a response. Should it have been a slap in that context? I don’t think so. There’s still such a thing as, “Meet me outside.” And there are more meaningful ways of protecting those we love than grand-standing fisticuffs. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Will had used the acceptance speech time to check Chris in a way that pointed out the cruelty, empathized with people with illnesses and disabilities, and honored his wife for something praiseworthy? He could have still found Chris and said, “Meet me outside.” But, in any case, most of the time we don’t need to become violent to be protective.
3. We don’t have to be embarrassed about being “street.”
A lot of the reactions I say made jokes about West Philly, about being sent to live with your aunt and uncle, etc. I get the humor, but I wonder if we get the mild disdain that humor trade in. Most of it turns on a stereotypical notion of being “street,” which is to say uncouth, undignified, unable to engage people without tawdry acts. I suspect that folks dissing being “street” may have forgotten that being “street” has a lot to do with honor, respect, protecting space and family. There are places where “street” is less welcome, viewed as hostile, and rejected as subhuman. But we need to be careful that those places are getting away with dehumanizing, misrepresenting, and bigoted stereotyping. In the final analysis, a place like The Oscars is a cross-cultural setting. We know it. We admit every time we say #OscarsSoWhite or we can’t believe a certain film we didn’t even see won the award over a film we loved. In cross-cultural settings, clashes of values happen. Seems to me that happened on some level last night. What concerns me are the number of African Americans whose instinct was to criticize the scene as “street” and thereby express disdain not just for the violence but for the underlying codes and cultures of all the poor, inner-city “West Philadelphias” out there. I felt a lot of things last night—but embarrassment about something being “street” wasn’t one of them. If you did, it might be worth examining the roots of that embarrassment and where you learned it from.
4. Black women are so rarely publicly protected and almost only against other Black people.
For a couple of seconds, it looked like things would be laughed off despite Jada’s obvious and justifiable reaction. She didn’t appreciate Chris Rock’s joke. The eye roll was murderous. I don’t know what happened between the time the camera catching Jada’s look and panning back to Chris. Did will see her facial expression? Did she say something to Will? I don’t know. But the next thing we know Will strides down the aisle and throws the blow. What’s remarkable is he did at all. Normally, our women appear defender-less in situations of public slight and insult. On some level, I’m glad will stood up for Jada. But on another level, this seems to only happen when we square off against each other. Why is that? Why do we find it easier to knuckle up when the face in our crosshairs belongs to another Black person? Would Will have done this if it were a white, Asian, or Hispanic comedian telling the same joke? I don’t know. But I think our sisters and wives deserve our alliance and our public protection no matter who crosses them this way. Can we get more of this while remembering #2 above?
5. The narcissism needs to be identified and rejected.
When I first saw the video, I thought it was staged. It looked fake, from the swing itself to Rock’s reaction. And then there was the walk back to his seat followed by the acceptance speech. I may be too critical here. Please forgive me if I am. But it seemed to me there was a lot of Will in all of it. A speech about protecting women when you haven’t done that in some significant ways in your marriage. A speech about you, Will, and Richard, that merely mentions the women but doesn’t actually talk about the whys and ways they ought to be protected. It was Will’s stage and it felt to me he used it for Will. Yes, Satan does attack us during mountaintop moments. But was that comment thrown in there to bring more attention to Will, to justify his actions, to make him a victim of more than a bad joke but also Satanic attack? It all seems rather self-centered, the way narcissists and abusers find a way to make everything about them while the person abused (in this case, Jada) gets pushed to the side. We didn’t need an essentially self-valorizing speech. We needed comments that centered the mistreated.
6. Maintaining personal dignity is hard.
Everyone involved last night–not just Will, Jada and Chris, but also every person in that room and viewing it on TV or online–had their dignity challenged last night. Jada had to decide how much to react to a personally insulting joke. She held herself together with a facial expression that let you know. Will had to decide whether and how to respond to someone very publicly dehumanizing his wife. Chris had to respond to being slapped in a very public and dehumanizing way. All of us have to decide how to talk about what we saw. It’s a test of both our understanding of human dignity and our understanding of how to preserve it. I don’t know how I would have responded were I in anyone else’s shoes. If I’m Jada, do I merely roll my eyes or do I say something? If I’m Will, do I cross the stage to deliver a blow or do I shout from my seat or do I comfort my wife or do I escort her out of the room in protest? I don’t know. If I’m Chris, do I swing back or just say, “Wow”? Do I apologize to Jada and Will and the audience? As a viewer, do I tell jokes about people’s pain, or bring up their personal indiscretions, or write think pieces (like this one?)? Dignity is an objective value subjectively negotiated with others. That negotiation gets really complicated really fast sometimes. Because sometimes when you “do the right thing” (say, refuse to retaliate), you don’t feel all that dignified. And sometimes when you fight for dignity (say, punch a guy who insults you), you actually prove undignified. The lines are fine but crossing them has significant consequence. So, maybe we should all recognize that, no matter what, we ought to extend dignity to one another. Perhaps that’s our first duty to God’s image bearers.
7. Community is important–but we have to sanction the right things and console the right people.
That’s my take-away from Denzel and others trying to comfort Will. I thought it was pretty great that some people found solace and counsel in the aftermath of that event. It was good of Diddy to try defusing the situation and pointing to a possible redemptive encounter later. Perhaps more people found the community’s support than we saw on TV. But I found myself wondering whether Jada had much support. Whether other women in the room who have suffered the same kinds of indignities (and worse) had people to turn to. I also found myself wondering if Will and Chris had anybody check them–not just side up with them. They were both wrong and they were both right in different ways. I’m hoping we’re not simply sanctioning one-sided responses instead of seeing whole persons and delivering to the whole person all that they should receive in appropriate balances and time. We can’t just say to Will, “That’s right; protect your wife.” We also have to say, “Bruh, you were out of pocket, owe a lot of people an apology, and there was a better way.” Isn’t that what we try to get children and teenagers to understand all the time? At the same time we can’t just say to Chris, “Man, it was amazing to see you keep your poise.” We have to also so, “While it was good that you didn’t respond, you should never have joned Jada that way to begin with. Maybe you should’ve gotten slapped, but you definitely owe her an apology. Make it right.” We most of all need to say to Jada, “That was wrong. We are sorry. We won’t tolerate that anymore. Here’s how we’re going to sanction Chris.” The community’s message can’t be one-dimensional; it has to be layered, proportional, and targeted.
Anyway, Black people, we do have to ask ourselves if this is us. It may be that the healthiest answer is all of this is us. And, this is all of us. So, we shouldn’t over-attribute anything to blackness or shy away from expressing those things that might be labeled ‘street’ by others but represent cultural codes and ways of beings to us. We understand all of this, even if it dismays us. We’ve probably experienced a lot of this, even if it’s no longer our daily reality. Keeping in touch with all of this is a way of keeping us.