Oscar Night 2022 will go down in history not because of the movies and their stars, but because of a tangible scene between standup comedian and host Chris Rock and actor Will Smith. The latter had come on stage and slapped Rock in the face.
It was preceded by Chris Rock’s moderation, in which he commented on the very short hair of actress Jada Pinkett, Will Smith’s wife. He was waiting for her to play in GI Jane 2. In the 1997 film GI Jane, Demi Moore embodied an ambitious soldier who sported a stubble bald head.
Chris Rock alluded with the comment to Pinkett’s stubble baldness, which she has because of a disease. She suffers from a form of hair loss – alopecia areata – in which a sufferer’s hair falls out in clumps, often leaving round patches starting from the hair on her head. So far so bad.
But why did Will Smith take this obviously joking reference from Chris Rock so badly that he stomped on stage and punched Rock in front of everyone?
Of course, I must first make it clear that I do not approve of any form of violence. Physical violence like this has no place in our world, either publicly or privately. And most public comments about it also strongly condemn Will Smith. And rightly so. But this ignores something very important.
The physical pushes the preceding verbal confrontation into the background. And the target of the attack was a black woman. Dark-skinned women (I’m mainly talking about the USA here) are probably the least respected group in society. Being a woman is sometimes bad enough, but having a dark skin color makes women more of a target for abuse and attacks.
They are not taken seriously, their authority is not recognized, their desires and imaginations are ignored, they are patronized and condescended to, and most importantly, attempts are still made to control their bodies. and this by both men, black and white, and white women. The legitimate question black women ask is why – like Twitter user Loni – are white women very quick to accuse Will Smith of “toxic masculinity” for slapping someone, but not the verbal outbursts of Chris Rock (the slapped) towards a black woman?
The problem of white people with the hair of black people
The trigger that probably led Will Smith to slap his face was then also something that white people understand badly or not at all. It is about the hair of a black woman. Natural hair of people with African roots is often very different in expression, texture and hairstyle from people with light skin color.
In the past, this led to African-American hair being considered “unprofessional.” Schools and businesses introduced, and continue to introduce, hairstyle regulations in addition to dress codes, which primarily affect girls, and which have been and continue to be directed against the hair styles naturally worn by people with darker skin. A number of court cases dealt with this. Many black women, for example, underwent the laborious and unpleasant procedure of straightening their hair for years in order to look more “professional” – i.e. “whiter”.
The way hair should look and be worn thus became a social conflict that discriminated against black women in particular. Since the hair of these women is still made an issue in job interviews, this problem is more topical than ever.
In fact, California recently passed the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture.
And with that, the vehemence of Will Smith’s reaction should be classified. Black men like Will Smith and like Chris Rock are well aware of the cultural sensitivity of this issue. For every black woman in the audience and in front of the screens, this affront was immediately recognizable. Almost not, however, for the white audience.
And that’s the other point: Chris Rock made fun of a black woman and her hair style, which is caused by a disease. And this in front of a predominantly white audience that does not understand the explosiveness of this topic.
Elitist? Rich? Your own fault?
Many now argue that this is an event where you know what you’re getting into, especially when the presenter is called Chris Rock. After all, he is known for his brute humor and also for crossing borders. That’s also clear to me, after all, I once spent some time as a cabaret artist and edited a satirical magazine. And I am absolutely against physical violence.
What must not be interjected here is that the targets of the mockery anyway only hit rich, elite and in the public eye. Because that does not justify the verbal outbursts. And it also does not matter what you personally think about the person attacked, it does not matter.
I realize that humor is best directed against people with power and influence, like politicians or celebrities. But the public ridicule of black women shows only one thing: not even they can defend themselves, so how should people without money and power defend themselves?
Physical violence, physical wounds are seen; verbal violence, verbal injuries are invisible.
Two examples are currently appropriate to illustrate this.
The first example concerns U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Here, the public was able to witness in the hearings how white men (of the Republican party) denied the highly qualified candidate competence, treated her from above and questioned her life her previous work in often unobjective form.
The second example concerns Kim Kardashian and her ex-husband Kanye West. After the separation, Kanye West began his attempts to win her back. The spurned lover. First he tries it with nice phrases, then with threats, and often this ends in violence. The climax here was finally that Kanye West published a video on Instagram in front of his 80 million followers, in which he decapitated a doll, which represented the new partner of Kardashian.
Only when The Daily Show host Trevor Noah analyzed this online harassment in a nearly ten-minute segment, pointing out that this was clearly online harassment of a woman by a spurned lover, not an entertainment show, and that even Kim Kardashian’s celebrity and money didn’t help her get away from it, only then did Instagram respond and suspend Kanye West’s Instagram account.
White elitism to physical violence
Many internet comments by white people now mainly chafe at the physical violence shown, but studiously overlook the verbal violence that preceded it. Physical violence, physical wounds are visible; verbal violence, verbal injuries are invisible.
What black women saw was something very different from what white women (and men) saw: they saw an upstander – Will Smith – standing up for a black woman and holding the verbally violent offender accountable.
Was the slap the right form? Certainly not. Will Smith could have come on stage, grabbed a microphone and given a little speech. Namely, how bad it is to make jokes about black women with a disease and maybe bring the disease to a wider audience. He didn’t, he chose to slap in the heat of the insult.
However, the result is immediately tangible for black women: any man who now thinks he has to make bad jokes or remarks about a black woman’s hair better reconsider now. The LA Times said it clearly: “Will Smith’s Oscars slap of Chris Rock settles it. We’re done with Black hair jokes“.
And black women took a clear position: they were on the side of Will Smith and accused everyone else of hypocrisy. Because as soon as someone finally stood up for a black woman, it was immediately condemned by everyone else, “Yikes, I’m against violence.” Here are just a few of the tweets from dark-skinned women.
For us – as white people – this also means that we must not impose our morality, our understanding of justice on the whole world if we do not know the cultural and historical context. Because if we don’t understand that, then we harm the victims once again.
And here some words from Jada Pinkett herself about her hair:
“Being a Black woman and dealing with hair in Hollywood, especially in the era that I came up in ― having your hair look as European as possible was always the thing,” Pinkett Smith said in the video. “That was really challenging, you know, because I liked my hair out, wild and curly. But nobody wanted that. So I always had to do my hair in ways that didn’t feel natural to me because of trying to play the game.”
“So if I’m doing a cover, everybody ― ‘No, we want your hair straight and flowy,’” she went on. “It’s like, ‘All right, cool, but that’s not really what my hair likes to do.’ So I had to learn to get the courage to just go, ‘Nah, I’m not doing it,’ which is why I feel the freedom today. I don’t give two craps what people feel about this bald head of mine. Cause guess what? I love it.”