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Opinion When it comes to defending Black women, America is still stuck on stupid

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock during the Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 27. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
4 min

Publicly defending Black women in America remains an extreme sport.

At the Oscars on Sunday, comedian Chris Rock decided to poke fun at actress and talk show host Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, joking that he “can’t wait” for “G.I. Jane 2.” It was a reference to the close military cut sported by Demi Moore in the 1997 film, and Rock’s joke landed sideways in more ways than one. The audience laughed halfheartedly — seriously, a 25-year-old movie? — while Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes in utter annoyance. Meanwhile, after first laughing, Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, walked onstage, wound up and landed an openhanded blow to Rock’s face. “Keep my wife’s name out of your f---ing mouth!” the soon-to-be winner for best actor shouted once he returned to his seat.

Rock’s jaw remained intact — Smith’s strike was more gentleman’s slap than punch — but the drama fractured the Internet into thousands of pieces.

Opinions about the slap heard ’round the world are still evolving, but so far reactions have divided along lines of race, gender and class. Some see the moment as an example of toxic masculinity and male violence being justified as protection or love — a warning sign of domestic abuse. Others, pointing to Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, focus more on the provocation of Rock’s joke, viewing it as an ableist jab at a woman with a medical condition.

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The joke was stupid, but Smith’s slap was over the top and uncalled for. No one wins when unjustified and disproportionate male violence makes an appearance. But other power dynamics were at play. It’s impossible not to notice that Smith attacked a smaller Black man. In the same situation, would he have taken the risk of slapping a larger, stronger guy, or a powerful White male celebrity who had made the same joke? I doubt it. And would Smith have gotten away with it — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Monday it is investigating — if he hadn’t spent decades cultivating a nonthreatening, squeaky-clean image? I doubt that, too.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Will Smith’s Oscars slap doesn’t need explaining. Just let it be sad.

What is undoubtedly true is that Hollywood loves to profit from showing the pain of Black women. Recall Rock’s 2009 documentary, “Good Hair,” supposedly made to document the industry of Black women’s hair care but full of jokes at our expense. And how many Black women haven’t at some point wanted to slap someone for petting our hair? Or for calling our hair “unprofessional”? Or for making fun of us for wearing wigs or relaxers?

Some feminists have argued that Will “took away Jada’s power” in rushing to confront Rock. That’s not true here, either. Pinkett Smith is a successful, talented, powerful woman, but in that moment, how could she have accessed any of that?

It is simply our social reality that Black women are the butt of endless cultural jokes, that we experience high levels of online abuse and domestic violence. Plus, a Black woman who forcefully defends herself will earn the label “aggressive” for her effort, especially in White spaces. These labelers are the same folks who will watch a Black woman being demeaned and later praise her restraint. Or worse yet, her discomfort will be made into a meme. If you’re online at all, then you have seen tennis champion Venus Williams’s face after hearing the White movie director Jane Campion make the weird and dismissive claim at the Critics Choice Awards earlier this month that her own path was tougher because the world-champion Williams sisters don’t have to compete with men like she does.

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Which brings me to Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Defending Black women’s honor happens so rarely that when it does, it’s newsworthy. Last week, after receiving patronizing and frankly racist treatment by GOP lawmakers, Jackson was moved to tears when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) simply acknowledged her humanity. “You got here how every Black woman in America who’s gotten anywhere has done,” he said. “By being, like Ginger Rogers said, ‘I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backward, in heels.’”

Booker’s words were moving, but so much harm had already been done. Over hours of hearings, no one directly shamed the lawmakers and stopped them from engaging in ridiculous, insulting questions. Instead, we got fawning coverage about Booker’s speech — and, yes, talk about how KBJ persevered with grace and resilience in the face of indignities.

On Monday evening, Smith apologized for his behavior. We will see what, if anything, Pinkett Smith will have to say about her husband after the Oscars mess he caused. But we need new options in this culture. The choice for protecting Black women shouldn’t be between male violence and everyone else’s silence. When it comes to defending Black women, America is still stuck on stupid.