Last night in a shocking, unscripted incident, Will Smith took the 2022 Academy Awards stage to strike Chris Rock in the face after the comedian took a shot at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock compared Pinkett Smith to G.I. Jane, making a joke at the expense of her short hair, which she wears due to her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that results in hair loss.
Much of the divided discussion surrounding the “joke” misses the mark and fails to center the perspective of Black disabled women. Smith’s controversial assault aside, Chris Rock’s “joke” simultaneously made light of a serious disability and a Black woman’s hair.
This ableist comment was in especially poor taste given the dynamics at play. These include the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mass-disabling event where disabled people were hit the hardest, and the history of racism against Black women’s hair.
In Case You Missed It
The Oscars controversy last night occurred as Chris Rock was introducing the award for Best Documentary. He mentioned Pinkett Smith in the audience, saying “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, can't wait to see ya.”
In response, Pinkett Smith looked upset and wasn’t laughing along with the audience. Shortly after, Will Smith took the stage and smacked Rock. Clearly taken aback, Rock tried to move the show along saying “Will Smith just smacked the s— out of me,” but Smith made it clear it wasn’t a joke. He yelled, “Keep my wife's name out your f—ing mouth!”
Why This Joke Is in Poor Taste
Will Smith’s actions defending his wife have sparked an important discussion about misogynoir (prejudice against Black women) and disability. In weighing a joke such as Rock’s, context is key.
In making the joke, Rock encouraged the room to laugh at a Black woman’s disability and hair loss, clearly without her consent. This room was filled with an Academy that has a long way to go in terms of equitable representation of Black women and other marginalized groups. Remember #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag and social justice campaign of 2015? While the Academy has made some diversifying efforts, the Oscars are in fact still very white.
Furthermore, on the national stage, the joke comes at a time when systems of ableism, racism, and sexism are painfully prominent—particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic where disabled people of color faced significant mortality rates. It’s not just Pinkett Smith that found the joke to be crude.
Alopecia advocates and Black women spoke out, shaming Rock for last night’s incident. One alopecia awareness group, The Bald Girls Do Lunch, clearly drew the line on Twitter saying that “Jokes about @jadapsmith or any woman with #alopecia #alopeciaareata is never ok. Period.”
Other Twitter users with the disorder pointed out Pinkett Smith’s courage in sharing her journey with alopecia, which shouldn’t be reduced to a casual joke.
Alopecia Is a Serious Autoimmune Disorder
Affecting about 6 million people in the U.S., alopecia is an autoimmune disease that results in hair loss. Jada Pinkett Smith has been open about her struggle and coming to terms with the disorder since 2018.
The star publicly shared how ”terrifying” it was to notice “handfuls” of her hair falling out in the shower and has since rocked short hairstyles as a result. Her candidness, along with other public alopecia advocates like Representative Ayanna Pressley, has inspired many people to become more comfortable with their own condition.
Hair loss among women is a highly-stigmatized issue. According to Harvard Medical School, about 1 out of 3 women will experience hair loss in their lifetime. And Black and Hispanic women in the U.S. have a significantly greater chance of developing alopecia according to a peer-reviewed 2018 study.
Along with hair loss, alopecia has been associated with other comorbid conditions, such as lupus, thyroid disease, vitiligo, and mental health problems.
The Layered History of Mocking Black Women’s Hair
For Black women, hair loss is especially complex as hair has important cultural meaning. From cornrows to box braids to locs and much more, in Black culture, hair is a varied form of self-expression.
Black hair is also a celebrated symbol of survival and empowerment. Throughout history, African American hair has held important significance that should be honored today. This even hails back to the time of African enslavement when people would use the braided cornrow hair style to communicate, illustrate maps to freedom, and even hide away grains of rice for survival.
Today, doing one’s hair is an important ritual with deep meaning. Respecting natural hair, including hair loss, should be taken seriously, especially in the context of Black women who are uniquely discriminated against based on their appearance today.
Chris Rock Knows Better
Chris Rock is well-aware of the layers behind the cultural importance of Black hair. In fact, he produced a 2009 documentary on the subject—called Good Hair.
Exploring themes of Eurocentric beauty standards and Black empowerment, the film was born out of Chris Rock’s role as a father to a young Black girl. He said he was inspired to produce the documentary after his daughter Lola asked him the heartbreaking question, “Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?”
Thus, without ignorance as an excuse, many social media users are saying that it’s on Chris Rock to do better and be a better ally to Black women like Pinkett Smith. This means not mocking her hair for a cheap laugh, even if it’s meant with good intentions as “just a joke.”
All in all, Chris Rock is a talented comedian who could surely come up with funny jokes that don’t rely on ableism and joking about a Black woman’s hair.
Ableist Jokes? In a Pandemic?
Finally, there’s the critical context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., the official death toll counts almost one million people. Millions of people are navigating disabilities and conditions they didn’t have before. At the same time, disabled advocates critique U.S. policy for moving forward in COVID-19 recovery without prioritizing the lives of people with disabilities.
Black, disabled communications expert Imani Barbarin has long spoken out about this issue and the importance of centering Black disabled people’s perspectives. Today, Barbarin spoke out about this on TikTok, saying that ableist jokes are often “let slide” which has real consequences for people’s lives. Barbarin broke down how there are fewer consequences and “the optics are better” in getting a laugh at the expense of disabled people.
As a result, many argue that the idea that those offended by Rock’s comment are “making a big deal out of nothing” is out of touch with the reality of ableism in our society. Particularly in a society where disabled people are not centered in policy decisions.
It’s often the most marginalized groups, like Black women and disabled individuals, that find themselves at the butt of “just a joke.” But while everyone is laughing, people’s real suffering is minimized and meanwhile, a culture that discriminates against disabled people is further entrenched.
Will Smith’s method of addressing it aside, calling out examples of ableism like Rock’s Oscars comment is always important – especially on a national stage in a world where ableist policies costs millions of people their lives. Ableism and misogynoir are already deeply present in U.S. society. It doesn’t also need to be a part of comedic routines as well, helping normalize harmful sentiments even further.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Featured Image Credit: AMPAS/ABC.
Amanda is a professional writer who is passionate about helping people share their vision with more audiences using SEO, data, and storytelling. She often writes about cryptocurrency, fintech, politics, and the law. Her background is in policy and research, with a degree from NYU and certifications from Harvard, Google, and more. When not writing, Amanda enjoys painting, dancing, and playing chess.