OPINION: For Black women, the slap heard around the world wasn’t senseless

Portraits of Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Chris Rock looking at the camera.
Don’t overlook the context of Chris Rock’s joke, writes Annika White PZ ’25. (Courtesy: TechCrunch, Dominick D, and David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

 

I’m sure the topic of this article needs no introduction. I do not debate that the naming of this incident as “the slap heard around the world” is an overstatement. However, to be perfectly clear about the situation that I will address in the following paragraphs, I’ll recap what occurred at the 2022 Oscars ceremony.

While presenting an award, Chris Rock made a targeted joke toward Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, saying he was excited for the next “G.I. Jane movie.” For those unaware, G.I. Jane is a movie that tells the story of the first woman to undergo special operations training. In the movie, the protagonist has a shaved head. Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair is also shaved, hence the joke.

On live television, the cameras showed the couple’s reaction to the joke. Will Smith was shown laughing as Jada Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes, clearly unamused by the joke made at her expense. Will Smith then stormed the stage, slapped Chris Rock, and yelled repeatedly at Chris Rock to keep his wife’s name “out of [his] mouth.” 

This moment, which lasted no more than two minutes, caused a stir all over the globe. The majority of the conversation is focused on the violence that Will Smith inflicted on Chris Rock. The conversation is dominated by condemnations of Smith for his violent action on such a public stage, especially as a highly visible Black man. 

These conversations are important, but this article will not condemn nor condone Will Smith’s actions. Instead, this article is meant to put forward a perspective on the situation that is being overlooked: the violence that Chris Rock initially inflicted on Jada Pinkett Smith. To put it simply, Chris Rock’s joke was a form of Black-on-Black violence which occurred in a predominantly white space for all to see. 

Violence goes beyond physical harm; it comes in many forms and is driven by many different intentions. There is a long history of violence inflicted upon Black women in this country surrounding their hair. Black hair has a culture and is held close to the community, which is exactly why Black women are primarily discriminated against due to their hair.

The Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act is a California-based initiative working to end discrimination against race-based hairstyles. The act has become law in only 14 states in our country, meaning that it is legal to, for example, send a child home from school, send an adult home from work or turn away a customer because of their hairstyle in the remaining 36. This is the country we live in. Needless to say, Black hair is a sensitive topic to be joking about in front of a predominantly white audience — a sentiment that Rock should be familiar with.

Rock is a Black man with two Black daughters. When raising them, he began to notice the complexities of the simple action of a Black woman wearing her natural hair. He even starred in and produced a documentary about it in 2009 entitled “Good Hair,” in which he challenges the idea that Black hair is “bad.” He travels around the country, into beauty shops and hair competitions, to gain a better understanding of the underground world of Black hair. 

Rock is a comedian, and comedy is a form of art to which the Black community is not unfamiliar. However, an important trait of a great comedian, like Chris Rock, is to know their audience. Chris Rock knew that he was in a predominantly white space. He knew the intimacy Black women have towards their hair. And he knew the history of how America has made Black women feel insecure about their hair.

As I said earlier, violence comes in different forms and is driven by different intentions. I cannot speak to Rock’s intentions, but I can report on what he was aware of and speculate that he knew that his audience would get a kick out of laughing at a Black woman’s hair. What he said was violent and hurtful and perpetuates a society that oppresses Black hair. 

At this point, some readers may be wondering if I plan to address Jada Pinkett Smith’s illness. I don’t. I wish to condemn Rock’s actions solely on the grounds that I’ve already argued. This perspective, a Black woman’s perspective, deserves light in this conversation because our light has been dimmed for too long. 

I don’t believe that violence should be met with violence. However, we must recognize that “the slap that was heard around the world” was not unsolicited: it was in response to violence in turn. 

Annika White PZ ’25 is from Southport, Connecticut. She enjoys hiking, journaling, and making playlists on Spotify.

 

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