While the Slap Heard Round the World has been vigorously debated and dissected since Will Smith confronted Chris Rock at the Oscars, there was more to the incident than its abrupt physicality.
Rock’s joke, and Jada Pinkett Smith’s resulting eyeroll, echoed even more thunderously for Black women. Her glare encapsulated the fatigue and frustration that so many of us deal with in the complex daily feat of simply wearing our hair as we like. That Chris Rock would point to a Black woman’s hair for a joke left me breathless, and I wasn’t alone.
“When Black women’s hair is mocked by comedians like Rock, he ushers in the everyday forms of microaggressive hatred against Black women that normalized blatant discrimination,” Ralina Joseph, a professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the director of the Center for Communication, Difference and Equity, said in an email interview.
Black women’s hair has been the object of scrutiny, derision and ridicule in American society since it’s been growing out of our heads. Thanks to standards of beauty that for too long excluded us, we are arguably the largest demographic in the country whose hair is continually policed. Court cases document fights against school districts and corporations trying to govern how we can wear our hair. A segment of people who don’t live with it, in all its iterations of textures and lengths, somehow wants to dictate how and when it’s pretty, professional or unkempt.
Distaste for Black hair seeps into our everyday lives: Just last month, the House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act, banning discrimination against natural hair in hiring, public housing placement and public access accommodations. Let that sink in: Exclusionary actions stemming from disdain toward our hairstyles are so pervasive, they require legislation.
Nowadays, visibility and a touch of glamorization in mainstream media (I’m lookin’ at you, Beyoncé), have fostered a growing fascination with our manes — a double-edged sword. Bosses scrutinize or give it a shout-out, strangers try to paw or photograph it, friends and frenemies praise or judge it — even Tinder prospects weigh in on it.
Academic studies have outlined how strongly the identity of many Black women is tied to their hair. Not having the type of hair that’s affirmed and considered “womanly” in the culture at large can dent one’s sense of self. And feeling that what’s considered a key part of womanhood needs altering to be accepted, especially from childhood, makes it hard to see one’s image as positive.
Since it’s hard to separate our image from our hair, poking fun at a Black hair style is an easy way to get a laugh while devaluing Black women. Witness Jamie Foxx lampooning us as Wanda on “In Living Color” and Martin Lawrence as Sheneneh. It’s incomprehensible that a Black comic would reach for it in such a high-profile setting as the Oscars — especially a man so closely associated with a film about Black women’s hair struggles.
Not only did Rock produce and narrate the 2009 documentary “Good Hair,” which brought Black hair culture to the big screen, but he created it with his own daughters in mind. In the opening, he recounts how one of his girls asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” Onscreen, he speaks to a range of women, including celebrities like Raven-Symoné, who explain that when they relaxed their hair, the goal was also about making society comfortable with them.
While the film could have delved further into how Black women have thrived in a beauty culture (including a hair-care industry) that has rarely included them, it illuminated our struggle to audiences that may not have known one existed. It’s hard to understand how he could help bring that gem of a film to life and yet take a swipe at a Black woman’s hair. Did he so quickly forget the lessons of that film, which seemed to recognize how American society “otherizes” us and our tresses?
Or, worse still, did the lessons never matter? Rock has a history of dogging not just Black women, but the entire Black community, or as Joseph calls it, “in-group punching down.”
“Despite a brief ‘Good Hair’moment. where he celebrated (and mocked) Black women, his punching down has also been broadly anti-Black woman,” she noted.
Through his career, Rock has demonstrated a penchant for belittling and mischaracterizing Black women, from his ex-wife to female romantic partners in general. In a 1997 episode of “The Chris Rock Show,” he skewered Black women’s need to join the Million Woman March to his guest — Jada Pinkett Smith, a march participant.
There’s another sensitive aspect to Rock’s dig at Pinkett Smith. In interviews and on her Facebook series “Red Table Talk,” she has chronicled her painful ordeal with alopecia, a condition that disproportionally affects Black women. She initially concealed her hair loss under wigs. That she decided to shave her head and reveal the reason was to be commended, not jabbed at. To be clear: Whether Rock knew of her condition or not, the joke wasn’t hurtful only because Pinkett Smith deals with alopecia (an affliction to which “Good Hair” even devotes special attention). The insult added an extra layer of hurt, especially because Black women can be harsh on ourselves about hair, amid social pressures and Eurocentric beauty standards that we’ve internalized, often to an extreme degree.
Generations of Black American women recall weekend afternoons spent watching an iron comb glow like molten lava on the stove burner. We waited for our mothers to wield the hot comb like a weapon, ready to press our thicket of coils into submission to make us more culturally palatable. Even at a young age, I wondered who I was supposed to be impressing.
When I was deemed old enough, I “leveled up” to chemical straighteners that would frequently blister my scalp — all for a flouncy bob I detested. “Beauty is pain,” my hairdresser would chirp as she kneaded the chemical cream into my roots and I winced. In my mid-20s, I decided beauty wasn’t worth that pain, so I chopped off most of my hair and have since maintained a very short, natural style.
“When Black women’s hair features as the butt of jokes, the very real and myriad forms of multiple marginalization against Black women is erased and even justified,” Joseph noted. “It hurts.”
Even though the jokes at the expense of us and our hair predate Rock, we don’t need him to lead the way in turning up the savagery of the practice, let alone on Hollywood’s biggest evening.
Like the director Jane Campion’s misstep a couple weeks ago at another awards show (which, sadly, also involved the Williams sisters, one of the focuses of the Will Smith film “King Richard”), this takedown of a Black woman stings even more for having been unleashed by someone who should know better — in Rock’s case, as a Black father of daughters; in Campion’s, as a woman who’s also probably dealt with sexist professional slights. But the result each time was the same: Black women were expected to smile and take the stab.
In one sense, the entire Oscars to-do, and its flurry of embarrassment and apologies, could have been avoided by choosing not to drag a Black woman down by her hair. Yet for too many and for too long, it has felt irresistible not to mess with it, mess with us.
So to anyone who ever feels the urge to mock, I’ll reframe Will Smith’s warning at the show: Keep the mention of Black women’s hair out of your mouth.