You’ve surely seen this video of comedian Chris Rock being smacked onstage at the Oscars by Will Smith, who won a Best Actor award later in the show for his performance in “King Richard”. Smith not only assaulted Rock, but cursed him out from the table after the incident. The reason: Rock made a joke about the alopecia (baldness) of Smith’s wife Jada.
Lots of people have weighed in on this, with most of them criticizing Smith for his unprofessional behavior. One of the most quoted detractors was former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote a piece on his Substack site called “Will Smith did a Bad, Bad Thing“. (Jabbar is black.) Jabbar called out Smith for many things, deeming the slap “a blow to men, women, the entertainment industry, and the Black community.” But the part that got the most attention was Abdul-Jabbar’s assertion that the slap played into stereotypes about black violence and emotionality:
The Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith. One of the main talking points from those supporting the systemic racism in America is characterizing Blacks as more prone to violence and less able to control their emotions. Smith just gave comfort to the enemy by providing them with the perfect optics they were dreaming of. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro wasted no time going full-metal jacket racist by declaring the Oscars are “not the hood.” What would she have said if Brad Pitt slapped Ricky Gervais? This isn’t Rodeo Drive? Many will be reinvigorated to continue their campaign to marginalize African Americans and others through voter suppression campaign.
Comfort to the enemy? That already implies that the audience was predisposed to fit this violence into a racist narrative. True, black-on-black violence is much in the news, but anyone who fits the narrative of two show-business stars into a “hood” scenario is already predisposed to think badly of black people. Here’s what Martin Luther King’s daughter said in a pair of tweets:
Anybody who thinks “Black people look bad” after the #Oscars already thought Black people look bad.
Respectability doesn’t cure racism.
Be Love, but please don’t think that a person who uses one moment to malign a whole group of people did not do so before that moment.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) March 28, 2022
I encourage engaging with respect.
But respectability (which is different) doesn’t cure racism.
Racism has no regard for respectability.
Reminder: My father was assassinated while wearing a suit.
Let’s be well because our wellness matters, not because the white gaze matters. pic.twitter.com/TEc7dpmZz6
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) March 30, 2022
The trope that Smith’s assault reinforced stereotypes is taken up in this article from yahoo! Life, which also criticizes the idea that individual actions should reflect on their community or group. Click on the screenshot to read:
A quote from the article:
“When I think of respectability politics, what I imagine is this idea that people, but Black people specifically, are only deserving of respect and should only be valued if they behave in a certain way and adhere to certain guidelines,” anti-racism educator and diversity & inclusion consultant Janice Gassam Asare tells Yahoo Life.
The idea that an individual’s actions can represent an entire group furthers the notion that people in marginalized communities can “behave” and “respect” their way out of oppression.
The article criticizes “respectability politics”—not just as instantiated by Smith’s slap, but also by other blacks who have called for better behavior from their community to raise the image of African-Americans:
Another recent pop-culture moment that focused on this idea came in 2021. That’s when comedian and actress Mo’Nique was accused of upholding respectability politics in an Instagram video in which she critiqued young Black women for dressing down in public, namely by wearing bonnets outside of their homes.
“Our young sisters in head bonnets, scarves, slippers, pajamas, blankets wrapped around them and this is how they showed up to the airport,” she said. The Precious star argued that the trend didn’t align with her vision for young Black women.
“When did we lose our pride in representing ourselves? When did we slip away from ‘let me make sure I’m presentable when I leave my home’?” she asked.
Bill Cosby is also famous for chastising some blacks for both behavior and clothing that, he said, tarnishes the image of the race.
Finally, the “white gaze” noted in Bernice King’s tweet above refers to “what white people think,” something King deplores because it plays into “respectability politics”. The article mentions white celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis and Bette Midler, who re-tweeted Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism with approbation. An example:
Nailed it. https://t.co/WH5i5JNQIg
— bettemidler (@BetteMidler) March 29, 2022
And there’s other criticism for the approbation by white people of Abdul-Jabbar’s conclusion:
The white gaze can be referred to as the general assumption that the intended audience for anything is white, and that all behaviors are to be adjusted for the perception and comfort of white people.
In this case, Abdul-Jabbar’s critique of Smith drew further complaint after his post was shared by prominent white celebrities, including actresses Bette Midler and Jamie Lee Curtis. Both women drew backlash for appearing to support Abdul-Jabbar’s piece and the implication that Smith “perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”
Those celebrities don’t understand “the layers and the nuance of our experiences,” says Gassam Asare. “But hearing that from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was off-putting to me, because it’s a classic example of ‘you can’t do certain things in front of white people.'”
The point is not to excuse Smith’s behavior, she notes, but instead to decenter whiteness in regard to morality.
“Very few people are saying violence is OK,” she says, “but I think it’s problematic when someone as notable and with as big of a platform as Abdul-Jabbar plays into this respectability idea.”
In general I agree with the article’s theme on the grounds that no one person’s actions should be taken or seen as a reason to denigrate a group. But let me qualify this a bit, for there are some group behaviors that I see as worthy of criticism. When I see a Middle Eastern man in comfortable clothes, followed several steps behind by a woman loaded with babies and dressed in a burqa, I can’t help but see that man as participating in a form of misogyny promoted by some forms of Islam. Every culture has some behaviors that can be seen as not conducive to societal well-being. Not every person in such cultures adheres to the bad behaviors, but nobody can deny that there are such differences. If you want to consider America, our callousness about universal health care is widespread, and a politician who denigrates it could be seen as “acting American.”
But there is no way that one should see Will Smith’s actions as somehow characteristic of black men. It was simply a human being reacting in the wrong way to a slight on his wife. (Smith does have a reputation for a bit of a temper.) And of course Chris Rock reacted with the utmost decorum, not by starting a brawl. Doesn’t that counteract Smith’s behavior, even for bigots? When I saw the slap, I didn’t even think about the race of the Smith. The notion that the violence was it was a “black thing” arose only when I read this article.
Yet I do want to bring up one thing that struck me (pardon the expression). In the past, and even today, black people who make it big are often encouraged by fellow blacks to behave in a certain way because they are “role models”. When Jackie Robinson became the first black major-league baseball player, he was told by his manager, Branch Rickey, to behave very politely, and not react to the inevitable racial slurs he encountered on the field. In the movie I just watched coming back from Chile, “King Richard,” Smith himself plays Richard Williams, and is seen encouraging his daughters to dress well and behave properly, because, he said, they can be role models for millions of little black girls who aspire to playing tennis. And, in the last scene, this view is vindicated.
Of course, if someone has no interest in being a role model for their group—and they don’t have to have such interest—then this whole point is moot.
My question is whether “respectability politics involves hypocrisy when it comes to “role models”? Are you supposed to behave better than others so you can be a “role model” for a group—if that’s something you want to be? Why can’t you just excel in tennis and forget about trying to look or behave better than anyone else?
And that goes for all other role models as well. Yet we know that even playing into that “role model” behavior reflects a form of bigotry that does exist. Racism isn’t gone, and there ARE those who will take advantage of an ill-timed slap to denigrate a group. The question is whether it’s worth emphasizing this as a form of behavior modification, as Abdul-Jabbar did in his article.
Or perhaps all this musing about the behavior of “role models” is simply misguided. A “role model” could simply be someone like Venus Williams whose success demonstrates to other members of their ethnic group (or gender, or whatever) that they, too, can achieve—that bigotry is no longer enough to hold people back from success. Perhaps Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager who signed Jackie Robinson, was wrong in telling Robinson not to react to racial slurs on the field, thinking that any backtalk would just make racism more entrenched. Even if it did, then maybe Robinson didn’t feel like toeing the line to placate bigots. And perhaps, since racism is still with us, Abdul-Jabbar is just continuing the tradition of Branch Rickey, reminding people like Smith that, like it or not, they are seen as representatives of the black community and their actions can either lessen or entrench racism.
In the end, I guess I would want to say, “Nobody should have to be other than who they are to avoid fulfilling the hopes and expectations of bigots.” Yes, we should all try to behave civilly, but not tweak our behaviors because we have a certain gender or ethnicity. Yes, both individuals and groups differ in behaviors, but bigotry is imputing negative traits to an individual based solely on membership in a group. And that cannot be condoned.
But in the end, there’s still that nagging Branch-Rickeyish doubt in my mind, one that I quell by convincing myself that bigotry is not lessened when a black man wears a suit and behaves politely. (I suspect that John McWhorter might disagree.) And even if it were, is everyone supposed to be a representative of their group?