On March 27, 2022, Chris Rock while hosting the Academy Awards made a joke surrounding actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s baldness, likening her to the 1997 protagonist G.I Jane. Rock, in front of a group of peers, famous actors, celebrities, and the millions of folks watching at home stated “Jada I love you. GI Jane 2…can’t wait to see it.” As the audience erupted into laughter, and a visibly annoyed Pinkett Smith visibly annoyed, rolled her eyes, Husband Will Smith calmly got up out of his seat, walked down the aisle to the stage and slapped Rock across the face. Returning calmly to his seat, Smith, minimizing comments made by Rock following the slap, stated “keep my wife’s name out your f—mouth.”
What was a seemingly miniscule moment for me, in watching the slap replay across social media timelines and InstaStory posts, instantly became a conversation about more than a husband defending his wife. Shortly after “the slap,” as the internet is calling it, The Academy banned Smith from attending its events for the next ten years. Comedian Amy Schumer expressed feelings being “triggered” and “traumatized” in a deleted Instagram post and, in more recent developments, Rose Rock, mother to Chris Rock, shared with news station WIS-TV sentiments of Smith slapping “all of us.” “When he slapped Chris, he slapped all of us. He really slapped me, because when you hurt my child, you hurt me.” stated Rose Rock. Amongst the backlash and the public scrutiny Will Smith faced, it was not the slap or the comments that followed after that replayed in my head, but rather the look of anger, disgust and hurt on his wife’s face.
Much of what became of that night has been focused on Will Smith and Chris Rock. What’s going to happen with Will Smith? How is Chris Rock feeling? But no one has seemed to focus the spotlight on the person who was made the butt of the joke, who was not laughing in agreement but rather silent in disapproval: Jada Pinkett Smith. She should have been the center of the responses made towards the backlash of the slap because Pinkett Smith was the one who was left truly hurt. If the person who the joke is about is not laughing, then it isn’t a joke, it’s simply mean.
Pinkett Smith, like approximately 6.8 million Americans, suffers with the autoimmune disease Alopecia. While the disease might not be fatal, its effects can feel so. Slowed hair growth, large amounts of hair thinning and coined shaped spots of hair falling out are often daily experiences for those dealing with Alopecia. These drastic changes to one’s appearance often leaves those facing Alopecia with low self esteem and confidence, as well as anxiety and depression. According to the National Library of Medicine “alopecia has few physically harmful effects, but may lead to psychological consequences, including high levels of anxiety and depression. Medical treatment for the disorder has limited effectiveness, and the failure to find a cure can leave patients very distressed.” Making fun of someone with alopecia isn’t just making fun of someone for their appearance but it’s also directly impacting their mental health. Rock’s joke didn’t just land on the foundation of picking on someone with an autoimmune disease or someone who has been public about her struggle with the effects of alopecia, but it also landed on the complicated history of Black people and our hair.
Black people have always used our hair as a means to display our individuality and as a tool of expression. Finding confidence in our curls and solace in our slick-backs, we–like our ancestors–have used our hair to display the most unique sides of our being and our heritage. But just like our ancestors we have always faced oppression surrounding our hair, with Black women often facing the brunt of these forces. Throughout slavery, enslavers were known to shave the heads of the captured Africans in efforts to not only strip them of their heritage, but also their humanity. Black women, even after the beginning periods of this enslavement were over, still faced harsh restrictions surrounding their hair often being forced to cover up their heads under the tignon laws. According to Vice, Tignon Laws “prohibited Creole women of color from displaying ‘excessive attention to dress’ in the streets of New Orleans…they were forced to wear a tignon (scarf or handkerchief) over their hair to show that they belonged to the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not…the laws would control women ‘who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.’” From the tignon laws of the past to the policing of Black women’s hair in the workplace, Black women have always had to navigate the criticism of this world on their hair and looks, and that’s why Rock’s joke was more than just a joke.
When Rock made fun of Pinkett Smith, and the room erupted into laughter, society’s subconscious got the message that it’s okay to make fun of people living with alopecia. Ignoring the impact image has on a person, especially the impact hair has on a Black woman, when Rock made this joke it sent the message that Black women were fair game – that Black women and femmes are open to public discourse and the right to public mocking. But the fact of the matter is that Black women like Pinkett Smith, and like so many others, are not open to ridicule, discourse or humiliation. They, like every other human being on this planet are worthy to receive the same sensitivity surrounding disease and hardship.
Laughter is power. Who we choose to laugh with and laugh at is power. Whose pain, life and experience we choose to deem worthy of laughter is power. And folk like Chris Rock and society need to ask themselves if we are using the power of laughter responsibly. We as a society should not exclude or mock the most marginalized among us because it doesn’t make the joke funny; it makes it heartless. Those suffering with alopecia deserve more. Black women deserve more. And Jada Pinkett Smith deserved more, because it’s more than just hair and it was more than just a joke.