Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Not In Front of White People

By that title, you might already have an idea where this piece is headed. Every Black person raised in the United States (possibly elsewhere throughout the diaspora), has been admonished that there are certain behaviors that are intolerable in public. Kids are warned not to go inside this store and do anything embarrassing, like steal something stupid (and get caught) or have some kind of meltdown requiring the Wrath of Mama and Her Shoe to be unleashed. Teenagers are told to act like they have some kind of sense in mixed company. Grown adults are reminded to check certain attitudes and to fine-tune their code-switching skills, especially at work and even more importantly at networking functions where a good impression might result in a job, a promotion, or some much needed philanthropic generosity to a worthy cause. I could offer quite a few more examples, but by now you all get the point that one of several "talks" Black people have been subjected to over the years has been to act accordingly in front of white people, lest one inadvertent slip-up results in the eradication of every inch of progress made since 1865.

That was a very long-winded introduction to the idea that all of us have been raised with that unmistakable nod towards the politics of respectability, and that at some point in our lives, someone has lectured us on our responsibility to represent ourselves, our families (and indeed, the entire race) with a certain kind of dignity. Let me get straight to the point and say yes, I got this title from watching the final punchline from the Chris Rock live comedy special on Netflix. No, I have not watched the entire special nor do I intend to. No, this will not be another long think piece about The Slap (not entirely). Yes, I have opinions on the matter, but I have already shared those so I will refer you what I have already written. Because in my opinion, this entire mess is a case study in the futility of respectability politics. And yes, I said what I said, even after a most tumultuous and disgraceful Black History Month, but this time it wasn't Black folks' fault, not in the least.

From the various snippets that I have seen, Chris Rock performed for a live audience in Baltimore this past weekend and finally took time to address The Slap. A lot of folks have already weighed in with their reviews of the special, and since I don't plan to watch it, there isn't much reason for me to opine on the substance of that which I have not seen. As for what I did see in snippets and soundbites, I can say that Rock kind of kept his word in keeping Jada Pinkett Smith's name out of his mouth; instead, he opted to refer to her as THAT BITCH. 

A year later, it is obvious that there is still a lot of bitterness and anger directed at her over hands that she didn't throw, so I'm reposting this picture as a reminder of what happened and who did what. For the record, I don't see Jada Pinkett Smith anywhere in that frame.

Yet, because Rock claims that he was taught not to fight in front of white people, he waits a whole year to unleash a metaphorical beatdown on a woman in front of an audience of Black people in her hometown. Bravo Pookie. Or should I say, good job Bony T...

The utter contradiction of respectability politics is how it condemns one set of objectionable behaviors while excusing others. Last year, Will Smith was castigated for what he did, and rightfully so. But I swear most of the Black people who were so outspoken then and now seem to have been more upset that it happened on stage at the Oscars instead of at the Source Awards. Because fighting at the office party is different than fighting at the BBQ?

Of course it is, and for all intents and purposes, the Oscars ceremony is a work function for every attendee. Folks just can't roll up to the venue because they have nothing better to do on a Sunday night for seven hours and they want to play dress up--you have to be there because of a nomination or because you were invited to perform or present. Anyone who pays attention to the Entertainment Award Season, knows that this is the Grande Finale, the Superbowl, Game 7 of the NBA Championships or World Series, the Gold Medal Match. Because it is a live telecast, every moment is a scripted performance which is why most of us thought that The Slap was just another corny bit until we found out otherwise.

Anybody who has worked in an office has that one coworker...the one who always burns popcorn in the microwave or who uses all of the paper in the copier but doesn't refill the tray. But you tolerate that person because they get along with the managers and you don't really work together in the same department. For the most part, you mostly encounter each other in the bathroom, the breakroom, or at official functions. At the most recent annual company retreat, you end up in a conversation with this person and you find out that your views on certain topics don't align, so you politely excuse yourself from the conversation to get a drink. But instead of taking the hint, the person follows you to the bar to continue to argue a point that you don't believe is appropriate in that setting. So you diplomatically say, hey let's agree to disagree, but the person keeps talking. Then you say, hmm I don't see things in the same light, so why don't we just change the subject, but the person has now enlisted another coworker to weigh in and you're standing there getting more and more annoyed. One final time, you say, look I'm going to the bathroom, talk to you later, and you turn around to walk away. To which this person says something offensive that stops you in your tracks.

At the office party, you are supposed to take a breath, count to ten, and then keep walking to the bathroom. You might file a complaint with HR, or just keep your distance. At the BBQ, you are likely to turn around, walk back, and exchange words. And we all know what choice Will Smith made, so perhaps we should explore how and why.

Last year, I wrote about how the Oscars were produced by Will Packer and how several of the changes he made to the ceremony might have been too much for some of the folks who are used to the standard four-hour format. He definitely added some flourishes that leaned more towards the NAACP Image Awards instead of the BAFTAs (and yes, Ariana DeBose, you did the thing, those stodgy coots just weren't ready). So it is possible that at this office party, planned by the Black people in marketing to be a different flavor than what Hollywood is used to, folks forgot where they were. 

That still doesn't justify what happened, so I reiterate that Will Smith was wrong. But not only because he slapped Chris Rock in front of the white people at work--he slapped Rock knowing that there wouldn't be any immediate repercussions. Whether it was a reaction to a bad joke or if he had just taken enough ribbing from Rock over the years and snapped is debatable, but like I said last year, they could have handled that in the alley behind Roscoe's. Everybody knew Smith was going to win the Best Actor Oscar, so all he had to do was sit there and wait for his golden moment. It isn't like he's some amateur who could blame adrenaline for sending him across that stage too soon, like a sprinter who takes off before the starter pistol. He's a professional, so hitting his mark (literally) is what Smith does for a living. 

And don't waste your outrage on behalf of Chris Rock because he is also a professional--a smug, shit-talking dude who wrote a whole TV show about his daily blooper reel of embarrassments in front of the white people he grew up with. So I call bullshit on his mic drop moment because if he's claiming that he was taught not to have certain arguments or fights in mixed company, he sure did pick a fine time to finally listen to his parents. Remember when his signature riff was differentiating Black people from n**gas for his largely white audiences? I do. Did you see Good Hair (2009) and initially think that he was trying to illuminate an issue for Black women (before realizing that it was just a mockumentary-style joke told at our expense)? I did.

(Quick true story: I saw Chris Rock when I was in law school and he was still touring and performing stand up college campuses. The entire BLSA membership had decided to go to the show along with the other Black graduate students and undergrads, so we took up the entire front half of the theater. Rock told several of the jokes that eventually made him super famous, such as the OJ "I understand" bit and platonic friendships with women. He told a joke about the ending of M*A*S*H and until that point, we had been unaware that the entire audience behind us was full of white people [because they got the joke and we didn't], so he made fun of us for thinking we were at a BET Comic View show.)

It doesn't matter which side you choose, since neither #TeamChris or #TeamWill is blameless nor are they suffering in shame. The entire PR department of The Fresh Prince Enterprises earned double their salary last year for handling the fallout from The Slap. That man is an ex-communicated A-lister, practically radioactive...who just won an NAACP Image Award! Chris Rock went on tour just days after The Slap and has been performing in front of sold-out audiences all over the country for a year. He earned $40 million for one night of work. I'm guessing that cold hard compress of cash he uses to soothe his cheek after each show must feel right nice. 

But you know who is still reeling from The Slap? The woman who didn't act a fool in front of the white people.

I've had my say about the way the world turned Jada into a modern-day Eve in blaming her for how both of these two grown ass men cut up a year ago on live television, and my opinion remains unchanged. If anyone's career suffered collateral damage in all of this mess, it was hers. This past year for her must have been a lot like being accused of writing a bad check or having your credit card declined while at the checkout at the grocery store with a cart full of fried chicken and watermelon. In the old days, they used to post a Polaroid picture by the cash register to shame the person from ever returning to the store. Other than Girls Trip 2, what new projects are clogging her inbox? Do you see her walking the red carpet or attending the Oscars ever again?

Notice how I can talk about The Slap without conflating it to any of the tabloid noise about the Smiths' marriage or resorting to dehumanizing name-calling. Y'all care so much about what goes on in other people's bedrooms, with all kinds of big opinions about how married folks ought to live. Self-righteous Christian condemnation heaped on Jada for her entanglement, but y'all lined up to hear Chris Rock confess to cheating on his wife, and then turn around to call every woman who's rejected or slept with him a bitch. For his part, Will Smith has never acknowledged any of his rumored dalliances, but let's talk about the production that went into this apology video.

Because THAT BITCH Jada...

Who is also a mother. A daughter. A woman with flaws. A woman who was likely hurt at points in her marriage, and someone offered her comfort that her husband didn't provide. A woman with a past and some rough edges from Baltimore. A woman who married a man with his own past and a bunch of issues. In front of white people, this Black woman has been called everything but a child of God and I'm supposed to find the humor and take a joke. At the expense of her dignity. 

I knew writing this would make me angry, so I am taking breaths and breaks, because I don't think people appreciate the irreparable harm caused by keeping up appearances or upholding respectability. For the benefit of whom? For what? To say it loud and proud that it matters more what white people think than how a Black woman might feel about what has been said about her to her face?

For all of the feigned concern that was expressed about the negative impact The Slap might have on Black Hollywood, things are no better or worse as a result. Yes, there were some great films and performances that were overlooked and possibly snubbed, but that happens every year. And clearly this year the momentum is behind Michelle Yeoh and her film, so we're not going to complain if she earns that hardware this year and makes history as the first Asian Best Actress. Given Hollywood's history of racism from blackface, colorism, to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), it's the white people who ought to be ashamed. 

That last sentence was supposed to be my mic drop, but nah, I have a few more words for Willard, Christopher, and every other Black person who thinks that the opinions of white people ought to matter more than the example you set for your own families. For all of the tap dancing, running gags, the laughs, the buffoonery--these same white folks y'all been entertaining all of these years chose sides with a quickness. Nobody died, but you wouldn't know it from the way people claimed to have been so ashamed. Meanwhile, I feel let down that we've allowed The Slap to define what is considered acceptable behavior, not only front of white people, but on behalf of our families and communities. At the end of the day, both of you are still expendable and with the flip of a coin, Randolph and Mortimer Duke can determine the fate of their next Billy Ray Valentine.

For the right amount of money, some of y'all would put your wife, your daughter, even your mother in front of someone's open hand to take a hit. And that really hurts.

No comments:

Post a Comment