Respectability Politics

A Black columnist argues that Will Smith set back a whole race.

US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)

While I became aware of the Oscars incident early the next morning, I have had no interest in commenting* on it. WaPo’s Jonathan Capehart, though, intrigued me with his column “Will Smith didn’t slap just Chris Rock.”

When Wanda Sykes was a child, the comedian shared in her 2009 special, her mother always stopped her from dancing in the car. “White people are looking at you!” she would say.

“Black folks, we always got to be dignified,” Sykes observed. “Yeah, ’cause we know if we f— up, we just set everybody else back a couple of years, right?”

White people were looking Sunday night, too, when Sykes co-hosted the Academy Awards. And they certainly saw when Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock across the face. That smack was a blow to all Black people who have worked for our dignity and acceptance — and especially to the legacy of those Black performers who made Smith’s presence at the Oscars possible in the first place.

This is followed by a discourse into the struggle Black actors have had in being accepted in Hollywood, including the triumphs represented by the Oscars won by Hattie McDaniel in 1940 and Sidney Poitier in 1964.

He concludes,

Some African Americans will slam this as the worst of “respectability politics,” the notion that there is acceptance and safety in speaking and acting in ways that make White people comfortable. The harsh truth is that “respectability” is the exorbitant tax we African Americans are forced to pay daily as we try to live out our versions of the American Dream.

If you doubt that, replay the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, and watch her amiable patience in the face of racist nonsense. Any Black person who thinks there is a loophole to avoid paying the respectability tax is delusional. Recognizing that doesn’t make you any less Black. It makes you realistic.

Who knows whether Smith will suffer any consequences for his actions. Maybe the on-screen and off-screen “respectability” of Poitier and the Black actors who came after will insulate Smith, or maybe the actor’s stratospheric career is simply too big to fail. But this much I do know: Smith might have slapped Rock, but the rest of “us” felt it. And it hurts.

While I’ve read more takes on the incident than I’d like to admit, I’ve seen zero others arguing that it proves anything about Black people writ large. Mostly, they’ve been about (in no particular order) 1) whether the idea that men should defend the women in their lives is outdated; 2) whether violence is an acceptable response in these situations; 3) whether Rock’s joke crossed a line; 4) whether Smith’s reputation as a good dude has been permanently ruined; 5) whether the event hosts should have done more in real time to signal their disapproval; and 6) whether the whole thing was an elaborate publicity stunt. The only racially-oriented issue I’ve seen referenced is that hair-related matters are a particularly sensitive subject for Black women.

I’m certainly aware of the “respectability” issue I realized in my 20s, both from my military experience and from observations in graduate school, that Black soldiers, students, and professors my age—and particularly those older than me—tended to dress and otherwise present themselves in a more formal, “correct” manner than their white counterparts. The Black NCOs tended to drive somewhat nicer cars—and to take more pride in their upkeep—than the white ones. Ditto the Black lieutenants and captains. And, the handful of Black professors I encountered at Alabama were always dressed in dark suits—with the jacket on—and in either solid white or light blue dress shirts, while white professors were in shirtsleeves or even polos. Around the same time, I noticed that many prominent Blacks, like Bill Cosby for example, spoke with a careful articulation that one seldom encountered with native white speakers.

It didn’t take me long to understand why that was even though, in my young mind, racism was mostly a vestige of the distant past. I, of course, knew all about slavery and the long struggle for civil rights but things that happen even slightly before one’s own lifetime (the Civil Rights Act was passed only a year and the Voting Rights Act just months before my birth) seem like ancient history.

It’s been my observation that these practices have seemed to fade in recent decades, which is what we’d expect half a century after the end of legal segregation. I will defer to Capehart’s lived experience as to its continued salience. Still, I think most Americans see Will Smith (and, for that matter, Chris Rock) as A-list celebrities more so than representatives of their race.

_______________

*The exception was a strong desire to point out that alopecia isn’t a cause of baldness but another name for it. I had, until now, resisted the urge.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Entertainment, Popular Culture, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote my favorite take on the incident last Monday and he touched on many points including how Smith’s actions set black people as a whole back by re-enforcing the uncontrollably violent angry black man stereotype.

    https://kareem.substack.com/p/will-smith-did-a-bad-bad-thing?s=r

    Will Smith laughed at the joke right up until his wife gave him the stink eye.

    Jada Smith said four days prior “I feel the freedom today. I don’t give two craps what people think of this bald head of mine. Because guess what? I love it.”

    It must be tough being rich, privileged, and beautiful.

    The only racially-oriented issue I’ve seen referenced is that hair-related matters are a particularly sensitive subject for Black women.

    Going bald is one of the accepted styles for black women and they look good doing it.

    5
  2. Jen says:

    The only racially-oriented issue I’ve seen referenced is that hair-related matters are a particularly sensitive subject for Black women.

    I’d add to that: Hollywood is relentlessly focused on appearances. When you make your living and get (or don’t get) jobs solely based on how you look, it must be incredibly hard to manage a disease that affects your appearance, because it impacts your marketability and income as well.

    I hope we can move beyond this discussion rather soon.

    5
  3. mattbernius says:

    @Matt:
    Thanks for that link. I always enjoy reading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I think his take–its really more his random, informed thoughts on the topic–is a good one.

    3
  4. DK says:

    @Matt:

    Going bald is one of the accepted styles for black women and they look good doing it.

    Because of course you would know better than they would.

    There were the think pieces on how Dylan Roof, Kyle Rittenhouse, the McMichaels, or the Jan 6 terrorists set white people back “as a whole” by reinforcing the stereotype of the uncontrollably violent racist white man stereotype? Will Smith’s behavior was gross, unacceptable, and way out of line but there’s more “violence” on an average episode of Real Housewives. The prrformative outrage is more than a bit melodramatic.

    4
  5. Matt says:

    @DK:wut?

    3
  6. bookdragon says:

    Overall I think the whole thing is ridiculous and over blown, and I wouldn’t necessarily rule out staged for attention.

    My own in the moment reaction was that if Jada was so upset by the joke, she should have been the one to walk up there and slap him.

    “You want to see GI Jane?” *Smack*

    It still would have made memes and news, but the takes I think would have been very different.

    2
  7. DK says:

    @bookdragon: Haha. I think they should’ve just ignored the joke. It was pretty lame, as far as insult comedy goes.

    1
  8. jpe77 says:

    There were the think pieces on how Dylan Roof, Kyle Rittenhouse, the McMichaels, or the Jan 6 terrorists set white people back “as a whole” by reinforcing the stereotype of the uncontrollably violent racist white man stereotype?

    They would’ve been unnecessary and silly, just like how those writing think pieces about Smith might set back black people are silly. Note that the only people writing those pieces are black. White people might think Smith himself is insane, but it has nothing to do with any other than Smith.

  9. Chris says:

    I understand the point on the idea that Black dignity and respectability perceptions are in play. However from just a humans being weird viewpoint, Jada Pinkett Smith shared the information about her hair loss with the public while making $$$ doing it on TV. I get that she might not want other people talking about her condition, but she literally made it a public topic of conversation. Along comes Chris Rock who says he loves her and then cracked a GI Jane joke about her. First, GI Jane was a movie starring a beautiful women whose character got her head shaved and made herself into a warrior; so it’s really not that much of a comic dig. Second, if you don’t want people talking about your business, then you can start by not talking about your business… and boy does she and her husband spend a great deal of time broadcasting their business.

    5
  10. DK says:

    @jpe77:

    Note that the only people writing those pieces are black*

    *men of a certain age, with a lot white access. They know their audiences, hence why most of the people quoting and sharing these pieces are not black.

    But Kareem (the GOAT — sorry MJ) once knocked Kurt Benson out cold on the court. Kareem’s son went to prison two years ago for stabbing a neighbor during an argument about trash cans. Should we judge those as isolated incidents with their own context, or does Kareem think either of those incidents “reinforce stereotypes about uncontrollably violent angry black men”? Inquiring minds want to know.

    2
  11. Kylopod says:

    Thought experiment. Let’s say there had been a similar situation, except the Oscar host was a white man, the actor he joked about was a white man over a sensitive but mostly cosmetic issue–say, a cleft palate–and it was the actor’s wife who went up and slapped the host. How differently would the commentary have been?

    1
  12. just nutha says:

    The notion that society places burdens on the behavior of black people or that the behavior of individuals creates bias that all blacks are expected to share in seems important to me. If only there were some sort of unified theory available that would permit the public at large, and maybe students in some appropriate school classes to learn about and investigate such an issue. Hmmm…

    8
  13. DK says:

    @Kylopod: Same justified shock and disapproval, same cheap anti-Hollywood celebrity bashing, same overheated performative outrage about “violence” from a culture that defended Kyle Rittenhouse and glorifies weekly Real Housewives catfights…

    …but minus any 50+ white men having a sad about anti-white stereotypes being reinforced, shared nauseatingly by their approving black audiences.

    1
  14. just nutha says:

    @Chris: Jada Pinkett Smith is a person who has been blessed/cursed with a high public profile and high public visibility. It’s possible that her ability to “not talk about [her] business” is noticeably diminished.

    2
  15. Mu Yixiao says:

    @just nutha:

    From what I understand, she publicly announced that her appearance was because of a medical condition. She could just as easily have said “It’s a new look”, and all the talk would have been relegated to the celebrity fashion websites.

    If I’d seen a photo of her before all of this, my thoughts would have been either “she’s got a new role that requires short hair” or “she felt like shaving her head”. I can’t see anyone’s first reaction of a different hairstyle for an actor being “OMG! They must have a medical condition!”

    2
  16. JKB says:

    Will Smith had a middle class upbringing, but made his name in rap that celebrates behavior of quick to offense and violence. Thomas Sowell explored the culture brought by southern Blacks into northern cities and it’s being cast in stone, often by white liberals, in his ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’ (2015). He also looks at how settled ethic groups have worked to overcome the bad behavior of later migrants, and how the impeded in regards to established northern blacks changing the poor behavior of southern black migrants to what we see today.

    Whether black redneck values and lifestyle are a lineal descendant of white redneck values and lifestyle, as suggested here, or a social phenomenon arising independently within the black community and only coincidentally similar, it is still a way of life that has been tested before and found wanting, as shown by its erosion over the generations among whites who experienced its counterproductive consequences. By making black redneck behavior a sacrosanct part of black cultural identity, white liberals and others who excuse, celebrate, or otherwise perpetuate that lifestyle not only preserve it among that fraction of the black population which has not yet escaped from it, but have contributed to its spread up the social scale to middle class black young people who feel a need to be true to their racial identity, lest they be thought to be “acting white.” It is the spread of a social poison, however much either black or white intellectuals try to pretty it up or try to find some deeper meaning in it.

    –Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks & White Liberals (p. 64).

  17. Kylopod says:

    @JKB:

    Will Smith had a middle class upbringing, but made his name in rap that celebrates behavior of quick to offense and violence.

    ???

    Will Smith’s rap is some of the most innocuous in the genre ever.

    12
  18. Kyle McManus says:

    While I’ve read more takes on the incident than I’d like to admit, I’ve seen zero others arguing that it proves anything about Black people writ large.

    Copeland doesn’t say the incident shows anything abt blacks, just that certain non-blacks will decide that it does. Some are bound to, but to me the good news is that so far I haven’t come across anybody doing so. Some people must be but maybe the response in question isn’t the default response, and I think that not so long ago it would have been.

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Matt:
    I don’t know, man, Kareem can get pretty testy, at least in his other career:
    “Tell your old man old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.” I mean, that’s not how you talk to a young gladiator movie fan.

    7
  20. Matt Bernius says:

    @Kylopod:
    Don’t confuse him with facts, he’s just waiting until Sowell (the only Black person that Libertarians and Bircher’s acknowledge existing) finally gives him permission to use the N-word.

    5
  21. Raoul says:

    Sidney Poitier is rolling in his grave. For what’s worth, since I’m of Hispanic origin, I’m glad this incident did not involve Hispanics.

  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    Used to be the Jews when I was growing up. My Jewish grandparents (I have a gentile set, too) would often frame things in terms of whether it was good or bad for the Jews. I imagine gays had something similar.

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Kylopod: Eh, the commentary is special because it is Will Smith, whose public persona is basically as friendly as can be. He’s a Black Tom Hanks.

    (Also, WTF JKB? I think you’re confusing Will Smith with Tupac)

    He’s probably cashing in a large chunk of that reputation right now and will just be kind of normal, but basically he will get one hit free of consequences because everyone wants to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    If this was David Chapelle hitting Chris Rock, the story would be wildly different.

    And if Tom Hanks hit someone or ate their liver, we would all be asking if Tom Hanks was ok… except the Q folks who somehow believe the man is evil.

    1
  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Hey, I have a story for you about Black people, because we all know how much you love to comment on Black people. Ever hear the story about the Black woman slave, nine months pregnant and about to give birth? They dug a depression for her belly, then whipped her and whipped her until she gave birth to a baby slave in the dirt.

    Which is just my way of saying, fuck off you racist POS.

    1
  25. Jay L Gischer says:

    I immediately thought of the Wanda Sykes routine. It was great at the time and still relevant. Perhaps not as relevant as it was when she was a kid, though.

    As to Sidney Poitier, I really, really enjoy his performance, late in his career, in Sneakers. While he is mostly still being dignified and respectable, he does some really fine comedy with Dan Ackroyd, and drops an F-bomb once. I think he must have really enjoyed that. It sure seems that way watching it.

    1
  26. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Oh, yes. Shanda fur die goyim. But the stereotypes are somewhat different.

    1
  27. Kylopod says:

    To elaborate a little: much of the “shanda” idea among Jews centers around being self-conscious about being perceived as outsiders to mainstream society and disloyal to their country.

    1
  28. Jen says:

    However from just a humans being weird viewpoint, Jada Pinkett Smith shared the information about her hair loss with the public while making $$$ doing it on TV. I get that she might not want other people talking about her condition, but she literally made it a public topic of conversation.

    This type of reasoning has been around for a while, and I’ve always despised it. This was used a LOT around the time of Princess Diana’s death–“well, if she hadn’t sought out the attention of the media to help AIDS patients and raise the issue of hidden landmines with the public, she wouldn’t have paparazzi chasing after her,” etc.

    No. Just because Jada Pinkett Smith has elected to have some personal agency on the topic of her life-altering autoimmune disease does NOT give others free license to mock her appearance due to its effects. If Chris Rock had similarly mocked members of the cast of CODA, people would have been horrified, right? Why is this substantively different?

    4
  29. Raoul says:

    @Jen: To find Chris Rock joke offensive is an overreaction, the joke was lame, but offensive? You must not watch a lot stand-up comics. In fact there is a clip floating around of Will Smith making fun of bald people, again, lame, but not offensive. Perhaps you should read Will Smith apology.

    4
  30. Kylopod says:

    @Raoul:

    In fact there is a clip floating around of Will Smith making fun of bald people

    Jokes about bald men aren’t in the same category as jokes about bald women. There’s a fundamental difference in level of social stigmatization.

    4
  31. Raoul says:

    @Kylopod: Do you think the assault and battery was a justifiable response? Of course not, so please stop overanalyzing. Will Smith committed a crime. End of story.

    2
  32. Jen says:

    @Raoul: I don’t enjoy stand up comics in general, no. I think there’s a desire to shock that, by definition, requires constant escalation. That’s a different issue than what I was noting in the comment I excerpted. That commenter said, essentially, that by disclosing her illness and commenting on her own appearance, Jada Pinkett Smith made herself fair game for ridicule. I reject that analysis.

    I just reviewed my comment, and I didn’t say it was offensive. I said the audience would have been horrified if Chris Rock had made a joke about the CODA cast’s deafness–because, by the excerpted comment, the fact that they are making money because of their deafness, surely they’ve opened themselves up to ridicule about it, right?

    Again: how is making fun of Jada’s appearance due to her autoimmune disease substantively different than, say, making fun of a cast member of CODA for their deafness?

    I don’t care if Will Smith has made jokes about bald men, that’s entirely beside the point.

    3
  33. Kylopod says:

    @Raoul:

    Do you think the assault and battery was a justifiable response? Of course not, so please stop overanalyzing.

    Overanalyzing what? I was simply questioning your attempt to draw an equivalence between Rock’s joke about Jada’s alopecia with Smith’s (30-year-old) jokes about balding men. It should be possible to have a conversation about how appropriate or inappropriate Rock’s joke was without being accused of defending Smith’s violent response.

    5
  34. Jen says:

    And I will add, since it seems to be de rigueur to insert things that aren’t said into comments, that I am in no way, shape, or form defending Will Smith’s assault.

    I simply take issue with the mentality that somehow Jada Pinkett Smith’s discussion of her illness is some kind of a green light for others to comment, mock, etc. Full stop. That’s what I’m taking issue with. It’s getting damn close to blaming the victim, even if I hate the use of “victim” in this scenario, because absolutely none of them look good in this.

    2
  35. Kylopod says:

    @Jen: One angle I haven’t seen discussed as much is the entire culture of celebrity roasting. I haven’t watched the Oscars in years, so I have no idea if Rock’s joke stood out as being more offensive than usual for this type of event; I have a feeling it didn’t, and that the hosts say a lot of stuff that most people look the other way about. There’s an assumption that they’re always punching up simply because the targets are rich and famous, and it functions as a kind of hazing, a rite of passage where the celebs are supposed to show their grit by taking the bashing in stride. But it can be a way of masking real aggression, and in a culture where people are becoming increasingly aware of humor directed at marginalized groups, a lot of stuff that was once seen as acceptable is increasingly being questioned. And it’s a fine line, especially when it comes to jokes about personal appearance or jokes about disorders and disabilities, which we might think is inherently off-limits, when in fact there’s still a long tradition of tolerating that brand of humor within certain boundaries.

    3
  36. Matt says:

    @Jen: I don’t understand Jada Smith herself said “I feel the freedom today. I don’t give two craps what people think of this bald head of mine. Because guess what? I love it.”

    So why is a mild (albeit not funny) joke being portrayed by you as some kind of horrible insult??

    Am I not seeing it because I dated a bald black woman who chose to be that way?

    1
  37. dazedandconfused says:

    A gentleman does not comment about a lady’s appearance unless asked.

    Chris’s joke, if said in a private setting, would’ve justified a slap IMO. Smith’s rage us understandable to me, and if someone said that to my wife with me standing there there would have either been an immediate heart-felt apology or violence. It’s a completely different ball game on a stage and on national TV though.

    1
  38. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    That was hilarious, but that was the later Kareem. He expressed an opinion of Kent Benson once.

    This is for humor only, not insinuating that since he knocked Benson out 30 years ago he’s got no right to express an opinion on this now.

    1
  39. Gustopher says:

    @Raoul:

    Do you think the assault and battery was a justifiable response? Of course not, so please stop overanalyzing. Will Smith committed a crime.

    No jury would convict. And if no jury would convict, is it really a crime?

    I know the law needs bright, clear lines and that physical contact is it, but it was a slap, not a beat down.

    And the appropriate response is for Chris Rock to challenge Will Smith to a duel, and then they pick their seconds, arrange a time and place, have a bit of shuttle diplomacy between the seconds, and if they cannot work it out, fire at 20 paces with old fashioned front-loading pistols.

    2
  40. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    Well, the fact that a jury wouldn’t convict doesn’t automatically mean that the defendant didn’t commit a crime, or that what the defendant did wasn’t a crime. I’m pretty sure O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

  41. DK says:

    @Kylopod:

    But it can be a way of masking real aggression, and in a culture where people are becoming increasingly aware of humor directed at marginalized groups, a lot of stuff that was once seen as acceptable is increasingly being questioned.

    There’s a conversation to be had — and we’ve kind of been having — about how some comedians seem to have given up on wit, wisdom, wordplay, and timing to instead devolve into cheap, middle-school-playground bullying and punching down at low hanging fruit. It seems especially fraught for a subset of Xer comedians once considered edgy and groundbreaking but who now increasingly sound like cranky, bitter curmudgeons.

    And when you criticize these guys for it, you’re “woke” or “PC” or can’t take a joke. Maybe. Or maybe these dudes have run out of material, gotten lazy, lost the craft of joke building, and can’t adjust their comedy to rapidly changing social mores.

    These guys think they’re Don Rickles, but frankly they can’t pull it off because they lack his playfulness, lightness, and humility. My favorite was Bill Maher whining that Zoomers don’t have a sense of humor. TikTok and meme culture shows these kids have a very subtle and sophisticated sense of humor: they just don’t find you funny, Mr. Maher.

    BUT that conversation is separate to this Oscars scrum. Rock’s joke was a throwaway, hardly offensive enough to warrant any more than an eye roll. Will Smith’s reaction was bizarre, disproportionate, and unjustifiable.

    1
  42. Jen says:

    @Matt:

    Q: Why has she lost her hair?
    A: Because she has an autoimmune disorder. A disease.

    Just because someone has–or, more precisely says they have–come to terms with the disease that is affecting them, is it okay to joke about it?

    I think she looks amazing, but I’m not the one with the autoimmune disease.

    Do you genuinely not understand that it’s not okay to make fun of people who are sick, even if they joke about it? If someone loses their hair to cancer treatments, is it okay to laugh about that? What if they laugh about it first, does that give you license to dig in? What about ALS? Prosthetic limbs? Cerebral palsy?

    Maybe this is why Trump making fun of that disabled reporter wasn’t the end of his campaign.

    Are people genuinely okay with this?

    3
  43. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “Tell your old man old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”

    “The hell I don’t!” Timeless.

  44. Kurtz says:

    Most takes I’ve seen rely on two assumptions and a perception.

    -Smith’s response was inappropriate and qualifies as violence;

    -Smith laughed at the offending remark before reacting to JPS’s response.

    On the perception: this seems clear, but laughter can be weird; especially in a social setting. It seems plausible to me that Smith was laughing at the previous jokes and it took a moment before the G.I. Jane comment registered. I’ve definitely laughed twice at the same joke within a few seconds. I’ve also laughed at the thought triggered by a joke. In both situations those things led me to miss the next joke. But this seems less important and kind of tedious.

    The much more important part are the assumptions. I think they are reasonable, at least as an ideal. But…

    We can definitely find a better path for Smith to take–specifically, pulling Rock aside during a commercial break or after the show. Or he could have said something on stage if he won an award.

    But if we entertain those paths, we also must go the other way and look at worse responses, specifically a closed fist punch in some form or much worse. I have no doubt that if Smith wanted to physically injure Rock, he could have.

    More importantly, I have been nagged by a recurring thought: the ridiculous Republican response to the Kaepernick Kneel. The single best argument against the claim of disrespect is the social and biological bases of kneeling as a signal. Specifically, that it has always been a social signal communicating respect and/or submission. It took this meaning through the ages because the stance itself puts the supplicant in danger.

    This fits here, because a slap, as opposed to a closed-fist strike, is usually associated with a.) a challenge to a more serious confrontation; b.) a warning that a more violent response is possible (establish dominance); and/or c.) a relatively benign (pain is temporary and actual injury risk is basically nil) attempt to publically humiliate (emasculate) the target.

    First, Smith also slapped, rather than Russell Crowe, a journalist. I think Smith is smart and probably deliberate, so it seems reasonable to think that he sees a slap as a very specific social signal.

    Second, even if we accept my interpretation, there is plenty of ground the criticize Smith’s actions–on the grounds of toxic masculinity/chauvinism, public decorum, better courses of action, racial dynamics, etc. But the upside is preventing an over-reaction. After all, brawls and worse have been started over less, especially when one perceives a slight toward family members.

    4
  45. Kylopod says:

    @DK: It’s always going to be a fine line. For example, did Seth Meyers cross it when he made a joke about Obama’s graying hair at the 2011 White House dinner? In context, it didn’t seem that way to anyone. He was a liberal comedian doing a very gentle ribbing of a Democratic president, while directing most of his ridicule toward Trump who was in the audience visibly fuming. And graying hair is about the mildest subject of humor at the expense of someone’s appearance; it could even be seen as a compliment, in terms of giving Obama added gravitas.

    I would not even say that jokes about people with disabilities should be inherently off-limits. I remember about a decade ago when SNL did a skit about Gov. Paterson of New York, which was basically just a series of blind jokes. Like Rock’s GI Jane line, the skit was at bottom just lame. You’re trying to impersonate an elected office-holder of one of the largest states, and the joke is–he’s blind? What point are you possibly trying to make?

    On the other hand, Dave Chappelle’s classic Clayton Bigsby sketch centers around a blind character, and it’s not only hilarious but contains genuinely insightful social and political commentary.

    3
  46. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Not being black, I only have 2 things to say:

    #1: Jonathon Capehart is probably right.

    #2: In the year 2022, he shouldn’t be. We as a society should long be past judging the entire black race by the actions of an individual or 2. But we just can’t do it. CRT in action.

    As someone stated above, we don’t judge all white folks by the actions of the McMichaels or the Zimmermans of America.

    1
  47. Kylopod says:

    @Kurtz:

    It seems plausible to me that Smith was laughing at the previous jokes and it took a moment before the G.I. Jane comment registered.

    This is a point that occurred to me, but I haven’t seen it articulated by anyone so far. The common narrative I’ve been seeing is that Smith initially thought the joke was funny, then changed his mind after he realized his wife was seriously offended. But you’re right: there’s definitely an effect where people tend to laugh in the presence of others, as part of some social expectation. Smith knew he and his wife were being roasted, and his laughter was a kind of automatic response before he’d fully processed what Rock had said. That strikes me as a fair explanation for his seemingly inconsistent behavior.

    I’ve even laughed at stuff I didn’t fully understand when I was completely alone. The first time I saw the Simpsons episode where Homer goes to Hell and is force-fed donuts, then the demon says, “I don’t understand it. James Coco went mad in 15 minutes.” I laughed really hard the first time I saw this–before realizing, moments later, that I wasn’t quite sure I knew who James Coco was. (It turns out I’d seen him in movies before, but I wouldn’t have remembered offhand who he was or what he looked like.) Was I insane for laughing? There were other elements to the scene I did get (in fact it’s one of my very favorite Treehouse segments), so I didn’t need to get the specific reference at the end to appreciate the sequence.

    3
  48. Mu Yixiao says:

    I’m seeing a lot of comments saying “You don’t make jokes about women who are bald–especially black women”.

    And my reaction is: Yes, because (black) women are frail beings who need to be protected by us white males

    Jada Pinket Smith is a big girl. If she was offended, she could have walked up and slapped Chris Rock on her own. Or she can pull up her big-girl panties and deal with it. She’s a grown, rich, powerful woman. She knows the environment she works in, and she needs exactly nobody to stand up for her.

    She’s a millionaire who’s suffering from hair loss. My hairline starts slightly above my C1 vertebrae. Cry me a river.

    She went on national TV and made a point of saying she’s bald. Someone commented on it–and not in an insulting way. Cry me another river.

    As for the cast of CODA? I’d bet dollars to donuts, that Marlee Matlin would go toe-to-toe with Chris Rock and come out on top (and they’d both love it). I don’t know who else is in the cast, but… wouldn’t it be appropriate to ask them if they’d be offended?

    Or are you just assuming that anyone who isn’t “normal” (by whatever standard you set) is fragile and needs your protection?

    In other words: Do you not see just how condescending you are?

    1
  49. Jen says:

    @Mu Yixiao: As I am the one who made the CODA analogy, your comment is clearly directed at me.

    Do YOU realize how condescending you are?

    I have NO idea how Jada Pinkett Smith is processing her hair loss. She is a rich, powerful woman, yes. Does that mean that she can’t feel loss when something integral is gone?

    If you don’t understand the difference between “I am tired of dealing with my hair and I’m going to rock a buzz-cut” and “chunks of my hair are falling out due to an illness that I have no control over, but as a person who lives in what has to be the most image-conscious town ON EARTH, I somehow need to make the best of it,” well, good for you.

    You don’t have any idea what she’s gone through. Neither do I. Maybe this doesn’t bother her at all. Maybe it bothers her deep into her core, and she’s absolutely gutted by it.

    Bottom line is, we don’t know. No, people who don’t fit into norms don’t need my protection. They do deserve grace. Decency. Respect. Understanding. Empathy.

    That you don’t recognize this is a reflection on you, not me.

    8
  50. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    There were other elements to the scene I did get (in fact it’s one of my very favorite Treehouse segments),

    Going way off topic here, there’s a deleted scene from that ep (I think it was shown in a clip show), where the following happens:

    Bart: I’d sell my soul for a Ferrari
    (The Devil appears standing next to a red Ferrari)
    Bart: Changed my mind.
    (The Devil and car vanish)
    Marge: Bart! Stop pestering Satan!

    It should have been left in the episode.

    1
  51. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: That is funny.

    1
  52. grumpy realist says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Sidney Poitier was…unbelievable. What a wonderful man.

    1
  53. grumpy realist says:

    Also going off topic, there’s a wonderful Soviet film called “The Mathematician and the Devil” where a mathematicians inadvertently invokes the Devil and then points him at Fermat’s theorem. Look for it on YouTube.

  54. DK says:

    @Jen: I don’t get why some leap from “Will Smith’s behavior was wildly inappropriate and maybe demeaned his wife” to “I am the expert on how black women should and should not feel about their hair (or the loss thereof).”

    Black women’s hair, in our culture, has socioeconomic complexities and traumas that we who get to roll out of bed more-or-less naturally do not grasp. On top of the general life bs we all fight + racism and misogyny, black women also face diminished romantic/careeer/social etc prospects if their hair does not fit norms that are biologically unnatural to them.

    Do people get the work, money, time (and literal physical pain) involved in straightening hair every 6-8 weeks and keeping it straight with daily maintenance, when said hair is not just not naturally straight, but actively resistant? The cost of quality wigs, braids, and weaves? Someone did a whole documentary on this. His name? Chris Rock.

    It’s depressing that individuals who are supposedly better at critical thinking and emotional intelligence than the Trump Cult can’t walk themselves through this.

    “She has no reason to be upset, going bald is acceptable for black women.” Um, no, ever heard of the term “outlier?” What planet of glib cluelessness are we living on? And why in 2022 does this still have to be explained to allies? Oy.

    3
  55. DK says:

    @Kylopod:

    Dave Chappelle’s classic Clayton Bigsby sketch centers around a blind character, and it’s not only hilarious but contains genuinely insightful social and political commentary.

    Hi-larious. And it doesn’t attack. Doesn’t punch down at the blind or even preach negativity towards white supremacists. The comedy and commentary flow naturally from clever absurdity.

    The anti-woke crowd might claim this sketch could not fly today, I disagree. It’s just 20 years older, more cynical Chappelle likely couldn’t do it. My general issue with current Chappelle is the playfulness has given way to grievance. It’s not fun to watch a comedian who isn’t having fun.

    Comedians that haven’t lost their lightness still do “offensive” and edgy well, they’re just mostly playing small clubs in relative obscurity. Pete Lee’s bit “I’m a str8 white male but life would be easier if I were gay” made the rounds (approvingly) on gay Twitter some time ago, complete with swishy stereotyped imitation. It works because he’s smart, funny, playing and enjoying it. He’s self-deprecating, no meanspirited bullying.

    There are some big name stand-ups who are similarly fun, but they’re generally not the cranky Xer men of note. Ali Wong and her uncomfortable, squirmy, controversial raunchiness comes to mind. As does Wanda Sykes, whose 20+ years of consistently great standup would place her in the GOAT convo but not for the sexist gatekeeping in comedy.

    Chappelle is right that Hannah Gadsby is just not funny tho lol

    1
  56. DK says:

    @Kylopod: People will also sometimes laugh from either social pressure or discomfort.

  57. Kurtz says:

    @Jen:

    Bottom line is, we don’t know. No, people who don’t fit into norms don’t need my protection. They do deserve grace. Decency. Respect. Understanding. Empathy.

    That you don’t recognize this is a reflection on you, not me.

    When I was reading Mu’s comment, I kept trying to figure out why he seemed to be responding mostly to your take, but somehow ended up identifying white males. I kind of chalked it up to not reading all the threads about this topic. But wow.

    Full disclosure: I wrote a longer response that I canned… :checks tabs: oh it’s still there.

    Nah, I’ll just say two things, @Mu Yixiao.

    First, say what you will about the strength of various takes, but even the most strongly held ones are at least using a particular lens to focus the topic whether it’s race, sexism, decorum, etc. What you’re doing is using this particular event as a proxy for the same general viewpoint you express here all the time. At least there is some specificity in most of those takes.*

    Second, wagging your finger at the ‘white males’ offering ‘protection’ to the ‘fragile’ Black female rings pretty fucking hollow when you immediately proceed to telling said Black female to cry you a river (twice; TWICE!) because after all, you’re bald too. And of course, she can go wipe away her tears with one of the many extraneous hundred dollar bills at her disposal.

    Braying about the risk of infantilization while actively belittling the person at the center of the discussion is so glaring a contradiction that it could be taken as expert trolling if it didn’t seem to flow from genuinely held beliefs.

    *It reminds me of the Foucault vs. Chomsky debate wherein the former rejected the latter’s groundbreaking work in linguistics, not because he had an alternative explanation, but because it appeared to challenge his generic belief — rejection of a human nature.

    2
  58. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    Here’s the scene, along with two others.