The following blog contains mentions of violence, bullying, and child abuse.
On page 169 of his memoir No Struggle No Progress, American education “reformer” Howard Fuller writes about taking a flight for the purpose of using corporal punishment on one of his sons, Malcolm, for an alleged act of stealing. By itself, the description of this event wouldn’t have caught my attention so much, had it not been for the fact that earlier in the book, as Fuller recounts his time as the self-styled “HNIC” at Malcolm X Liberation University (and for those of you who have seen Lean on Me, yes, that acronym stands for what you think it stands for), he mentions that stealing was also against the code of conduct at MXLU — but only “stealing from other African people.” (This is a direct quote from page 108 of No Struggle No Progress.)
I’ve thought about these passages a lot in the twenty months or so since I first read Fuller’s memoir, but I was reminded of them very strongly early this afternoon, when I was looking through my Facebook feed and saw that a friend had shared the informal musings of an African-American man commenting on popular reaction to Will Smith’s assault of Chris Rock during last night’s Oscars. I can’t link to the piece because it’s not a publicly-visible post, but in brief, the author didn’t like that so many white Americans were quick to condemn Smith’s act of violence because, to the author, it showed a lack of understanding of how African-American men needed to use violence when one of them stepped “out of line” with another. The author gave the impression that he believed any criticism of Smith’s violence, or any act of violence committed by one African-American man against another, was culturally insensitive to African-Americans.
Reactions from my friends to what happened last night have ranged all over the place, and I spent a good part of my day, before Smith issued his public apology to Rock, trying to figure out what I thought about the whole thing. In all honesty, I was kind of relieved that none of my students brought the matter up in my classes today, because I wasn’t sure how to discuss it with them, and I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate those waters if we ever sail into them. Because I don’t follow celebrity news all that closely, I was unaware of all the previous animosity there had been between Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett-Smith (and her husband), so I’ve been learning a lot about that since I woke up this morning. More than anything, as I read the initial reports of the assault last night, the one thought I couldn’t get out of my head was that a large number of very racist people were going to use this incident as an excuse to beat up any African-American who said anything they didn’t like; after all, if Will Smith got away with it on international television, why shouldn’t they?
I know that I’m very sensitive to issues of violence, in large part because I dealt with so much bullying and child abuse from my father when I was younger. I can still get very strong panic attacks when I feel cornered, or when those old memories come back to mind; less than two weeks ago, I had one of these responses when I was walking on the sidewalk near my apartment, and someone in a passing car yelled a profanity-laced tirade at me because I was wearing a mask. Even after all the work I’ve done to avoid confrontation and recognize situations where my “fight-or-flight response” might get triggered, I’m far from immune to the lasting effects that years of violence have inflicted on me, and part of the reason I fight so hard for children, and especially stopping violence against children, is because no one should have to endure what I went through in my earlier years, much less the even worse conditions that millions of children suffer under in America every day.
My biggest fear right now, though, is that Smith’s assault of Rock will just feed into the ongoing narrative of compassion and love being “weak” somehow, that the only way to be strong, or to succeed, is to be violent. This notion predates my time on this planet, but it’s gotten a lot worse in recent years, and there is far from enough being done to show that love can be stronger than hate, that the violence that built the absolute shitshow we’re in right now cannot be undone with other forms of violence.
What disturbs me the most as I’m writing this is that despite Smith’s public apology, we have yet to see Rock apologize for his utterly infantile remark about a result of Jada Pinkett-Smith’s alopecia, words so far removed from any hint of cleverness or wit that they are as unworthy of the word “joke” as anything I’ve written here. Our broader culture may have good reason for its insistence that public figures should be more susceptible to public ridicule than the rest of us, but no one deserves to have their medical condition become the butt of an insult like that, much less an insult delivered to a worldwide audience of millions. The fact that Rock may likely hide behind the flaccid “just a joke” excuse that so many other alleged comedians have been using in recent years should spur the rest of us to demand Rock be held accountable in the court of public opinion for being so repeatedly and viciously hurtful, and it should spur us because even if we don’t know anyone with alopecia, we still have the compassion and love to understand just how cruel and damaging such comments are. (The same with Dave Chappelle and transgender people, and so on, and son on, and so on.)
I’m not going to sit here and say that I have a better solution to what happened last night at the Oscars, because I don’t. What I do know is that what Will Smith did sure as hell wasn’t the right thing to do, and at least he’s had the decency to admit as much, and to take responsibility for his actions. As long as that responsibility remains such a one-way street, though, more and more people will be drawn to the visceral lure of violence to try to “solve” their problems, and all it will do is create more problems. Getting assaulted by Will Smith isn’t going to shut Chris Rock up, nor should it, but that doesn’t mean Rock shouldn’t be held accountable for saying such cruel things about a medical condition that Jada Pinkett-Smith has no control over. Regardless of whether we find ourselves in these kinds of situations, or we discuss them in the safety of physical and emotional distance, we all need to do better.