I recognized Jada Pinkett Smith’s expression at the Oscars, black women’s hair is all too often the butt of jokes



In the 24 hours since “The Slap” – the now well-analyzed confrontation between Will Smith and Oscar host Chris Rock – few seem to focus on Jada Pinkett Smith, whose alopecia was the subject of Rocks jibe that led to the fallout. So instead of talking more about these two men, I choose to center Jada, but also all black women and girls whose hair has been exposed to comments all their lives.

We know what it is like to have our hair serviced, having our main pet as if we were dogs. While others discussed “The Slap”, black women and girls throughout the diaspora discussed that our identity was again used as a punchline at one of the most watched and talked about awards ceremonies in the world. It’s not even the first time. WHO can forget Giuliana Rancic, who stated that Zendaya looked like she smelled of patchouli oil and weeds when she made her Oscar debut in 2015?

Rock’s tacky words on Sunday may have been a tactless joke, but I instantly recognized the look on Jada’s face when those words were uttered. The tangible feeling of all the air leaving the room while your skin is burning, all eyes on you and waiting for you to react. I recognized the frozen smile, the roll of eyes. The clapping of hands as she continued to remain calm.

But one could see the realization resting heavily on her shoulders as it seemed that black women were once again the butt of the joke. It was an ugly blow to the stomach. A stab in the heart from not only a peer, but someone who should know better.

You see Rock produced, cast and told Good hair, a documentary on the question of how black American women have perceived their hair and historically styled it. He is quoted as saying that he felt compelled to make the documentary in response to his daughter asking, “Dad, why do I not have good hair?”.

So when he made a joke about Jada’s hair, he did so with knowledge of the dehumanization that black women face in society. Not only were the Oscars on the world stage, but they were also sent out to the privacy of black women, who probably would have had to deal with their own GI Jane jokes if “The Slap” had not taken place.

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Yes, violence is never the answer, but I hope the whole incident will make people think twice before degrading black women in the future. So often, “just a joke” is a euphemism for the micro-aggressions black women and girls encounter daily.

People have always tried to dictate how we wear our hair – from the head wraps imposed on us because of now-defunct Tignon laws, to schools that label black hair as “distracting”, “unruly” or “wild” “. Rock’s joke was perhaps a comment to most who heard it, but for black women it was a true slap in the face.

Melissa Cummings-Quarry is an award-winning commercial strategist and co-founder of Black girls book club

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