We Have The Right To Not Be Annoyed
Beyond the Book: a rant about Will Smith and Chris Rock that is NOT about Will Smith and Chris Rock.
This is not a think-piece about Will Smith and Chris Rock.
I’m just starting out with that because while this piece was inspired by conversations around Will Smith slapping Chris Rock for making an ableist joke about his Black wife in front of a room (and worldwide tv audience) of white people, it’s not about Will Smith and Chris Rock. If I don’t clarify that, some of y’all are gonna be annoying in the comments.
And the “some of y’all” I’m referring to, really need to actually be paying attention to what I’m saying here.
So here goes.
On Sunday evening I, like so many other people, rushed into a room and said to a loved one, “Holy shit Will Smith just slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars for insulting Jada onstage.”
The loved one I was talking to was my partner. We had a very Black-couple conversation about it: Half amazement and digging for details, half figuring out how we would handle such a situation and discussing toxic masculinity and misogynoir, and a little sprinkling of “lol look at all those shocked white faces when two Black celebrities who have built a lot of their fame off their appeal (or at least, carefully crafted “nonthreatening-ness”) to white audiences decide to deal with some very Black business in front of a very white audience.”
Anyways. When I woke up Monday morning I was inundated with white opinions on the whole debacle. Actually, calling them “opinions” is generous. These were a lot of the types of white “opinions” that I saw:
The “I am a woman and Jada is a woman so I am claiming this issue for all women,” opinion.
The “What if Will Smith had done something way more violent instead and someone died??? Hmmm??? Are you saying you think we should be able to KILL people for insulting our wives at the Oscars?” opinion.
The “People who support Will Smith also hate Ukraine/love Nazi’s” opinion.
The “I’ve found a vague connection between this event and my own personal trauma so this complex conversation on race, gender and disability is now all about me” opinion.
The “How foolish you all are to care about a slap WHEN PEOPLE ARE DYING CAN’T YOU SEE HOW MUCH BETTER THAN YOU ALL I AM” opinion.
The “I’m a white dude who performs hack jokes at open mics on Wednesday nights in front of an audience of like 10 people who are really just trying to eat their dinner and forgot this was Comedy night. AM I THE NEXT PERSON TO BE HIT BY WILL SMITH?? IS THIS THE END OF COMEDY AS I KNOW IT?”
And the ever present: “VIOLENCE IS NEVER THE ANSWER” opinion.
It has been an avalanche of white opinions. Now, I know that white people always feel entitled to talk about Black shit. If us doing Black things and discussing Black topics was our hair, these white people stay with their hands deep in it - messing up our curl pattern. But this was a lot. Even for white people. White people really believed that because Smith made so many movies they liked and because Rock really loved to let Louie CK say the n-word all the time, that they owned a part of them and therefore owned this discussion even more than they think they own everything else.
All over the internet (and likely in person but I don’t see people in person much these days) Black people - especially Black women - started putting down boundaries so that we could have the potentially very important conversations that could arise from this controversy. Was Will Smith standing up for Black women in a world that never stands up for Black women? Was Will Smith standing up for his own ego? Are Black women really made more safe when Black men decide to use violence to protect “their” wives? How do we as Black women want to be supported in a world that hates Black women? What was the added violence of Chris Rock singling out a Black woman (again) with an ableist joke in a room full of white people? Why is it that some of the same Black people who are saying that Smith was justified in hitting Rock for an insulting and ableist joke have also been telling Black trans women that their critique of Dave Chappelle’s repeated and increasingly hateful transmisogynist “jokes” wasn’t justified? Is our discomfort at how this all played out in public symbolic of internalized respectability politics and anti-Blackness?
These and more are really great conversations to have in our community. Conversations that require consideration of our racialized experiences and our relationship to intergenerational trauma, the imposition of white patriarchal goals on Black culture, ancestral conflict resolution practices and the harm of white carceral culture, the specific needs and experiences of Black women harmed by both racism and sexism - and so much more. And these discussions are really, really hard to have when white people keep rushing in with their opinions that have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with what we are trying to discuss.
As I contemplated hosting discussion on this on my social media pages and was then rocked by the flood of whiteness that seemed to be engulfing every discussion, I instead decided to limit my focus on boundaries.
I made a post voicing my frustration at how, once again, white people - especially white women - were quick with so many opinions. Boy were the comments on that post filled with white opinions.
I commented again, being more direct. This time in video. I said that white women who are taking up all of this space claiming to respect Black women are in fact showing an extreme lack of respect because they are not listening to us or respecting our boundaries (and that honestly they don’t know what they are talking about here).
Anyways. The hundreds of comments and DMs I received almost always fell into a few categories:
Black women: “OH MY GAWD THANK YOU IT’S ONLY 10AM AND I’M ALREADY EXHAUSTED.”
white women: “Sis, I’m so glad I’m not one of these white women making it all about themselves!! They are so embarrassing, amirite girlfriend?? High five!”
white women: “Aren’t we all women first? Why do you insist on being Black?”
white women: “Your boundary erases all of my trauma. This is violence against me.”
white men: “This is the most racist post I’ve ever seen. If I told black people to stay out of a conversation I’d be arrested for murder.”
white women: “It’s obvious with this boundary you’ve set that you never want another white person around you ever again and so I will respectfully leave forever. Goodbye, it has been wonderful. I’ve learned from you in the past and spent money on your books but it is clearly time for me to walk off into the sunset. I’ll miss you. I’m sure you’ll miss me too.”
a few light-skinned NB POC: “Um. As a person of color I think I’m qualified to say that you are being divisive and this is not how I would approach this situation at all can’t you see that white women are our friends?”
white women: “You always say “support Black women” but if I can’t insert my opinion here then I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SUPPORT BLACK WOMEN ANYMORE!!??”
white people of all genders: “THIS ISN’T SOLVING RACISM, YOU KNOW”
While some white people simply commented to acknowledge receipt of the message, and I’m sure that many others got the message and decided that not commenting was the actual move to make (I do appreciate those who really got it) - an abundance of comments from white people pointed to a common issue that I and so many other Black people who write or speak on issues of race and racism encounter with the white public:
Y’all (the white people out of pocket in my comments and DMs) keep thinking that this is all for you.
The books, the talks, the work - all of it is for you. You are sure that I and others who write and speak on race wake up every day and think, “how can I help white people today?” I’m not being facetious. You really do view us, in our anti-racist work and in our very existence, as “the help.”
We do this work - not for our survival and not out of love for ourselves and our people - for you. We believe in you. We want to be friends with you. We want you to be better people. You are the hero we need and have been waiting for. You don’t have to be perfect, we’re just glad you’re here. It’s really generous of you.
This is your scene in the movie where you were ignorant and lost and then you met us and we showed you the way and now you are your most perfect, shining self.
When we talk about harm white people are doing and you aren’t the person currently doing the harm, you feel warm and fuzzy inside. You thank us for pointing out the white people that you are better than, and for reminding us of how far you’ve come.
When we talk about harm white people are doing and you are the person doing the harm (and recognizing that harm doesn’t inconvenience you in any real way or make you feel like maybe this isn’t all about you), you thank us for being so dedicated to your growth and enlightenment.
But, if we put down a boundary - a simple boundary that has everything to do with protecting our peace and nothing at all to do with educating you or making you feel better about yourself - then we are being divisive. We are violating the agreement you thought you had with us: that we will educate you and center you and give you a way to dispose of all of this icky guilt and in return you will put a Black Lives Matter sign in your window and occasionally yell at your Trump supporter uncle (who you never liked anyway) at Thanksgiving.
Right now there is a white person reading this and saying, “why do you keep saying “you” when I am never doing these things and why can’t you be more clear in your essays so that I know that you aren’t talking to me here because I don’t like being yelled at for things I didn’t do.”
If you are that white person, congrats. You are actually the white person who does these things - you’re doing it now!
The truth is, I don’t do this work to make a kindler, gentler person. Yes, I believe that white people are as capable of growth, kindness, and compassion as anybody else. But it isn’t my job to, nor my aim, to help them see that they had it in them all along.
I’m fighting to save Black lives. I do this work because I love Black people and I want to stop the murderous harm of racism and anti-Blackness that is literally killing us. If the systemic change we are fighting for also helps some white people better love their neighbors and in general just be nicer people - bonus for them. But if we tear down the systems that empower anti-Blackness and racism - systems that are actually killing us in body and soul - I really could give a shit about how much white people whom I don’t have a personal relationship with do or do not love me. It’s a very decisive win no matter what.
Sometimes, to be more specific, I’m fighting for Black lives. Sometimes I’m writing and speaking and researching and beating my head against a wall trying to shift narratives and encourage action and combat harm. And in these times it is often necessary to create boundaries in order to do this work.
But sometimes I’m just trying to live without white people in my business because I’m a human being who deserves to have a conversation that doesn’t have to be constantly translated for white understanding. Because I’m a human being who wants to be in safe and healing company with people who have had similar experiences as I have. Because I’m a human being who deserves community. And it’s almost always necessary to create boundaries in order to just be a whole Black woman in a white world.
And so when I put down boundaries and a white person asks, “Does this really accomplish your goals?” The answer is always. “Yes.”
Yes, it accomplishes my goal when the goal is to reduce disrespect and harm in a space.
Yes, it accomplishes my goal when the goal is to keep focus on the issue at hand.
Yes, it accomplishes my goal when the goal is to center Black people and other people of color.
And yes, it accomplishes my goal when the goal is to not be annoyed.
My boundaries will always accomplish my goals because my goal will never be to serve whiteness.
So if you are a white person and you come into a space of a Black woman (or any other person of color) and you find that their “tactics” or “tone” don’t accomplish your goals, that’s not an issue you need to bring to us. Because the issue is with your goals and your assumption that you could impose them on the space and make those goals ours and somehow call that “anti-racism” (or even better, the white women today in my comments who insisted that imposition of unwanted commentary in Black spaces was “intersectionality” at work).
Part of being in relationship with people is recognizing and respecting boundaries. Part of being in relationship with people is listening to them. Part of being in relationship with people is trying to not take more than you give. Part of being in relationship with people is by respecting and appreciating people’s individual talents, experiences, and needs.
You cannot claim to be in relationship with Black people if all you do is feed off their grief for your own education. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Black people and then balk at their very basic boundaries. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Black people while dismissing any of their needs or lived experiences that don’t match yours. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Black people and then dismiss any part of their humanity that doesn’t serve you. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Black people and still expect us to debate you on demand for recognition of our humanity. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Black people and then hop into your jeep to take a safari through our lives and “ooh” and “ahh” at how we try to work and live and solve problems in community in a white supremacist world.
We are whole people. We don’t exist to educate whiteness. We don’t exist to better whiteness.
We have the right to our privacy. We have the right to our boundaries. We have the right to not be constantly badgered and annoyed.
If you are a white person and you want to know how to do the work in light of these boundaries, the answer is the same that it’s always been: get yourself together, get your people together, sort out your racist bullshit and start flexing your privilege to change the systems that were built in your name to exploit and oppress us.
That’s the assignment. It doesn’t change when you have Black friends. It doesn’t change when a white Republican hatemonster is no longer in the white house. It doesn’t change when the conversations we’re having about Will and Chris seem so much more entertaining than the inconvenient and thankless work that is investigating and challenging your own anti-Blackness and participation in white supremacist systems of power.
So do the work. Or don’t. Either way, please be less annoying.
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Thank you for the reminder that it’s okay to protect my peace!
Well said! I was YESing and YESing the points you made. You put into words some of the angst I have been feeling about discussing race in a white-dominant culture that wants to look and act black while ignoring or kumbayaying the pains and difficulties of being black. This faux blackness that believes racism is behind us while refusing to be on par with people who are divinely created to be black. My blackness requires your whiteness to step aside, otherwise I become some kind of confused gray creature, which may serve your purposes but certainly not mine. I'm wonderfully black. I love the beauty, and I live the (unnecessary) pain, of my ebony skin. I'm flattered by the imitation, but you respect me best when you be your best white self and respect and honor other people and their boundaries.