Violence- “the intentional use of physical force or [abusive] power, threatened or actual, against oneself, or another person, a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm or maldevelopment”
World Health Organization
Amidst the passionate conversation that is ensuing following the Will Smith and Chris Rock encounter at the Oscars, it seems fitting to reflect a bit upon that event and some of the threads that surround it. I agree with those who have labeled it as an unfortunate event. But my agreement with much of what is being said does not go much beyond that point and I don’t think that there were any heroes in this. But the encounter can help us to begin to interrogate a few of the important threads that are begging us for acknowledgement.
I do not believe that violence of any type is a viable option for problem solving. But we live in a country that has tried to use it as such an option since its founding. We have chosen violence so many times until it has come to be seen as the only remedy that is possible far too much of the time.
A few days following the Oscars event, I sat in my barber shop listening to a group of young African American men who were mostly in their early to late thirties. Their conversation was riveting to me as I listened to them offer their analysis of the situation. All of them agreed that the entire event was rigged and was merely a publicity stunt. It was not clear to me why Will Smith would engage in such behavior to benefit Chris Rock and hurt himself, but that troubling fact did not enter their conversation.
Their basic supporting evidence lay in the fact that Chris Rock did not hit Will Smith in return. It was amazing for them to imagine that someone would allow himself to be struck by another person and not strike back in retaliation. The passion with which they discussed this idea was stunning. This point of view holds that violence must be met with violence or else it is more than likely staged, thus making it easy for African Americans who choose to use violence as a remedy to feel justified. This attitude along with all the other socially oppressing forces help to create many of the unfortunate incidences of violence in our communities of color, and especially black on black homicides.
This culture has taught far too many persons of all races, women, and men alike, that one cannot dare consider turning the other cheek. When the actual or threatening energy of abusive power or physical force arises in one’s space, the only response must be to react in the same way.
There is another thread that needs to be entered into this conversation as well and that is the idea of “respectability politics.” This is the notion that was held very tightly by many African Americans that it was necessary to act as white people expected us to behave to win their acceptance of our being worthy of their benevolence. Thus, some of the responses to the Smith/Rock encounter is motivated by wishing that it had not been done on the world stage as it was because it supports the negative views that far too many white people hold of African Americans. But it would have been an acceptable response if it happened in a less public manner. This view supports violence if it is contained in certain ways. Unfortunately, this is a troubling view also because violent behavior in response to violence is still being affirmed.
Will Smith’s physical attack in response to Chris Rock’s expressions of potential psychological violence seems to horrify some who have responded to this incident much more than the potential psychological violence of Chris Rock, because a comedian taking the liberty to say whatever comes to mind about a person in the audience is not viewed as violent. Everyone who is speaking in public, singing, doing art of any type needs to be held accountable for being careful not to practice any form of violence.
Along with our concerns about Will Smith and Chris Rock, whose lives really do not impact most of our daily lives in any manner, we need to turn our attention to what is happening in our immediate spheres of influence. In what ways are we supporting violence or resisting it? Do we watch violence on the screen as entertainment? Do we think that it is proper to hit children for misbehavior? Are we careful to use language that will not harm children and others? Words matter and they can cause damage that cannot be overcome in a lifetime. These two celebrities’ behavior is far less important than our daily behavior toward the folks that are in our spheres of influence and communities.
It is crucial to remember that the true work of being liberated will be done on our own terms and will be mirrored in our behaviors toward those closest to us before it is generalized into the larger culture. The white supremacy dominated culture is not now and never has been interested in our overall wellbeing. Thus, the work of creating new healing narratives lies at the doorsteps of African Americans and other people of color. We need to begin that work by becoming more invested in the public and private affirmation of one another as people of color and interrogating many of the ways of thinking and behaving that are grounded in the former slave master’s narrative. We can do this work and it is my hope that all of us African Americans and other people of color will become a half shade braver each day while turning toward the deep call of our souls to do all that is within our power to bring the good news of liberation to all. We can do it. Let’s do it!