April 04, 2022

Article at The Toronto Star

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Angry at Will Smith’s slap, but not ableist jokes? As a Black, disabled woman, I see how we’re further silenced

Jada Pinkett Smith at the 94th Annual Academy Awards.

As a disabled Black woman, the lack of outrage at the ableism and misogyny directed at Jada, has caused me great disappointment and sadness, Carolyn Hinds writes.

Why is making jokes about Black women’s appearances and insecurities OK?

Why are ableist jokes made by nondisabled people considered an acceptable form of comedy?

And why is it that since “the slap heard around the world” became a trending topic of the week have we not seen more action and acknowledgment of the ableism and misogyny displayed?

Considering my reaction, I’m sure you know I’m referring to the moment forever captured on camera during the 94th Academy Awards, where nominee and Best Actor winner, Will Smith, walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock across the face after the comedian made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith being bald — calling her “G.I. Jane 2.”

Right after the incident, opinions came pouring in. There were debates about using physical force to react to verbal violence against a spouse. There were people who took Smith’s actions and words as an opportunity to point their fingers, blowing things way out of proportion.

In the mess that piled on, I want to take the opportunity to highlight what I think is important. I’m going to talk about how easy it is for society to dismiss and cast aside the feelings of Black disabled women.

Being a Black, disabled woman with multiple sclerosis, I’ve always known that both of these intersections place me, and others like me, further to the margins of those who society believes deserves empathy and compassion. To see how quickly “the slap,” and the discussion of respectability politics became the main points of discourse was disconcerting and upsetting, as the majority of people seemed to forget who the initial injured party was.

Some brushed Rock’s words as a light joke, but Pinkett Smith, has always been incredibly outspoken and openly vulnerable about her experience with alopecia, a condition which affects many Black women.

While it’s not my place to speak on how Jada feels personally, I have been thinking a lot about the old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I’ve been thinking about how this has been used as an excuse for people to say what they want to hurt those more vulnerable than them.

In my experience it has always been used by bullies and their supporters to ignore the reality that words do in fact hurt, and more often than not more deeply than physical wounds. Words can be extremely violent in the way they are easily internalized, delving into our psyches and shaping the way we think about ourselves and how others perceive us.

The lack of outrage at the ableism and misogyny directed at Jada has shown me just how far back we still are. Though I know in my heart that Black women are the least protected, it always hurts to see it re-confirmed.

We are always expected to be examples of grace under fire because the racist stereotype of ‘the angry Black woman’ hangs like a dark spectre over all of us. We’re always cognizant of being watched, analyzed and judged no matter where we are or who we’re around. Historically, and continually, Black women, Black disabled women are mocked and ridiculed for every part of our bodies.

Dark-skinned Black women are stigmatized for our skin tones. Our facial features have been objectified and exoticized from a young age. Even our natural hair was outlawed, with women forced to wear head coverings (as detailed in the award winning documentary Subjects of Desire by Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Holness). Because of this, many Black women are deeply sensitive to our own bodies. We’re taught that who we are isn’t good enough, and it hurts for those insecurities to be continuously exploited. Yet, despite all of this we’re rarely given adequate space to express how these things truly affect us.

Even on platforms like Twitter, any comments we make are always countered and dismissed with racism, sexism and false equivalencies.

What I want most from writing this is for people to ask themselves why they are disturbed by a slap, but not the fact that a woman’s body and disability were insulted at an internationally televised event. Why is ableism an acceptable form of comedy? Why should Black and disabled women be expected to tolerate people being insensitive to our feelings?

It would be great to see as many articles addressing the casual ableism and misogynoir displayed by Rock — and others online — as there are about Smith’s actions being offensive from those who don’t know anything about our communities.

It’s hypocritical of society to keep claiming how progressive it is, when its actions toward the marginalized are nowhere near progressive; continuing to show a lack of empathy and basic decency towards Black women.

It’s not “just a joke” when the words are used to attack the very thing people are most sensitive about. Stop using our vulnerabilities to deride us for the entertainment of the very people who created and uphold the same destructive beauty standards that we’re measured against.

Carolyn Hinds is a film critic, journalist, podcaster and YouTuber based in Toronto. Follow her @CarrieCnh12.

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