I’m not going to talk about the slap. I’m not going to talk very much about the joke, because there are at least three levels to it. I’m going to talk about one of those three levels.
I want to make it clear that this is a small part of The Incident. The Incident and its aftermath involves race, racism, sexism, misogynoir, White Gaze, and a bunch of related, nuanced, complicated stuff.
However, the one part of this incident that is within my lane is disability activism. (And again, I’m not saying the Incident was “about that”. But it would have played out differently if Chris Rock had chosen a different joke.)
For personal background, I’m going to mention my own visible disability, but I also want to make it clear that I recognize the deep cultural history involved in women’s hair, especially Black women’s hair. I’m not trying to pretend that my experience is anything like the same thing.
Upon learning that she had a medical condition that was causing hair loss, among other things, Jada Pinkett Smith could have hidden that condition, fairly easily. Or she could have announced it and asked people to respect her privacy. Or she could have done what she did, which was announce it to the world and commit to being an activist and a visible reminder.
I am vocal about being transgender. I am somewhat vocal about being neurodiverse. I am fairly quiet about my physical disability.
I have a prosthetic eye. As my current profile pic (which is backwards, by the way) shows, I’m sensitive about it. Unlike Pinkett Smith, who could wear a wig, I can’t easily hide it: My prosthesis fits poorly, and even when it fit well, my eyes didn’t track.
The easiest way to hide the hair loss associated with alopecia is to wear a wig. I’ve known two people personally who have shared that they had alopecia, and both of them wore wigs. Rep. Ayanna Pressley wore wigs until she chose, last year, to announce her condition. (I’ll share that video as a separate item so it doesn’t get buried in my voice.)
Wigs aren’t as expensive as other prostheses, but they’re not generally free. They’re inconvenient. And, as with my eye, they can be reminders that those of us with visible disabilities have to put ourselves in discomfort for the comfort of people in our environment.
I don’t wear my prosthetic for myself. I’m told its for “the health of the socket”, but it’s much more clearly for the comfort of others. In the morning, it often sticks to my eyelids, causing pain until I can wash it. I probably need a new one, but one of my other disabilities — social anxiety — gets in the way of making appointments.
(And I’ve tried eyepatches. That’s an entire essay.)
The point is: Pinkett Smith used her public platform to speak out towards destigmatizing her disability, and by extension disabilities in general. She spoke not just for herself but for the millions of voiceless.
Yesterday, I read about a pre-teen who succumbed to suicide because of bullying surrounding their alopecia-related hair loss.
This is not a triviality or a vanity. It is not a fair subject of a joke. Pinkett Smith has my greatest respect for using her voice in activism. And whether Chris Rock’s intent was to mock her disability (which I doubt) or to ridicule her refusal to wear her hair “correctly” (which I suspect), neither route makes him look good.