And why colourblindness is an issue
I went to bed early and noted there was some drama at the Oscars. Never one to care much about award shows, I wasn’t interested enough to learn more. At 3 am, I groggily checked my phone and found what I assumed to be minor drama was blowing up online. Trying to stay more on top of current events, I looked into it, then back at my feed, and saw a massive split on reactions.
On one hand, I saw non-Black folks making memes and judgements; Laughing that he got upset, questioning his manhood for not being able to “take a joke” and being emotional, and people saying Jada’s condition wasn’t worth getting so upset about, because it wasn’t cancer…
On the other hand, I saw Black folks having a nuanced discussion about it. Most applauded Will for his taking action and protecting his wife from ridicule. Some questioned if Black masculinity must mean being physical to protect someone, or if being protective is a part of it at all. Others discussed our culture around humour and comedians, and if it was within bounds of our norms around teasing. There was discussions around the lack of care for Black women, the importance of hair, and the breaking of taboos by making a public joke about it. There was an understanding that as a comedian you can make jokes but if you step over the line- particularly publicly -not expecting a passionate response is foolish. More than foolish, doing so is likely intentional and a low blow.
Irritable at witnessing such high horsed ignorance from non-Black folk, I wrote a post calling out this behaviour and knew I’d be here writing to you all about this. This piece is not specifically about that moment nor passing judgement. It’s also not meant to be a representation of the whole of Black opinion. What it is, is an exploration of the context that may have contributed to this moment and why the two reactions were so drastically different. If you want to read more about their personal history leading to this moment, I’d suggest reading up on it. It’s also important.
So, let’s dig into it.
There are two main things I think are pivotal to understanding what the hell happened. There is the game, “the Dozens” and the importance of hair to Black women. First, “The Dozens”. It’s a game of wit, humour and intellect. In an oral culture being able to be witty quickly is of huge importance. In the same way, people from written cultures place a great deal of value on the command of the written language and grammar, we place the ability to speak. The ability to tell a story, to be intentional about your language and most importantly entertaining is highly desired. One way this comes up is most commonly between Black men is playing the dozens. It’s a game that’s name changes often with generations but the idea and rules remain.
The Dozens and Humour
Show your mastery of oration by using wit and wordplay to tease a partner. Whether it’s called capping, roasting, yo mama jokes, or signifyin’ it’s typically trading of insults that heighten with each back and forth. Much of Black comedy is a sort of play on that, in a one-sided way. One reason it works, as it would never in a white culture context, is that words are not assumed to be an extension of conflict. A common aphorism in Black communities is basically “It’s when I stop talking that you should be worried.” We rely much more on non-verbal communication to be aware of our communication partner and silence is a big thing.
Silence isn’t seen as turning the other cheek or disagreement, but agreement. As though you don’t feel passionate enough to speak up. Or, as an impetus for physical conflict. The jokes are over and the conversation has a moment to set up a graceful way to bring things back down. It’s only funny if both sides are willingly participating.
I bet some folks reading this are thinking, this sounds cruel or just like bullying and that’s where the unspoken rules come in.
The world has been talking a lot about consent and that’s a part of the issue here. Consenting to the dozens is as much a choice as it is what topics are open. It’s a consent that can be removed at any time. Not respecting that is just abhorrent. Comedians in many ways are such a big deal in Black culture because of their ability to walk the line between acceptable ribbing and still be socially conscious enough to know when to back off, and apply a salve, to the wounds they inflicted. It’s true that historically black comedians don’t have limits to what they can joke about, but they have always had consequences.
The dozens, (and its derivatives of insult based Black humour) is *meant* to be hyperbolic. It’s meant to be about things you *aren’t* overly sensitive about. Typically it’s also not supposed to be about things you *can’t* change, (This can sometimes be ok if you are close) and there is a limit to what is acceptable. If you admit that a topic is off the table, it’s supposed to be respected or understood there may be consequences. Most importantly, there is a clear and known inherent risk of going after a female loved one in a serious way. As a culture huge on respect, on hierarchy, on honour, it’s something only the brave or stupid do, if it’s not 100% clear that it’s a ridiculous joke.
Black Women’s Hair
When I was in college I survived most of a year before I broke and had to ask my white friends *why* they were constantly making fun of Black women for weave. I had had a long night and suddenly I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew they didn’t know why it was bothering me and although angry, I turned to them and asked “do you know *why* black women wear weave?” They stared at me and I started to shake. I remember dumping a huge history and culture lessons on their heads and then walking away to cry. I was lucky to be considered to have “good hair” and so keeping my pride, beauty, and feelings of humanity were never tied to my hair.
But this didn’t stop me from witnessing its importance to so many of the Black women around me. Hair isn’t just hair. Because of this country’s racism, hair is political. It has been used as a marker of our supposed inferiority. It’s been a major factor in our ability to move up in the world. It’s a symbol of our difference to white people and it’s only been in the last 20 years of the last 500 of us being here that there is not only knowledge of how to care for our hair as it grows out of our head but an unwillingness to accept what white people deem as acceptable. There are *just* 12 states that don’t allow hair discrimination in 2022. In most places, it’s still possible to lose your job, not get a job, or have issues in the military for having your hair how it grows out of your head, or in a style suited for it.
So, over the years Black women have been creative about modifying or changing their hair. Most of which are dangerous and harmful. Combine this with the importance of personal style, beauty salons being a safe place to connect and be seen as a human being, along with the struggle with internalised racism around what it means to be beautiful and we have a HUGE deal. One so huge, there is a whole movement around both loving Black hair as is and activism to stop discrimination around it. There have been multiple books, songs and documentaries made about it.
One documentary, made by the same man who made a cruel joke about a Black woman’s hair loss condition, is all about the importance of it to Black women.
That’s not to say there are no jokes about Black women’s hair but it’s almost always seen as kicking down, particularly if it’s out of their control and/or hair loss.
Before I pull all this together and discuss the problem with the uninformed reactions to this moment, I want to point out something. This piece: It’s two am, I needed 2 hours of therapy yesterday and will be back into therapy tomorrow for another 2, as well as a different consultation later this week. I’m tired. I’m weary and going through it personally. This is purely an act of unseen labour. Y’all could have sat back, y’all could have recognised your opinion wasn’t informed, looked into *why* this happened, without me needing to spell it out. But, so many non-blacks didn’t even take the time to consider thinking critically. As I said in this post, either you take the time to do the work when you mess up or you consider paying for an expert to do it for you.
I… feel like I am not allowed to say this or that centering myself in the middle of this piece that may detract from my point. Or that I don’t even put out content enough to say stuff like this. Black men aren’t really allowed to have feelings or ask for respect or support. I’m worried if I personally am asking for more than I deserve or if I should be softer here and yet it needs to be said.
So often, I read about how Black folk should be willing to just explain things, so here I am doing it, so some other Black soul doesn’t need to. If you value this work, this education, support it. You can also check this out if finaces are tight and my patreon.
By this point, I hope it’s clear why this was breaking some major taboos and the real weight of “the joke”. It would be bad enough if that was it, but it’s not. There also remains a final important factor. You. Typically Black conflicts happen very intentionally and specifically in private. Losing face is a big deal and it’s always considered best to show a united front. (For exactly this reason btw) So to not only break a ton of unspoken rules but to do so in a formal and more importantly white majority setting… unacceptable. Even those of us who are more pacifistic like myself are mostly understanding of why this happened. Ideal? No. Understandable and maybe even necessary? Yeah.
We all know that the genders are unfairly stereotyped by outsiders due to a history of racism, that anything outside of being “respectable” (by white values) reflects bad on all of us, and that outsiders like to push that; we are animals, our women are overly masculine and our men aren’t masculine enough.
To many, we are seen as a joke.
Like children wearing adult clothing, or pets “thinking they are human”, isn’t it amusing.
Over the years Black men crying have been turned into memes to be laughed at, a Black man having anger is deemed “toxic” by default, having pride is unacceptable, what *are* we allowed to feel? Acting is demonised, non-violent protest is demonised, Black women stepping up to say Black Lives Matter is not respectable enough. When do *we* get to be human? When do we get to have feelings? When do we get to defend our humanity and that of our loved ones, without outsiders deciding if we have gone about it according to *their* values as if there is only one way or one experience in life.
A history of being unable to act in the face of being dehumanised weighs on many of us. So, putting someone in that position, particularly after requests to stop, in front of a non-Black audience both in person and worldwide… while having all this context, is untenable.
The non-black gaze
A double bind is “a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” The choice to take this massive disrespect sitting down, or, not. If you aren’t from our culture you probably won’t get this. Even with what I’ve said I can’t impress the importance of this context.
To see so many non-Black people being on a high horse around something they don’t understand, what they would have did, what their ideals are, is just ignorant and inappropriate. Not because you aren’t Black, but because it’s above your pay grade. This is an issue with the idea of colourblindness around race. Black People are not just brown white people who choose to “act inappropriately”.
Something I say often to people new to considering the importance of culture and context is “Black culture is not a degenerative form of a white culture.” It’s not that we “know” the rules of the values/assumptions/expectations and choose not to adhere to them because we are inferior, but that we operate under different values/assumptions/expectations. That’s why it’s important to know what is white or your culture and what isn’t. Projecting your own culture, cultural baggage, values and expectations onto someone from a very different culture will always make the other party look bad.
Of course, you wouldn’t have reacted the same. You likely aren’t from a culture where having hair is tied to worth, where being dehumanised is a regular occurrence, where breaking unspoken rules and forcing someone to lose face publicly is deemed so unacceptable. But this isn’t about you, the political advocacy you may do in your own culture, your assumptions of masculinity, or the acceptability of what is and isn’t offensive. It’s not really even for outsiders to try to pass judgement about.
Either you have enough context and experience to know why this was more than just “not being able to take a joke” or, you don’t.
Be humble. Sit down.
Resources for context (will continue to be updated over the next few days, but again, I’m tired):
- Good Hair (2009)
- Hair love
- [About the natural hair movement]
About masculinity and the dozens:
Other amazing Black voices:
2 thoughts on “What the context of “the slap” can teach outsiders about Black culture”
I’m starting to get it. Yet I have had 69 years of white insulation from obtaining the understanding that you are choosing to supply, pulling from reserves of amazing strength you are claiming in Obsidian Tea. Thank you.
Your points help provide context; thank you for writing this.