Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars and the first thing that happened was a bunch of projecting and people – mostly white people – clicking their tongues and shaking their heads while saying, “Violence is never the answer” several times in unison as if it were a mantra.
It is 11:23PM and I am at my desk after having spent a whole day with my every nerve on fire thinking about this and wondering if I am triggered, traumatized, or both, as a black man in America.
The reduction of this whole thing to unreasonable violence, to Will being an angry man, to Jada being largely ignored by everyone commenting for the most part, I find myself in a whirlpool of having to reckon with being told “This is your place as a minority in this country”.
Maybe that sounds dramatic for you, so let me tell you about how I grew up.
As a kid, there was plenty of silliness and humor to go around, but there was a very particular type of wisdom and warning we got at an early age. It was that we needed to be careful about how we said things and to whom we said them because “you might run into the right one on the wrong day” and there would be a reckoning. This was the first boundary I ever learned: you need to be thoughtful about the things you do and say to others or there will be consequences. That is how the world works.
The phrases to pass on that wisdom were many and most black people* will know more than a few if you ask them.
When things came to a head – as they sometimes do – and things got physical, the fight would ensue and people would get that out. After a while, people would step in and we would talk things out in our own way. That was it and we moved on.
As I got older, I learned that People Who Don’t Look Like Me ™ did not have that conversation. They never had to mind their words. If something happened, they were never asked how they contributed to that problem. They didn’t get popped and then have to have the convo of “now what did we learn?”
Instead, they were told that words were just words and they should never be on the receiving end of any consequences for them. Ever. Now we’re here in the today of things and these people grew up to have the power to determine if I get to live or not as a matter of federal law.
Now, let’s talk about non-violence.
Sure, we can agree that physical violence (I’ll come back to this) is not something we want to establish as a standard response to frustration, anger, or hurt. However, to make that a reality we can live in, I need to know that I have a community of people who will step right in when I am being wronged and leverage the power of community to make sure that injustice does not stand. I have lived my whole life absent that community outside of… you know… the people that grew up hearing the same wisdom and warning that I grew up with.
Additionally, pacifism is a whole lifestyle and spiritual practice that most people haven’t dipped even so much as a toe into, so that’s off the table for this discussion unless that is your actual living practice.
Now, let’s talk about you.
You have read the news and seen people who look like me being murdered in cold blood with no consequence. You have witnessed the abuse of various marginalized genders by the score. You have seen all of these things televised worldwide. You’ve seen the people who get away with things and the people who don’t.
In the midst of all of that, when I ask you where you stand, your responses are things like:
- “You’re so strong. I don’t know how you deal with this. I couldn’t.”
- “I couldn’t imagine. This is so awful. I’m sorry this is happening to you.”
- “I don’t know how you manage to keep your composure.”
- “Let us know how we can help and support you.”
When I make my asks clear and say things like “talk to your racist relatives”, “let people who are transphobic know they aren’t welcome in your spaces”, “don’t invite bigots to your games”, “be very public about where you stand on intersectional issues”, “amplify the voices of black people and don’t center yourself or your feelings when you see us expressing our thoughts and feelings”, the response is usually something like…
“I don’t like to get… you know… political. I mean you’re right. You’re absolutely right and these things are terrible and what have you for sure and there should be some kind of justice for this somehow, but I don’t think it’s my place to do… all of that”
So then, what now? Because somehow, whenever this comes up and I tell you “this is my response to being wronged”, then I am told this isn’t the civil way to do things and I should find a better way. When I then propose, “Help me make a world where I don’t have to deal with this”, you tell me that I’m on my own; this is my fight and not yours and I should try to figure it out.
Let’s ask a question and I want you to level with me on this.
Is it the inconvenience? Is it that you’re having to learn what I’ve been told all my life? Is it that you’re seeing consequences enacted in real time by people that you feel – in the depths of your soul – don’t have the right to enact them?
You see, there’s an overlap when it comes to this subject. The people who said Will shouldn’t act out and that I shouldn’t act out also had no words when people were building nooses at the White House…
Or when people had trucks driven through crowds of people peacefully protesting for an end to abuse of police power…
Or when Eric Garner got choked on the street…
Or when your friends and family casually comment about world events and let their racism, sexism, ableism, or LGBTQIA+ phobia show…
Or when people are out of pocket at your workplace with their jokes and microaggressions…
Or when people are out of pocket on your socials and streams with racism, ableism, etc…
Or when people came out the woodwork on disgusting levels of disrespect for Jada…
Not that the form really matters; look at the treatment Colin Kaepernick received for kneeling during the anthem. Which is to say that there’s never anyone willing to stand with me until it gets to the breaking point and then there’s never a reckoning with the forces that lead to that point. In fact, I’m usually told “It doesn’t matter what that situation is – and I’m sorry that these things happened – but you’re not supposed to fight back. That’s not the way.”
Or to put it more bluntly, that’s not your place.
Meanwhile, you’re also in my DMs or at the water cooler in hushed tones telling me several minutes after watching someone do me wrong in the wide open, “That wasn’t right, someone should have said something” and never wondering why you have yet to ever let that someone be you.
Meanwhile, you will watch someone verbally degrade and humiliate someone and go “Sure that was mean and cruel and personal, but that’s never a reason to hit someone. They’ve been like that for years, anyway. That’s just how they are. If it really gets to you, you should tell HR about it.” Mind, the same HR that’s had this person on the payroll for the last 12 years and counting in spite of the fact that they get several complaints for being inappropriate per day.
As if that isn’t also violence.
Meanwhile, you watch stories of voter intimidation while people exercise what we espouse as the greatest right in this country* and when people come with guns to intimidate the voters in places with a concentration of BIPOC, it’s just a shame.
For some reason, none of that registers as violent to you in the same way something more physical does. That doesn’t warrant more effort on your part than telling me – on the receiving end of this behavior – if you ignore them, it will go away. Then watching my behavior and ready to sanction it if I don’t do exactly that.
I should send you my therapy invoices so you can pay for the years I spent not inconveniencing you by popping people in the mouth the first, second, third, or fourth time the disrespect happened.
At this point, my questions are many, but here’s my main one: if you’re that willing to remain silent as things happen to me, then why don’t you maintain that energy when myself or others finally snap? It’s a pattern, to be sure and the most marginalized among us always seem to be on the bad end of it every time it comes up.
At this point, it’s really hard not to believe that this civility you’re asking for relies on people like me not physically enforcing boundaries on how you treat me. Even moreso, that this is somehow attached to the fact that you particularly want you and your circles not to be subject to the consequences of their actions.
That seeing these boundaries enforced in the real world has you shook to the core because you then have to worry that it might be you one day.
Look at the responses of comedians versus, say, disabled people. Look at the responses of white people versus non-white people. Look at the responses of black women versus non-black women. Look who is being defended and who is being derided.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right..”
You’re right, they don’t. But several uncorrected wrongs and the lack of support from literally anyone makes physical enforcement of my boundaries necessary. Because you – and people like you – absolutely will not and you’ve made that clear by your actions and inactions.
While we’re here, tho: where is all of this noise for the people who are being disrespectful and oppressive? If you’re not going to say things to them, then be about that life and remain silent on how we decide we want to handle things. Don’t say anything. Leave us alone and go be privileged somewhere.
Actually, let’s zoom in on that. Let’s enhance. Because the demand that you have a voice to state how hurting people are and aren’t allowed to respond to being hurt and never addressing what causes the hurt unless it is in the most dismissive ways possible is saying a whole lot. The opportunity to assert your privilege in this regard is never missed even as our whole community is like “whatever happened here is honestly an intra-communal thing and we can handle that on our own”.
More specifically, your demand that this be heard and validated before I or anyone’s experiences are because it’s always more important somehow. The pattern feels a bit too familiar. A bit too much like, “you’re not allowed to be human in my eyes until you recognize you stepped out of line.”
Instead, we get “Here is our decree on what should have happened and how things should have gone and how I can’t believe people would stoop to this level. Violence should never be an answer or response even as you are subject to people saying awful things, doing awful things around you, building structures that constantly place them in positions of power that will always harm you if you try to do better…”
I really have to wonder why so many people feel it is appropriate to make villains out of people, but then again when it comes to situations like this, the people who hold power always prefer to reward those who do not make them uncomfortable.
I can’t help thinking of the many comedians who are afraid of consequences finding them because, somehow, with the many years of standup they have done, they can’t think of better material than being racist, ableism, or LGBTQIA+ phobic which I will then have to be subject to from the mouths of people who would just as soon see me dead.
And yes, that’s you and your circles. You should unpack that. Specifically why, in 2022, you shouldn’t get popped right in the mouth for being on some bullshit in public when we know the only reason you do that is because people like you have made it seem like the height of morality to let blatant disrespect and disregard for people’s lives go unchecked somehow.
As if choosing to suffer years of disrespect is something to aspire to when you’re never the ones who have to be on the receiving end of it to the degree that most do on the daily.