Essay 13: Thank You, Will Smith
Something extraordinary happened during the live 2022 Oscar ceremony. Chris Rock, a well-known comedian, was about to present the award for Best Feature Documentary. Before doing so, he looked at Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of actor Will Smith with whom she was seated at a table in the front of the theater, and using an old movie reference, made a joke about her short hair. Jada’s facial expression made it clear she did not appreciate being the object of the joke, presumably because her hairstyle is the result of alopecia and not personal preference. Her husband got up, slowly walked the short distance to the stage, and shockingly slapped Chris Rock.
Millions of viewers witnessed the event and far more had the opportunity to see it the following day. The range of responses from the famous and beautiful was broad and ran the gamut from those who condoned to those who condemned Will Smith’s actions. While I find both the incident and some of the reactions troubling, they provide an opportunity to focus on a problem in our society that needs addressing.
Will Smith’s formidable slap of the unsuspecting Chris Rock was a violent, aggressive act. Nothing subtle about it. Less obvious are what are termed microaggressions. If you are not familiar with this term, here is one definition:
A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
A few examples:
–Asking a person who is non-white where they are from.
–A white-skinned person saying to a person of color that all lives matter.
–Commenting to someone for whom English is a second language, “your English is very good.”
–A white-skinned person telling a person of color that their skin color is irrelevant.
We can debate whether the above statements are inherently aggressive. I would argue that most often they are not intended to be. Still, I am white and therefore assumed to be unable to understand the effect of microaggressions on vulnerable groups. Are white people naturally protected from microaggressions? Do people of color lack whatever it is that makes white people immune? What about subtle religious or ethnic slurs against white people? Do they count as microaggressions, or are they in some other category?
My adolescent male friends and I spent hours in a sophomoric game where we tried as best we could to insult each other. The recipient was expected to laugh at the verbal assault and then try and best the assaulter. We learned two valuable lessons during those verbal sparring sessions. The first was how to think quickly. The faster the barb was returned, the greater stature accrued to the respondent. Lesson number two was the more important. No one can make you feel bad unless you let them. All the power lies with the recipient of the insult, not the deliverer.
Victor Frankl, the author of the well-known book, Man’s Search for Meaning, succinctly and elegantly expressed this concept. “That everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If I could teach a young person a single lesson in life, this would be the one. You, and only you, have the power to determine how you feel about anything and everything. Let’s return to one of the examples of microaggressions. You are an immigrant to the US and are asked by someone where you are from. If you believe that the questioner seeks to diminish you, you have the option to ignore both the question and that individual. Or you can instead give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they wish to befriend you, and tell them. The choice is yours and yours alone. You hold the power.
The moment you allow another’s words to hurt or intimidate, you have voluntarily and foolishly relinquished that power. You have transferred control of how you feel to that individual. No one can hurt you with words unless you hand that power to them. Victor Frankl was a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp. He suffered far greater indignities than microaggressions. He learned that he was always in possession of the greatest power of all, how he chose to feel about all of the horrors around him. That is how he survived an unimaginable hell.
Contrast Victor Frankl’s situation with one of today’s typical grievances. A graduate student complained to her professor about another student’s joke during an in-class discussion. She felt it was insensitive and insisted that the professor take action. What should the professor have done?
Two concepts are in play. First, that student does not understand that in relationships between adults no intermediaries need or should exist. If someone says or does something you don’t like, take it up directly with that person. This rule applies to all adult relationships. Romantic relationships. Friendships. Son-in-law and mother-in-law. The relationship is always direct. If you have an issue with someone, that person, and only that person, is the one with whom you should address the concern. Dragging others into the mix is not only unproductive, it often leads to a worse outcome as additional relationships become unnecessarily strained. The professor should have politely declined to mediate.
Our graduate student also failed to recognize that by asking the teacher to intervene, she had relinquished her power to the other student and the professor. Instead of having total control of her feelings, she was now at the mercy of two strangers. Would she have given either of them the keys to her home? Would she have given them the password to her bank account? She would never have relinquished control of those things, yet she was willing to let them determine her state of mind.
Recall that our common purpose is to move from self-centered to selfless, from inward to outward-focused. Claiming to suffer a microaggression requires one to surrender his or her power to another and to then compound the problem by focusing on one’s own needs instead of focusing outward. We should, by default, assume the best of others. If it turns out our goodwill was in vain, we have lost nothing. One can only be diminished by his or her own misdeeds, never by those of another.
We need to permanently retire the concept of microaggressions. It is a juvenile construct. No matter the color of your skin, your nation of origin, your religion, or any other identifier, you alone have the power to determine how you feel about any situation. Never give that power away.
Chris Rock knew that he could not be diminished by Will Smith or anyone else. That is why he remained composed and exceedingly generous during and after the episode. As for Will, we should wish him only the best going forward. He is no different than the rest of us. He made a mistake. He will learn from it. Life is preparation.
Next: Division By Identity
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2022