- At the Oscars Sunday, Chris Rock made Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair the butt of a joke.
- Several layers are at play, Pinkett Smith’s identity as a Black woman as well as her journey with hair loss due to alopecia and hair loss.
- Experts say the “joke” can stall progress in accepting and celebrating Black women and their hair.
Chris Rock’s “joke” about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair hit different – and not in a good way.
The actress turned heads and garnered praise for her radiant Oscars look Sunday night, which featured an elaborate emerald gown and a shaved head.
Rock, however, used her lack of hair as the butt of a joke while onstage presenting the award for best documentary feature. The comedian said he could n’t wait to see Smith star in “GI Jane 2,” referencing her shaved head. (In response, Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes before Will Smith got up and slapped Rock as he stood on the stage.)
Some say the mocking puts on display the challenges and discrimination Black women face in a society with euro-centric beauty standards, and experts feel the “joke” stung worse coming from Rock – a Black man, a father to Black daughters and the producer of “Good Hair,” which chronicles the journey of Black hair.
“I didn’t see it as a joke,” he says Say Ayodelea skincare expert and author of “Black Skin: The Definitive Skincare Guide,” who called Rock’s words “very offensive.” “I’m really disappointed in Chris Rock for using someone in the Black community who we all love, who has a medical condition, as a joke… I didn’t think it was an acceptable line to go down at all.”
Last summer, Pinkett Smith spoke about her journey with alopecia and severe hair loss, and revealed her daughter Willow Smith was the inspiration for her bold hair transformation.
What causes alopecia? Here’s what Jada Pinkett Smith has said about the condition.
“To use her medical condition as a punchline for his jokes on the worldwide stage, I think that’s unacceptable,” Ayodele says. “And I’m a fan of Chris Rock, but this was completely unacceptable.”
Dr. Caroline Robinson, dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatologysays she didn’t find Rock’s comment funny at all.
“As a dermatologist who sees and treats alopecia daily, I know that this can be a very emotional experience, especially for Black women. I do not think the topic of Black women’s hair has any place in a comedy routine, especially by someone like Chris Rock who’s seen the impact of our relationship to our hair first hand in his ‘Good Hair’ documentary.”
Ayodele adds Rock has had a front-row seat into the 400-year history of Afro hair as well as the treatment and trauma Black women have faced from it. “Chris Rock should know better.”
This situation shows we have “some way to go in accepting and protecting Black women full-stop,” she says.
“There’s an old statement about ‘Black women are the most unprotected group’. Yes, we can be, and this ‘joke’ that he was trying to make just shows that,” she says.
There is a lot more understanding that you have to take place too, Robinson adds.
“There is a huge focus on the men in this situation with little attempt at understanding the woman in this situation and her experience. I think that it’s telling of the gap we have in understanding how standards have impacted Black women.”
Dave Chappelle is accused of ‘punching down’ in ‘The Closer.’ How can comedy go up from here?
Fades, cools and locs:House passes CROWN Act banning race-related hair discrimination
‘Hair is very connected to identity.’
For many Black women, it’s not just hair, explains Ayodele.
“Hair is very connected to identity, especially for Black women. Afro hair, it’s a political thing,” she explains. “At times it’s stood for defiance, it’s stood for safety – during slavery people would use it to hide seeds in so that we could have sustenance, so that we could remember home. It’s been (braided) in ways that gives information to other people about safety… It is so much connected to identity as Black women and defines us in so many ways. And therefore losing it can be traumatic.”
Pinkett Smith has shared the emotions surrounding her hair loss. In 2018, she called the journey “terrifying.”
“My hair has been a big part of me,” she said during an episode of “Red Table Talk.” “Taking care of my hair has been a beautiful ritual — and having the choice to have hair or not. And then one day to be like, ‘Oh my God, I might not have that choice anymore.”
When Robinson speaks to Black women losing their hair, she hears helplessness, pain and fear.
“Beauty standards have historically impacted Black women, in particular, into believing that our hair was not appropriate or needed to be changed. Many of us recall feeling frustrated with our hair growing up,” she explains. “We’ve really entered an era of acceptance and celebrating our hair within our community and I think that makes an alopecia diagnosis particularly difficult right now. I’ve heard so many patients tell me that they felt like they were doing ‘all the things right’ and being gentle with their hair and to experience hair loss despite that feels very defeating.”
Chris Rock’s words hurt people besides Jada Pinkett Smith
According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, about 6.8 million people in the US and 147 million people worldwide have, or will develop, alopecia during their lifetime. Robinson adds more than 50% of Black women will experience hair loss in their lifetime.
“Alopecia is a very common condition amongst Black women, so many other Black women will be feeling the same way and are standing in solidarity with Jada,” Ayodele explains. “Even people who are not Black and perhaps are having chemotherapy or are uncontrollably losing their hair, for someone like Chris Rock to make a joke, not only is it centering Jada but it is also centering other women who are experiencing those same conditions. “
Contributing: Jenna Ryu and Analis Bailey, USA TODAY
Athletes bravely fight autoimmune disease:‘Alopecia doesn’t have us, we have alopecia’
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism