I grew up in the 80’s in the West Texas football town that inspired “Friday Night Lights.” The only turf where whites and blacks mixed better than oil and water was in Ratliff Stadium, and that’s just because there’s a lot of blood in football, and blood isn’t black or white. I didn’t have a single black friend (or enemy) and can’t recall having much interaction with black people at all if we’re talking about people just going about their business and living life like actual human beings and not as Civil Rights leaders via history lessons or athletes on Friday nights. When I was 7 years old, I could tell you the Permian High School Wide Receiver’s weight, his cumuluative GPA and whether he was using his Grandmother’s address for eligibility and, if so, why. By 9, I could tell you how all that data affected his odds of pass completions and if last week’s injury during practice would get in his head this week. I could tell you more often than not what the quarterback thought about all the data on any given play. I was pretty good at this, not just for a girl.
So my only relationship with a black person was basically an impersonal behavioral calculation that somehow made me feel a part of something bigger than what was inside my head. At no cost to me. Which brings me to this particular submission.
The exception to my embarrassingly neurotic and taken-for-granted all-white experience would be “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” in the ’90’s. Not the 1890’s. The characters in this highly unrealistic made-for-tv scenario were the only “black people” who were ever invited into my home. Into a lot of our homes. The Cosby show was a staple for sure, but it didn’t give off the same vibe. It wasn’t sexy. Will Smith was (and is) sexy AND black, and those two categories were supposed to be mutually exclusive in the only world I knew existed. Still, a 21-year-old Smith followed in the giant footsteps of television heartthrobs Michael J. Fox and Kirk Cameron, with the unspoken caveat that none of our parents would have allowed us to “date” a black guy. You know, because Will Smith was super interested in 10 year old entitled white girls.
In real life, Smith was officially off the market the year I graduated high school when he married the beautiful, sexy, sophisticated black actress, Jada. Through the years, I would read sporadic blurbs and updates on Will and Jada Pinkett Smith – kind of silently rooting for them to beat the shit out of the rest of us fighting our gag reflexes as we swallowed the all-American aspartame-sweetened dream on the stairmasters where we read our celebrity gossip magazines.
So that’s where I’m from.
I don’t know how it would feel to be a strong, intelligent and beautiful public figure in my fifties, having arrived in my own right as a woman at the Oscars with my husband and our kids – kids we had somehow managed to raise in a culture where the compass of morality may be just about as broken as the one trampled by West Texas tumbleweeds. I can imagine preparing for an evening without filters, for what would be front and center coverage, this time in the supporting role for my off-the-charts successful and talented husband. I can imagine how it might feel to connect to a true story of a remarkable family who beat the odds and to have played some part in the successful sharing of that story.
In former Harvard professor psychologist, Dr. David Buss’s cross-cultural study of 37 cultures on (heterosexual) mate preference and attraction (Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12:1-49; accessed 2022 http://homepage.psy.utxas.edu), males across cultures prefer mates who are younger, placing highest value on physical attributes including good muscle tone, waist to hip ratio, symmetrical features, healthy skin and lustrous hair and clear eyes. Females prefer “good financial prospects” as the highest trait value in potential long-term partners. The mate-preference similarities across cultures supports Buss’s hypothesis that we humans are more biologically and less culturally driven in our preferences for long time mates. This shit is how we evolved to survive biologically.
Men can be very sensitive about losing their hair. Some take meds that affect their moods to clinically significant levels because they would rather have a full head of hair and less emotional stability than vice versa. Most don’t. Teasing balding men isn’t nice, but it’s not existentially alienating. For women, hair loss makes us much more vulnerable, statistically less preferred in fact – not just culturally, but biologically.
I just did a Google search with one word, “Jada,” and the top 5 results include “jada pinkett smith reaction,” the link to this superstar’s reactions to Chris Rock’s joke about her hair loss as well as numerous media clips of Will Smith’s reaction, Chris Rock’s counter-response and the subsequent fallout. It hovers above the links to “jada pinkett smith movies” and “jada pinkett smith net worth.” Pinkett Smith made headlines in 2021 when she shaved her head and alluded to her Alopecia on Instagram, signaling she could stomach the attention she DID NOT ask for. I’ve never heard jokes at the Oscars about a man losing all of his security – every ability to provide – unless the joke was at the expense of someone whose unethical actions directly caused his losses, a nod to his power over his misfortune.
I also don’t know how it would feel to be nominated for best actor, to have depicted someone else’s life story so effectively and powerfully with my own family beside me. How remarkable for the perpetually young and cool Fresh Prince of Bel Air to connect to all of us in an all-grown-up way, as the street-wise father whose strategy of vacillating hope and anger, manifested by eccentric success-driven behavior, evolved into hard-earned paternal wisdom amidst chronic hurdles, culminating in ultimate success through the remarkable stories of his daughters. Once again, Will Smith had white people in first class airplane cabins paying for a story we can’t claim as our own. We have to claim it as something else.
Finally, I definitely can’t get wrapped around having what it takes to entertain the elite entertainers, modern royalty, on their night of stardom – for all the world to see. The role of court jester was historically both powerful and dangerous. The jester knows that his influence and personal security is dependent on pleasing the monarch. But who is king of the Oscars? Certainly not Richard.
What does all of this mean when it comes to avoiding shit?
Nothing if you’re Will or Jada Pinkett Smith or Chris Rock. Because I write advice about the piles of shit we CAN avoid, the Schadenfreude we CAN prevent. Not all shit can be avoided, and it’s not my privilege to opine on what happened when a bright star momentarily forgot that the rest of us only care about the light. We don’t care if the star exploded and died. Little white girls still wish on those dead stars, and their wishes still come true.
But if you’re not part of the Will Smith or Chris Rock or Richard Williams families…if you’re not black and are not a voting member of the Academy…your opinion on this incident is just another voice in an ever-growing pile of voyeuristic black-and-white shit.