Should slap Smith be condemned more harshly than Chris Rock’s words?

Will Smith didn’t slap Chris Rock in a vacuum. After years of abusive remarks by Rock about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, he slapped black women’s hair more broadly. Black women have been and continue to be the target of hair discrimination, so the topic of black women and their hair is a loaded subject. In Pinkett Smith’s case, she had a medical condition known as alopecia areata that disproportionately affects black women. Rock is definitely a comedian, and the Academy Awards are a time of celebrity “toasting”, and it was meant to be a joke. But apparently, for Smith, it didn’t land that way. Rather than siding with Smith or Rock, I think the situation is much more subtle. And it begs a broader question: Should physical abuse always be judged more harshly than verbal abuse, regardless of context? I do not think so.

Verbal abuse or verbal abuse is often excused as “just a joke,” but as a psychologist, I know that verbal abuse is a form of abuse, and can lead to symptoms of depression and even suicide. The old phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is repeatedly disproved as I watch the mental health, and thus physical health, of children and adults sloughed off by verbal abuse or bullying.

Once, I was seeing a sick child in the hospital who suddenly lost the ability to walk. After extensive medical work, it was determined that his inability to walk was psychiatric, so I was called. It is not uncommon to see scenarios like this in psychiatry, where poor mental health begins to affect a person that their body begins to develop physical symptoms. I entered the patient’s room and sat across from the shy little boy with long hair. We laughed at the video games and then I asked him how school was going. The light left his eyes, and suddenly the child withdrew. Later, she spoke with his parents separately. I learned that the kid was being bullied, in the guise of jokes, about everything from his voice to his hairstyle, and that the school had done little to nothing about it for years. I contacted the school administrator and emailed them inviting them to separate the child from the bullies. “Well, we didn’t see anything physically on the video, so we had no idea it was that bad. I mean, we knew the kids made some hurtful jokes, but we had no idea he was struggling so much.” She explained that these jokes led to the child being taken to the hospital.

Now, you could say this was an extreme case, and it really was. But I’ve seen countless adults and children going through therapy and struggling mentally because of the jokes made about them that they never found comedic. However, these jokes are minimized, excused, and even overlooked, without consequences, and any kind of physical altercation, no matter how harmful, is judged harshly.

Once again, a sick black kid slapped me in the face of a white sick kid. The white kid wasn’t hurt, but a whole protocol was mustered to face the slap. However, the white kid had been calling the black kid an “n-word” and making comments about his brown skin for weeks, and a white crew would watch it happen without interference. They documented in the chart that the white patient used “insensitive words, and was struggling,” but the psychological harm caused by the hate speech of my black child patient was not mentioned. While it makes perfect sense to address the slap, I couldn’t understand why physical action would be treated more seriously than racist hate speech, which is psychologically violent and has a detrimental effect on the health and well-being of black children. I also couldn’t understand why the black kid’s sentence wasn’t contextualized as a direct response to weeks of racist hate speech, rather than just a violent act that came on suddenly. In the end, the black child was punished as a “violent child” and the white child was protected. For me, this was also condoning violence – verbal violence.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people should support physical violence. What I’m saying is that if you’re going to be anti-violence, then you’re going to be anti-everyone The types of violence, not just the forms that interest you personally. If you claim to be sensitive to the potential effects of physical actions, you must also be sensitive to the potential effects of verbal actions. Sometimes the jokes are not as entertaining for those they target, and they can be just as harmful as physical violence. Words can hurt and hurt her.

Amanda J. Calhoun, MD, MPH, Resident physician in adult/child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center/Yale University School of Medicine. She is also the Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project at Yale University.

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