I’ve had a lot of occasion this week to think about two small pieces of my personal history: one in which I slapped someone, and one in which someone slapped me.
The time I was slapped was a relief. I was in middle school and had been subject to bullying for months. It wasn’t the physical violence kind of bullying, it was the mean white girl kind. The popular girl leading the bullying effort did things like invent mythical vermin that allegedly lived on my body and would get on anyone who got too close, so lunch involved me alone on one side of a long rectangular table while every other girl in the class turned their trays sideways and crowded together on the other side so no one would have to sit next to me. It was real shitty. One day in gym class, the previously-least-popular girl who didn’t understand all the rules of how to be a mean white middle school girl committed a faux-pas by actually hitting me, open handed, across my face. It left a clearly visible red handprint on my cheek that neither our gym teacher nor the principal could ignore. The adult attention her slap brought to my situation soon ended it. Because she hit me, I was bullied for months instead of years. I wish she had hit me sooner.
The time I slapped someone else I was an adult. My partner at the time said something out of pocket to me and before either of us understood what was happening I slapped him. As someone with very little personal experience of nonconsensual physical violence, I don’t have much of a relationship with my own capacity for perpetrating it, so when the impulse to slap him arose I didn’t have any tools for handling it. Because my partner did have those tools, I didn’t get hit back in that moment. We both just stopped, shocked at what I’d just done. He apologized for saying the out of pocket thing, and I apologized for hitting him. We stayed together for some years after that incident. Nothing like it happened again between us.
So, were those events awesome?
Were mistakes made?
Was the time I slapped someone on the top ten lists of worst things I’ve done?
Was the time I got slapped on the top ten list of worst things I’ve experienced?
For sure not.
How many of the things on those top ten lists involved physical violence?
In the aftermath of these instances of white-on-white face-slapping, basically no one talked about violence at all. We looked for the larger pattern of what was going on such that someone who doesn’t usually run around hitting people hit somebody once. We involved no cops. No one was prosecuted or censured or suspended or even broken up with. People apologized. We turned our attention to the larger problems in which the slap was situated. We moved on.
So, when legions of white women respond to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock by saying “violence is bad!” over and over again as though it is simple, I call bullshit. Deep white cultural bullshit. Deep white cultural bullshit that the many people spewing it earnestly believe, but bullshit nonetheless.
Marimba Ani defines a rhetorical ethic as a statement of value or “moral” behavior that exists for export only. A rhetorical ethic sounds like a universal statement of the values by which all should abide, but the people who preach it don’t actually use it to guide our own behavior, only to limit others’. By sounding universal but in practice applying only to non-white people, rhetorical ethics are effective tools white people use to disarm our intended victims.
“Violence is bad” is a rhetorical ethic, trotted out reflexively in moments like this by well-intentioned white women who don’t understand the cunning hypocrisy with which white supremacy is using our good intentions to further its own racist purposes. White folks have been using this particular rhetorical ethic as a tool to dominate and control Black people for centuries, while ironically (but somehow with no sense of irony) perpetrating our own violence against them. “That was assault, he should be arrested” is just what it sounds like this week.