Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Comedy of Errors: Race, Gender, and Chris Rock

By Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In a summer issue of Vibe Magazine, one of the items in the“20 Questions” feature questioned whether or not Chris Rock had a problem with Black women based on his latest standup routine. Anyone who knows Chris Rock and his brand of humor understands that much of his material is racial, political, and social commentary. To hear that he has some things to say about Black women really comes as no surprise, but the buzz around his new material suggested that something different was afoot.

Because of the controversy, I was interested in seeing the routine for myself and when it finally aired on HBO September 27, I saw what many folks have been discussing. His take on the possibility of having a Black first lady set the tone for his entire routine. Specifically, a Black man with a Black wife can never be president “because a Black woman cannot play the background of a relationship.” His solution? “Get a White girl…because a White girl will play her position.” From there he went on to describe all the ways Black women are domineering, unsupportive, manipulative, materialistic, and every other stereotype imaginable.

So what is the problem many are having with all of this? If you believe, like I do, that there is often truth in jest, then it’s easy to make the assumption that perhaps Chris Rock does have some issues with women, Black women in particular, that seem to have manifested on stage. Regardless of Chris Rock’s comments, the larger issue is that this is yet again an unwarranted attack on Black women. From Slavery to Hip Hop we’re over-sexualized objects; from the household to the workplace we are “angry Black women”; and from the silver screen to the TV screen we are the loud, sassy, neck-rolling, unfeminine sidekicks. If we are successful then we are uppity. If we defend ourselves then we are argumentative. If we have opinions then we are emasculating. Our contributions to history, to social movements, to the workplace, and to society are often quickly forgotten. Our continued, and often belabored, support of our communities, our children, our leaders, and our men often goes unappreciated. Our leadership in the home and in the workforce is often trivialized. Our overall success, educational or otherwise, is often resented. This occurs from the classroom to the boardroom—tainting public perception, lowering self-esteem, devaluing an entire group of individuals, and suppressing opportunity. Not surprisingly, such treatment also extends to the realm of politics.

Unfortunately Michelle Obama, a woman who has the grace, intelligence and ability to be a phenomenal first lady, is suffering the same pigeonholed fate. I for one, hope that if Barack Obama wins the presidency, that Michelle will be allowed to take on her new role with a clean slate and that her presence in the White House will have a positive effect not only on the self-esteem of girls and women of color but also on the perception of Black women as a whole.

As for Chris Rock, his opinions are ultimately irrelevant. However, as someone who claims to be a Barack Obama supporter, it seems that his focus should be on helping Barack become president instead of projecting his own issues onto Michelle and all the women she represents. As one blogger named Tami writes, “Do a fan a favor, Chris, stick to the political and social stuff, and save the rest for a therapist.”


  1. Thank you for this insightful commentary. It is unfortunate that such a high profile Black Man is profiteering by belittling and criticizing Black Women. Of course, any negative response on C. Rock will be seen as attacking a brotha". What bothers me most is the "Sistas" who will allow Black Men to get away with it and attack other women who will go after this misrepresentation. I find that we are often are worst critics and demean rather than support each other. Kirwin should definetly develop programming to explore issues where gender and race intersect. Lately, all I've been hearing about are African American Males issues. That's fine, but when the programming is only one- sided it does not present a wholistic picture of a community and only provides single-minded solutions.

  2. This entry is great! Thank you for addressing this issue. Chris Rock crossed the line when he spoke badly about Michelle Obama. It’s unfortunate that a man of the same race would stoop to such a level and magnify the horrible stereotypes of Black women. Black women are perpetually on the bottom of the racial hierarchy and I really wish that more scholars/ social and political thinkers would recognize the issue and explore the possibilities. If the Institute is going to study race, then gender should be another variable and include the experiences of women, as their experiences are very different.

  3. I agree that there are many negative stereotypes about black women. However,the examples of intelligent black women supporting their ambitious husbands is prevalent throughout history. Corretta Scott King (MLK, Jr.'s wife, Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X's wife), Alma Powell (Colin Powell's wife), and now Michelle Obama - just to scratch the surface. There are countless examples, even in the every day lives of those who are not famous. I am not particularly offended by Chris Rock because the foundation of an intelligent black woman, being supportive of her husband is a solid foundation of marriage and committment. Chris Rock and his wife divorced, therefore, Chris Rock is not qualified to speak to the level of committment that is necessary to develop a long lasting loving and supportive relationship. On a macro-level, I believe that serious dialogue and research is necessary regarding race and gender issues as they relate to black women. On a micro-level, I choose to be less burdened by stereotypes; instead, I choose to focus on being a woman who is intelligent, kind, supportive, aventurous, fiscally responsible and independent, and loving - and I happen to be black.

  4. As mentioned previously, Chris Rock is going through a divorce, so there may be a bit of animosity towards black women in his comedy routine. Chris Rock isn't an expert on the black family. He is an entertainer, and in this segment of his routine, black women happened to be the punch line to the joke. I don't take Chris Rock literally. Of course there are Millions of examples of black women who don't adhere to the negative stereotypes mentioned in the comedy routine. You Ms. Angela are an example. As a young black male coming into my 30's, I have just recently started to examine my own views in regard to my opinions and actions towards black women. Like Chris Rock, I still have a lot of work to do. But it's a dialog that we must have in a constructive, not combative nature.

  5. Chris Rock probably is going through hard times, but that does not give him a free pass to make himself feel better at the expense of Black women. Black women have an image problem. When a high profile Black male entertainer goes on stage and perpetuates negative stereotypes that are already prevalent in society, every other entertainer feels emboldened to do the same thing. I, as a Black woman, am sick of being the punchline of every joke. At some point, we need to stop supporting entertainers who are getting rich by destroying our image.