Chris Rock’s ‘Selective Outrage’ draws a strange line in the sand
Comedian’s recent deference to white people rings strange in light of his previous work
The ending of Chris Rock’s newest Netflix comedy special, Selective Outrage, has been intensely debated since it was released over the weekend. Nearly a year after The Slap at the Oscars, many tuned in to finally hear Rock’s thoughts on Will Smith. And the comedian didn’t hold back. Rock’s tirade directed toward Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, lasted several minutes before he concluded with a clear-cut response to why he didn’t fight back after the Fresh Prince struck him on live television.
“Because I got parents. Because I was raised,” Rock said during the special. “And you know what they taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people.”
While there’s no question Rock is still angry at the humiliation he suffered — though he insisted he isn’t a victim — many saw the closing moments of Selective Outrage, and the special as a whole, as the comedian pandering to white folks.
Sure, back in the day some Black people felt it was important to “act right” in front of white folks as a way to fight against stereotypes, but as we’ve seen before, no amount of respectability can keep us safe. Still, Rock seemed to lean into criticizing Black people the most in Selective Outrage. During his set, Rock called the former Meghan Markle stupid because she purportedly didn’t know the royal family was racist. “Acting all dumb, like she don’t know nothing,” he joked. “Going on Oprah like, ‘I didn’t know. I had no idea how racist they were.’ It’s the royal family! You didn’t Google these muthaf—ers?” While Rock acknowledged her difficulty as a Black woman vying for acceptance from her white in-laws, he juxtaposed it with the problem white women face being accepted in Black families (he even threw in a Kardashians love Black men joke) — further lending credence to criticism of how Rock has talked about Black women throughout his career.
Rock had a history of chastising his Black female guests on his HBO show in the late 1990s, made a Netflix special in 2018 essentially about his ex-wife, and a documentary titled Good Hair. And that was before the Oscars joke about Pinkett Smith’s bald head that led to the slap. In Selective Outrage, Rock continued to go in on the couple, claiming Pinkett Smith started the feud.
“Years ago, his wife said I should quit the Oscars ’cause her man didn’t get nominated for Concussion,” Rock said, referring to Pinkett Smith’s push for Black stars to boycott the 2016 Academy Awards. “And then her husband f—ing gives me a concussion.” Rock then turned his ire to Pinkett Smith specifically, claiming, “She starts it, I finish it. Nobody’s picking on this b—-.” All this took place in Baltimore, Pinkett Smith’s hometown.
Rock’s jokes about NBA star Draymond Green’s complexion also raised a few eyebrows. In one segment, he quipped that Black folks check behind their babies’ ears after they’re born to “see what kind of Black child you’re gonna get.” “Is this a Steph Curry baby, or a Draymond Green baby? That Draymond baby gon’ have a hard life,” Rock said, before taking another jab at Green’s skin color, describing him as ” ‘sneak up on you’ black.”
In another part of the special, Rock compared the four-time NBA champion to a dirty pillowcase. “The other night, I am trying to get some sleep … couldn’t sleep,” he said. “Suddenly, it dawned on me. This pillowcase is filthy. Are we supposed to change this? I flipped it over. It was black and greasy. I was like, did Draymond Green sleep on this?”
Like racism, colorism isn’t unique to the Black community. It’s a byproduct of colonialism, affects communities around the world, and conversations about the effects of colorism, and the harm it causes, have expanded over the years. Because of this, Green makes for a strange target. It’s doubtful many would think of him as an A-list superstar in a population of non-NBA watchers.
Sure, roasting people is a part of comedy. BET’s ComicView, a stand-up showcase from the 1990s, was filled with comedians mocking audience members for laughs. In one of the biggest stand-up comedy movies ever, The Original Kings of Comedy, D.L. Hughley roasts attendees throughout his set, and the film includes a legendary exchange between comedian Steve Harvey and a man in the audience who walked out while he was on stage. But Rock’s jokes about Green didn’t feel funny, they just felt old. And they led many to wonder who Rock’s intended audience really was.
Even before the special aired, people on social media began circulating a 2011 clip of Rock with fellow comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and Louis CK on HBO’s Talking Funny. During the episode, Rock called Louis CK “the Blackest white guy I f—ing know” because he apparently encompasses “all the negative things we think about Black people.” Louis CK responds, “You’re saying I’m a n—?” And Rock said, “Yes. You are the n—rest f—king white man.” While Rock, Louis CK, and Gervais enjoy hearty laughs, Seinfeld questions Louis CK’s ability to say the N-word because he’s white. After admitting both he (Louis CK) and Rock use the word on stage, Seinfield explains that he doesn’t use the word because, “I haven’t found the humor in it. Nor do I seek it.”
For many, that conversation was a fulcrum point about Rock’s relationship to whiteness. It forced people to examine if Rock’s jokes are from within the community or if he’s performing for people outside it. After all, he claims he won’t fight in front of white people because of how his parents raised him, but he’ll joke about the N-word with three white men? The disconnect between Rock’s seeming obsession with respectability feels even more jarring when compared with his previous work, where he didn’t back down from confronting tough topics.
In his 2004 special Never Scared, Rock had a bit about the state of the country and the political climate in which he mentioned James Byrd Jr., a Black man who was brutally beaten by three white men before they hitched him to their truck and dragged him for several miles until he died. Rock’s point, to many Black folks in America, white racists are scarier, and deadlier, than foreign terrorists.
“Everybody’s trying to scare us … I ain’t scared of Al-Qaeda. I’m from Brooklyn, I don’t give a f— about Al-Qaeda,” he quipped at the time. “Did Al-Qaeda blow up the building in Oklahoma? No. Did Al-Qaeda put anthrax in your mail? No. Did Al-Qaeda drag James Byrd down the street till his eyeballs popped out of his f—king head? No. I ain’t scared of Al-Qaeda, I’m scared of Al Cracker.”
In his 1999 special, Bigger & Blacker, Rock lamented about the country’s racial climate before telling the audience: “If you’re Black, America is like the uncle that paid your way through college … but molested you.” Furthermore, he acknowledged white privilege was so good even a white man in a wheelchair wouldn’t want to try being Black. “[He] wouldn’t trade places with me, and I’m RICH,” Rock said.
The Oscars don’t have a great history of respecting Black contributions to the art form. To many, his protection of last year’s event didn’t make much sense. And, it’s OK if Rock didn’t want to fight or if he was too shocked to even register the slap happened. Still, his focus on not doing it in front of white people appears to be the words of a man vying for their acceptance. If he’s that mindful of not fighting in front of them, he’s also capable of being more cognizant when targeting Black people.