OPINION: Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jane Elliott’s ‘Red Table Talk’ on race misses the mark in the most MAJOR way
“Prejudice is the emotional commitment to ignorance,” Adrienne Banfield-Jones quotes to her daughter Jada Pinkett-Smith, after confessing her initial resistance to accept a white woman who married into their family — and suddenly I found myself thinking, “Ooooh this is gonna be GOOD!!”
I’m a fan of Pinkett-Smith’s family centered Facebook Watch series “Red Table Talk,” and have even been known to send links of the new installments to my friends via text with excited messages like, “Ya’ll gotta watch this. NOW!”
So when I heard that this week’s episode was going to be on race, I got excited and prepared to jot down any gems that may come from it.
Monday’s episode started off with the 47-year-old actress, her mother and her daughter Willow Smith, all coming clean about their hesitance around white people, and the painful experiences that caused them to react that way.
“Because of the hurt and the tragedy and everything that has happened in our past, we have PTSD,” Willow admits with a wisdom beyond her years, as her mother and ridiculously gorgeous grandmother nod in agreement.
What makes the discussion more interesting than most is that the ladies also come clean about how racism, at the hands of white women, has its own sting and added layers of betrayal and resentment.
“I think what crushes me specifically in regards to my relationship with white women [and] the thing that really breaks my heart… is that white women understand what it feels like to be oppressed,” says Pinkett-Smith
“Because of their sex,” interjects Willow.
“Exactly! Because of their sex,” she responds. “[They know] what it feels like to be ostracized or not be treated as an equal.”
As someone who writes about race quite extensively —while also having a decent amount of white friends — this moment hit home for me. My work makes ignoring the topic of race nearly impossible, and so early on I had to decide how I was going to navigate my intimate friendships with white counterparts while still being true to myself.
Given the two decades that Pinkett-Smith has lived as an A-list actress in lily white Hollywood, one would think that this would’ve been a topic she would have confronted and made peace with as well.
Yet, surprisingly, after her mother reads that quote about prejudice being, “the emotional commitment to ignorance,” she comes clean about triggers she’s never been able to move past.
“Well I have to admit, I’m guilty to a certain degree,” Pinkett-Smith says while throwing her hands up in surrender. “Because I do have my own biases.”
“Blond hair on white women just triggers me,” she continues, and then shares how she was mercilessly bullied by white women who fit that description in regards to her appearance.
“And now look at me…now I have blond hair!” she laughs, which then segue-ways into her mother pointing out that Black women are subjected to a European standard of beauty while white women get applauded for appropriating the styles Black women had (and were demonized for) all along.
That gotcha moment
At this point, I’m saying my usual, “Amen!” to the screen and feeling like a favorable review of this episode is almost inevitable.
I become especially attentive when racial diversity teacher Jane Elliott, who became popular with millennials after clips of her went viral on social media, joins in the discussion to add her own expertise.
“I’m not a white woman, I’m a faded Black person,” Elliott announces at the table. “My people [are those who are] far from the equator and that’s the only reason my skin is lighter. That’s all any white person is.”
To which the stunned Girls Trip star responds with, “Wow.”
The conversation gets energized as the 85-year-old quickly breaks down racism in the same easy to digest way that she’s become known for over the last 50 years, and despite the peculiarity of her initial “I’m not a white woman,” statement – at this point I’m still hopeful.
Next to chocolate covered strawberries, and direct deposit, white people who do their own homework (without expecting Black people to explain EVERYTHING about racism) are on my list of favorite things on the planet. So for a second I was excited to see how this conversation would play out.
That is, until Elliot fell into the oversimplified trap of saying, “We are all one race,” and dragged Jada Pinkett-Smith, her mama, and her only girl child into that pit of nonsense with her.
On the surface her facts are sound.
Yes— the concept of race was conceptualized in the 1400s as a result of the Spanish inquisition. So it is true that race is indeed a man-made construct, but um… so is money!
Why do people insist on using that one fact as some sort of “gotcha!” during otherwise intelligent conversations about race relations?
Being man-made doesn’t negate the power, influence or harm that something can create in people’s lives. Being man-made doesn’t make radical ideologies about racial hierarchies any less deadly or effective.
And to be clear, man-made race isn’t even the problem…RACISM is.
When we dismiss race during conversations about the ugliness of racism, that is not only dangerous, but also dismissive as hell. Race and racism aren’t interchangeable; one is an identity and the other is a disease.
For the record: I don’t want to stop being seen as Black.
I love my Blackness, I love my people, my culture, our traditions, and all the amazing things that we’ve been able to contribute to the world. So being Black has never – and will never – be the issue. The less than human way that my people are treated BECAUSE we’re Black is.
When you tell a non-white person that you are “color blind,” and “don’t see race,” whether you realize it or not, you are also telling that person that you don’t see all the lived experiences attached to their race – both bad and good.
And that my friends, is called erasure.
I was a bit disappointed (and high-key) dismayed that after five decades of teaching about diversity, Elliot could go on such a widely viewed platform and miss the mark so heavy-handedly, by making “We’re all one race,” the lions-share of her message to viewers.
In fact, she repeats that mantra so much, it damn near puts Pinkett-Smith into a state of hypnosis, causing her to end the segment by boldly declaring that seeing everyone as just “one race” is “the cure” to racial tensions.
Chile, throw that whole last segment away!
As much as I LOVE Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will Smith, and what they (usually) preach about as a family, this is one time when I literally had to stifle the urge to throw my iPad out the window in frustration.
Which just goes to show, studying something for half a century, will still never be the same as living it, each and every day of your damn life.
Because the real “cure” to what divides us is to first, stop letting white people explain to Black people how to fix what they broke on purpose — even the cute, super woke, seemingly harmless, old-white people whose soundbites keep going viral on the internet.
Jane has been an asset to the cause and therefore may still be invited to somebody’s barbecue, but after today I’ll probably never eat her potato salad.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric