Even when you’re black and rich, or black and powerful, you’re always black first.
If you didn’t notice, a story about social workers investigating Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and their family swept through the blogosphere today. Last week, an Instagram photo showing their 13-year-old daughter, Willow, and a shirtless 20-year-old male family friend sitting on a bed drew ire from fans and media commentators alike. Was the “controversial” photo “inappropriate?” asked US Weekly. Another news story reported that “the picture has raised concerns they’ve taken their relationship farther than she should at her age.” (I’ll avoid analyzing everything wrong with that sentence moving so quickly from “they” to “she.”)
This is not the first time that the Smiths have been criticized for their parenting decisions. From hairstyles to clothing choices, their childrearing techniques have been held under a microscope for the public eye.
In some ways this is fairly typical of Hollywood families. Photos of celebrities and their kids are probably responsible for much of the American economy, and tabloids go crazy for any insight into their everyday lives.
But let’s be clear: There was nothing illegal happening in that photo. Besides the seemingly ubiquitous knee-jerk hypersexualization of black female bodies (with or without a bed in the frame), there was nothing even remotely illicit or erotic in its content. And that’s pretty much how Willow’s mom, Jada Pinkett, responded to criticism about the picture: “There was nothing sexual about that picture or that situation. You guys [reporters] are projecting your trash onto it. And you’re acting like covert pedophiles and that’s not cool.”
Yes. This. 100%.
I don’t remember government investigation into the Cyrus family home after 15-year-old Miley posed semi-nude for Vanity Fair. I don’t remember social workers intervening in the Lohan household despite her early years of alcohol abuse and family trouble. God, even Woody Allen has managed to adopt two daughters with no issues after marrying one and being accused of molesting another. And for these reasons, and more, this rumored investigation into the Smith/Pinkett household has me a bit heated. It comes down to being black.
A recent Michigan study shows that children of color are more than twice as likely to be separated from their parents for reports of abuse and neglect. Black women are far more likely to be criminally punished for giving birth to sick infants and prosecuted for drug addiction. And this trend only grows. In fact, just last month, Tennessee became the first state to authorize the arrest and incarceration of a pregnant woman struggling with substance abuse. In hospitals, black women and babies are much more likely to be drug tested than their white counterparts (and more likely to be prosecuted for false positives).
In short, the black family has a long history of being inspected, surveilled, investigated, and separated by the state in a way that white families never endure.
And being famous doesn’t seem to inoculate them from this pattern.
In discussing his notion of governmentality, French philosopher Michel Foucault described our society’s obsession with managing, ordering, and regulating people according to biological binaries, young versus old, male versus female, black versus white. In such a system, white families are held up as models, while black families are always subject to suspicion and oversight.
Then there’s this: At least five states still allow parents to marry off daughters as young as 13 to adult men. So state-sanctioned statuatory rape is literally on the books, but a photo of a fully clothed child doing nothing more than sitting with someone of the opposite sex gets everyone all riled up.
Look, I’m hoping that none of the rumors are true. But if they are, I remain concerned about the extent to which race is a factor in how all of this plays out. I’m reminded, yet again, even when you’re black and rich, or black and powerful, you’re always black first.
If the Los Angeles Child Protective Services department has time on their hands and want to investigate potentially at-risk children in entertainment, I can think of lots of other families that should be on the top of that list.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.