Placing Chris Rock in Conversation with Beverly Daniels Tatum

It seems as though anytime there is a widely-publicized instance of police brutality in the United States, my Facebook timeline is flooded with the same grainy YouTube clip entitled “How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.” In the faux public service announcement filmed in 1998, comedian Chris Rock provides black viewers with a comical step-by-step guide to follow in order to avoid getting into trouble with the law.


The skit is problematic because it perpetuates negative black prejudices, showing only black men breaking laws and acting in a stereotypical thug-like manner, but also because it victim-blames, and implies that acts of police brutality against black people are highly justified. This is displayed through “tips” such as, “Here’s a no brainer: If you’re listening to loud rap music, turn that shit off,” and “We all know what happened to Rodney King, but Rodney wouldn’t have gotten his ass kicked if he had just followed this simple tip: When you see flashing police lights in your mirror, stop immediately. Everybody knows if the police have to come and get you, they’re bringing an ass-kicking with them.” In essence, the skit suggests that those black men who break the law and/or don’t “use common sense” deserve to be beaten by police.

In her article Defining Racism: “Can We Talk?” published just one year before the skit was recorded, Beverly Daniels Tatum discusses the distinguishing factors between racism and prejudice, in conjunction with privilege. Arguing that people of color cannot be racist because they do not systematically benefit from racism, she states that when people of color do have stereotyped feelings towards those members of their own identified group, it is a form of prejudice so named as internalized oppression. Tatum discusses racism in terms of passive racist behaviors and active racist behaviors, using the imagery of an airport conveyor belt as the guiding metaphor for her analysis. In her metaphor, the passive racist is standing still on the conveyor belt, allowing racism to cultivate steadily in the world around them. The active racist, on the other hand, is walking on the conveyor belt, doing something to make racism flourish at a quicker pace.

When placed in conversation with Tatum’s arguments, Chris Rock’s “How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police” is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is true that Chris Rock is black, therefore he cannot be racist. However, I would argue that this skit is definitely doing something to accelerate the presence of racism in society, placing him in the category of an “active racist,” as described by Tatum. The entire clip is essentially a compilation of victim-blaming, strongly suggesting that all those black men violently beaten by police deserve it. Through statements such as, “…maybe you need your ass kicked,” and sounds of a cheering audience placed over footage of police officers beating victims, the video seems to support the notion of police brutality against people of color, especially black men. Instead of suggesting that criminals get reasonable punishment for their wrongdoings, he is saying that those who look and act a certain way (which may or may not be a criminal act) deserve to be violently beaten by police. This is a huge issue, when one considers that it is constantly posted on social media after shootings of black men by police, and thus placed in the context of the current Black Lives Matter movement.

There is no doubt that the skit is an example of internalized oppression, however I have a hard time not classifying the clip as being overtly and actively racist, just because of the fact that Chris Rock is a black man. It is true that he is not white, but does his celebrity status not afford him some amount of privilege and prominence over other people of color? I realize that he cannot be racist because he can never experience the systematic advantages of being a white person in society, however he clearly has very strong opinions that support acts of violence by police against black men (AKA racism), as displayed through the skit. It is true that the skit is parody produced as a form of entertainment and for comedic purposes, however his message still stands. And because of Rock’s celebrity status, the message will not only continue to stand, but will sting for long to come, which I would argue falls into the category of “active racism,” as defined by Tatum.

Is Chris Rock not “walking fast on the conveyor belt,” per say, just because he is a black man? Is it possible that Chris Rock is not racist, but the skit is?