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Still Talking About The Slap

know your facts undo the work Apr 04, 2022

In case you haven’t seen social media or the news or been connected to the internet for the last week, I’m posting the videos of The Slap as seen in America and other countries. I debated on whether to write anything about it, but there’s been so much controversy and I’ve been struggling to work through everything I’m thinking.

In America, the sound cut out. Here's what countries like Australia, Japan, and the UK saw:

Will Smith resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Friday, April 1 as the Academy was discussing suspension. They are still deciding on any further punishment.

I don’t have any answers, but I have a ton of observations and some questions. Most of what I’ve seen on social media focuses on who was right or wrong and the punishment. But there are so many layers to those few minutes. It’s complicated. And the fact that everyone directly involved is Black and the incident happened at a predominantly white event held by a powerful, white, male-dominated organization that represents a powerful, white, male-dominated industry makes any analysis that doesn’t consider race incomplete.

I don’t watch the Oscars every year. But this year a friend texted me about it, so I turned on the TV. I was watching when it happened and then the sound went out and the picture jumped. I wasn’t sure if it was my TV or if the network had done something. I jumped on Twitter because I knew people would be talking and quickly found out that it wasn’t just my television. At the same time, the video kept rolling. Will Smith enunciated very clearly so that I didn’t need sound to know what he said! And in case we didn’t all get it, he used his whole chest when he repeated himself, “Keep my wife’s name out your f*cking mouth!”

Here are some of my observations:

People keep saying things like, "Words don’t hurt." But that’s not true. Words have the power to heal, uplift, or damage. Every day adults act out behavior based on things people said to them as children. People fight depression and suicidal thoughts over teasing and verbal harassment. So don’t tell me words don’t hurt. Psychological wounds are just as real as physical wounds. 

They're also saying, "There's no excuse for hitting someone over words." That's a great aspiration, and it's amazing that so many people are generally nonviolent. And our society loves it when people fight. We raise our kids on violent cartoons and then tell them not to hit. We cheer at violent movies. We love when TV cops go outside the law to beat up bad guys who evade punishment. People laugh at street fights on social media. But then we want to get high and mighty like we never condone violence. How is it not supposed to spill out into real life?

The phrase "f*ck around and find out" didn't start as an internet joke. It started in Black culture when someone would get checked for crossing the line. It's a warning that you're going too far and you might not like the response you get. Some people think Chris f*cked around with the Smiths one too many times, and he found out.

A little History

Chris has been joking on Jada off-and-on since the 90s. You'd think he talked about her every day for months if you read social media, but they keep sharing the same two examples from 1997 and 2016. There are rumors about why Chris picks on Jada. The GI Jane joke was not in the script or practiced/approved at the rehearsals. Of all the people in the building he could target, he focused on Jada.

Plenty of Black folks take issue with Chris Rock's comedy because he loves to hype negative stereotypes about Black women. For example, in 2008 when Obama was running for president, Chris had joked about how a Black woman couldn't be first lady because we are domineering, manipulative, unsupportive, and more. (The only actual footage I could find is attached to another Black man explaining why Black women are the worst women, so I won't embed that here.) In 2011, Chris allowed white comics to use the N-word in his presence with no push-back.

Shaming a Disability or Black Women’s Hair?

People claimed that Chris was shaming Jada for her medical condition, alopecia, which causes hair loss and disproportionately affects Black women. Alopecia is a medical condition that I have not thought of as a disability before. Disability: a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.

I have alopecia. It is a physical illness, an auto-immune disorder, and there are all kinds of emotions tied up in it, but at present, it doesn’t impair my ability to function. I’m also not a famous actor who depends on her looks in addition to her talent for a living. Does the time I spend trying to cover my hair loss and agonizing over whether people can see it count as impairing my ability to engage in certain tasks? If I lost too much hair to hide it and couldn’t afford a wig, then it would because people would treat me differently. Alopecia often presents in conjunction with other auto-immune diseases that do impair function. 

Jada has spoken openly about her hair loss.

Even if Chris wasn’t shaming a disability, the House of Representatives just passed the CROWN Act recognizing that we are discriminated against for wearing our hair the way it naturally grows out of our heads. He produced a mockumentary, Good Hair, about Black women's hair. It just seems stupid and hurtful to joke about a Black woman's hair to an international audience when he knows it's a pain point. It was unnecessary. Bald Black women called him out.

Relationships

Will and Jada seemed like a power couple when they first got married with all their talk about each being responsible for their own happiness. But then they started airing their dirty laundry and plenty of people decided that their relationship is toxic. They’ve known Chris going on 30 years, since before they were married, working together and having a public friendship that seemed to cool a while ago.

Public mocking comes with being famous and attending public events. That doesn't make it right. People get roasted. And they laugh along, even when it hurts. Will mentioned this in his acceptance speech and author Roxane Gay wrote a guest article for the New York Times, defending people’s right to have hurt feelings and set boundaries.

People note that Will laughed at the joke until he saw Jada’s face. Then he was enraged and he slapped Chris. It wasn’t a punch with a closed fist. It was an open-handed slap, like he was challenging Chris to a duel. It was a Hollywood slap, the way he twisted his whole body into it. I’m not minimizing that Will put his hands on someone, but people acting like he was trying to knock Chris’ teeth out need to have a seat. 

I wondered why Chris wasn’t in a defensive posture. Why did he lean into Will as he approached? Maybe the lights were in his eyes. Chris also doesn’t pick up on non-verbal social cues. He was recently diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder, a form of autism, so he likely didn’t get the whatever cues Will was sending that he was going to hit him.

I’m still amazed that Chris never took a threatening posture back at Will. After the slap, he put his hands behind his back again, and never even touched his face. I wonder if he was holding his hands behind his back to control them and not strike back. You could see him in real time, deciding how to respond. He says, “I could…I could. Ooh. Okay.” And I know he was thinking of all the jokes he didn't say that he knew were off limits. But he chose to make a self-deprecating joke, “This was the greatest moment in television history.”

The Academy Failed in the Moment

When Chris looked offstage, I’m guessing to a producer or someone else in charge of the show, as if he was looking for direction, I was thinking, will they cut to commercial? But no, they left him on stage in the immediate aftermath of that humiliation to get on with the show. And he did.

There are photos circulating of what happened during the commercial break. While I was happy to see other Black men (Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry) immediately approached both Chris Rock and Will Smith during the commercial break, I wish there were photos of people doing more than a quick check with Chris in addition to calming down Will and checking on Jada.

Will got a standing ovation when he accepted his Oscar for Best Actor. The Slap does not undo the work Will put in for the award. And I can only imagine how Chris felt after having been humiliated to have everyone cheer and applaud the person who hit him just 5 minutes before.

Chris has publicly shared about the childhood bullying he endured and even turned it into a popular TV comedy, Everybody Hates Chris. I don't care how old you are, you remember that kind of thing, and it shapes you. Having a childhood trauma play out as an adult on an international stage and being able to remain calm and keep working shows an amount of self-control most of us will never know.

Denzel dropped deep wisdom to Will that night and Will shared during his acceptance speech for best actor: “When you’re at your highest, be careful. That’s when the devil will come for you.”

A lot of people assumed Chris Rock was the devil in that situation. Maybe. The devil could also be Will's unresolved issues with domestic violence from his childhood or his and Jada's relationship.

Abusive Vibes

Minutes after the incident, Will Smith won Best Actor for King Richard. He gave a tearful speech about love and fighting for the people you love, which would have been beautiful if he hadn’t just, in Chris’s words, “slapped the shit out of me.”

The speech seemed very self-serving and like he was making excuses. He looked tortured. He knew he was wrong, but he didn’t apologize to Chris Rock. He apologized to the committee and his fellow nominees. I think if he had apologized to Chris right away, it would have gone a long way to smoothing things over with the public.

Will's language about love making you do crazy things was problematic and (mostly) white women on Twitter made “domestic violence” trend, accusing Will of being abusive to Jada and triggering them.

The Aftermath

In the days since, people have taken sides.

Some believe Will Smith did the right thing after being provoked by Chris Rock, he was defending Jada. (Chris was pushing buttons.)

Other people are standing with Chris Rock, his quick calculation about retaliating or keeping it moving, and his professionalism.

Some people are blaming Jada for what happened and calling her everything but her name. Black women are some of the least protected people in America. We’ve been demonized, sexualized, and ghettoized in the media so often that it’s normalized and very hard to get anyone to come to our aid. It's also true Jada prides herself on being independent and fierce. Tough people need protection, too. It all exists at the same time.

Representative Ayanna Pressley, who is bald from alopecia, tweeted in support of Will Smith defending Jada Pinkett Smith. She was diagnosed in 2019 and has been working on bills to support medical wigs and funding for research on alopecia. She has since deleted the tweet and posted one to condemn violence.

Tiffany Hadish said Will Smith standing up for his wife gave her hope.

I get feeling like nobody stands up for you. I can see how it would feel satisfying to know someone is willing to risk something big to stand up for you. Did The Slap solve anything? If Chris Rock stops tearing down Black women, maybe, but it exposed a lot to people who are willing to see. (I can't tell how many people are willing to do more than center themselves instead of looking at it all. It doesn't seem like a lot.)

Some are Attacking Jada Pinkett Smith, Others are Defending Her as the Face of Black Women 

After Jada looked hurt and angry, she didn’t really look at Will again until he was announced as the Oscar winner, even as she laughed at Chris’ follow-up jokes. And people blamed her for it.

Others are defending her right to silence.

People are also using what happened to advocate for Black women to be seen and treated with more respect.

The Internet Always has Jokes

Power Dynamics

Some people have pointed out that Will Smith has more star power than Chris Rock, and that may be, but he's still a Black man in America.

Power: Could Chris have slapped Will and gotten the same response? I don't know.

Physicality: Will is taller and bigger than Chris. Would Will have slapped someone bigger than him? I don't know.

Colorism: Within racial groups, lighter skin has more privilege. Will is several shades lighter than Chris. Would Will have felt empowered to smack a white man? A light-skinned Black man? I don't know.

People don’t have to consciously think, “He’s shorter, darker, and less powerful than I am, so I can do this” to make those assumptions. We make those calculations all day long without consciously thinking about them. That’s how social norms and systems work.

Despite Will's star power, he is being vilified in the media as if he is a thug. Will is facing more criticism than serial predators. People are canceling him as if he's irredeemable after just one incident. What happened to grace and why isn't the mainstream media bothsidesing this issue?

Colonial and Patriarchal Thinking Reared Its Ugly Head

Will Smith has gotten slammed by his peers more than white actors who went on anti-Semitic rants, unintentionally killed people, or repeatedly sexually assaulted colleagues. The media is degrading him.

People calling for Will Smith’s arrest were almost funny because some of the people caught up in the outrage are some of the same ones making excuses for people like the January 6 insurrectionists. So it’s okay to storm the capital in an attempted coup (if you’re white), but a slap means you should automatically be jailed (if you’re Black).

People who saw Will Smith as a safe Black man, the guy with the jokes and family entertainment, the model minority are all twisted up because they got a glimpse of his humanness.

This is Will's first public fall of his own making. It seems like he’s in a crisis. Shouldn’t we have compassion?

Mia Farrow tweeted and then deleted that this was the Oscars' ugliest moment. I was disappointed when Mark Hamill, who is usually spot on with his commentary, tweeted the same thing.

It wasn't a highlight, but you want to see some real ugly moments? Keep reading. This is not whataboutism. This is perspective.

Ugliest Oscar Moments

Hattie McDaniel, the first Black person to ever win an Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind, couldn't even attend the ceremony until people made arrangements! She wasn't allowed to sit at the same table with the white cast members. She was forced to sit at the end of the room against the wall with her agent.

Oscar attendees booed American Indian actor Sacheen Littlefeather in 1973 when she spoke for Marlon Brando, who was boycotting the Oscars because of Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians. She’s mocked by Clint Eastwood immediately after leaving the stage. Not captured in this video is the story that it took six men to keep John Wayne from accosting her as she left the stage.

In 1987, Marlee Matlin was presented with the Best Actress Award by William Hurt, the man who abused her. And this year, as she was in the audience as part of the cast of CODA, which won best picture, the Academy highlighted William Hurt in the In Memoriam section.

Years after Roman Polanski fled the United States to avoid jail time for drugging and raping a 13-year-old, he was still nominated for Oscars and received a standing ovation when he won for The Pianist in 2002. He has never been held accountable for his actions.

Dangerous Black Man Tropes

Judd Apatow's first reaction was to portray Will Smith as a potential killer. He has since deleted this and other tweets that promote racism.

Doctor Emily Porter @dremliyportermd, tweeted something like, what if Will Smith had slapped Betty White? or if Chris Rock had fallen and hit his head and died? She was rightfully roasted with what if jokes, accused of racism (because, seriously, this falls in line with the dangerous Black man tropes) and has changed to her account to private.

Jim Carrey and others felt the need to weigh in, and because the internet never forgets, people reminded them all of things they’ve done with no repercussions.

Jim Carrey has since changed his tune, defending Will by talking about boundaries and the pressures of the business and he still tripped up by invoking the strong Black woman trope when he called Jada a “tough girl” who can defend herself.

How should celebrities respond to questions about The Slap? Daniel Radcliffe did it well.

The Academy Issued a Statement that they Don't Condone Violence

But Twitter was having none of it.

People are calling for Will Smith’s best actor award to be rescinded. I don’t remember anyone taking back Harvey Weinstein’s, Mel Gibson’s, or Roman Polanski’s to name a few. They all did way worse than slap someone. Taking an award Will earned before the slap is not the move.

Who’s Blameless?

The most innocent people of all in this whole incident are the Williams sisters. At the Golden Globes, they were insulted by Jane Campion with misogynoir and they held their composure at the event. Even at the after party were gracious enough to take pictures with Campion to show the world everything is okay. Side Note: It’s not okay. It’s just what’s expected.

But then instead of people celebrating their story at the Oscars, all the attention has gone to the slap. Will not only messed up the night for himself, but for everyone else there to celebrate and be celebrated.

What’s also sad is that this incident overshadowed the other Oscar winners like Questlove and his partners for Summer of Soul, the group Chris Rock was presenting to.

(Chris’ joke about Questlove and four white guys didn’t go over well with at least one member of the group because HE’S NOT WHITE. Joseph Patel is Indian, and this wasn’t an ad lib because Chris had used the joke the day before.)

Patel said, “The reason that makes me SO SO VERY ANGRY is because I was so proud to be one of a handful of South Asians to have ever won an Oscar in the history of the award,” Patel wrote in a Twitter thread airing his frustrations on Wednesday evening. “I was ecstatic that I was the 3RD South Asian to win that night – after Riz [Ahmed] and Aneil Karia won earlier in the night for [best live action short winner] ‘The Long Goodbye.’ Three South Asians winning on the same night – that’s never happened before! And it’s meaningful! It’s history!”

Complexity

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabar wrote an article that included some nuance and said he didn’t want to see Will punished or ostracized. He wants this to be a cautionary tale to others. In the article, he also upheld racist thinking instead of condemning it. Instead of blasting racists for using this moment to define all Black people, he blamed Will for giving them ammunition.

Black people are allowed to have and express emotions and be individuals without having to represent everyone who shares our skin tone. White people get to be individuals when they do bad things, even sexually assault and kill people. But Will is a disappointment for making us ALL look bad? Just no. Will is one man and his behavior is his alone. The racist media chooses to focus on his behavior and attribute it to everyone. Why isn't Chris' self control the leading story and a narrative of Black excellence? Just because we know how our enemies will use what we do to attack us doesn't mean we have to internalize it and believe the same.

Two Black male authors also noted the complexity I’ve been feeling about this.

Danté Stewart (Stew) @stewartdantec on Twitter, author of Shoutin’ in the Fire, posted a thread that worth reading all the way through:

Frederick Joseph @FredTJoseph on Twitter, author of Patriarchy Blues,  talked about how our society is ill-equipped to talk about the complexities of Blackness and harm:

I Hope Will Is Okay

I'm seriously hoping whatever punishment Will receives isn't outsized since his infraction was minor compared to others in the academy. He's always been a good guy with trauma like most everybody else. I hope he gets the help he needs.

Chris Rock will be Fine

Chris left the Oscars immediately after his part, which was his original plan. He stayed quiet a few days and then went on to continue doing his comedy gig. He said he’s still processing what happened. It's probably a good thing he's already in therapy, and he knows how to handle the media.

The way he said, “I could. Oooh. Okay.” Right after The Slap makes me think he will have a comeback.

Ticket sales for his current comedy tour have skyrocketed. He's selling out venues and has raised the ticket prices by several hundred dollars, according to fans who plan to attend. And he has added a final tour date…in Philly.

Download 7 Words to Know When Talking About Racism. Agreeing on what words mean is one step towards having meaningful conversations.
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