Will Smith, Chris Rock, and What You’re Missing About That Slap
Condemning the slap or the joke (or both) is the easy part — there’s much more we need to discuss
Let me start by saying that I am clear so that there are no misunderstandings when we get to the nuance section of what follows.
It was not OK for Will Smith, I believe, to slap Chris Rock at Oscars for making jokes about Smith’s wife.
It seems that Smith would be willing to accept that assessment, considering that he has since apologized to Rock.
Rock joked about Jada Pinkett-Smith starring in G.I. Joe was inappropriate and hurtful. Jane 2 was hurtful and inappropriate — Rock unthinkingly ad-libbed it without considering the emotional and sometimes physically painful condition that prompted Jane to shave. It did not merit striking out at the comedian in reply.
However, violence is not acceptable.
It can, I believe, be used in certain situations — such as self-defense or vicarious defence against physical assault by another. This is not one of those situations.
It must be possible for husbands and wives to find somewhere in between the way Ted Cruz responded to Donald Trump’s blatant disrespect of his wife and the way Smith dealt with his disrespect.
There must be a space between pathetic acceptance and groveling acceptance.
There must be a way for men to respond to insults to women in their lives in a way that allows them to focus on the women and allow them to respond as they choose.
life is more complex than the last few paragraphs can convey. Please bear with me for a while.
It’s important to investigate what is really happening when people act out of character
If someone has a history of violent or aggressive behavior, we might be able to assume that they are just as bad as the rest and will revert back to their old ways.
Even so, there are often more behind-the scenes activities than that.
However, has no such history and does something similar, it is normal for reasonable people to ask questions before giving too many answers.
It is tempting to not give in to the temptation, especially when celebrities are involved.
We are tempted to pick sides. It’s Team Chris in this instance, or Team Will. This, of course, obscures the existence of Team Jada whose experience has been mostly ignored.
However, as I watched the online slap, I was instantly curious, even though I didn’t agree to Smith’s actions. This is because a man who has no history of such behavior should do something like this.
While this reason cannot excuse his actions it does mean that we are missing a significant part of the story, and any lessons, it may offer.
We avoid the more fundamental questions and end up with garbage takes like the ones of Judd Farrow or Mia Farrow. The first suggested Smith had lost control and should be sued. The latter compared Smith to every man who has ever struck someone.
Oder worse, Dr. Emily Porter, sister to Congresswoman Katie Porter.
She claims that if Smith had slapped Betty White in that manner, it could have killed her. This suggestion ignores two facts: First, Smith is not “magical” enough to resurrect the dead and then slap them. Second, he wouldn’t have hit Betty-fucking White.
White and Bob Saget, whose implicit resurrection was followed by death-by-slapping Porter also conjured, would not have made a joke of Jada Pinkett’s hair.
We need to dig deeper.
Perhaps we can start by recalling, Roxane Gay highlighted in her brillant piece in The New York Times HTML, how Will Smith wrote about his feelings of powerlessness in protecting his mother from his abusive father.
Without praising his actions, we might wonder how his history might have contributed to Monday’s hijacking of his amygdala.
There are many other options.
When I looked at the Twitter responses to the slap I noticed something that could be involved in Smith’s behavior, but has gone mostly unremarked upon.
It was everywhere. There were hundreds of memes and tweets mocking Smith for being more angry about Rock’s joke than about August Alsina’s marriage to him (at a point when the Smiths split). Jada and Will have bravely spoken out about it publicly.
These were memes and tweets that challenged his manhood and questioned his marriage. It’s an unfortunate narrative that has been prevalent since Jada Pinkett’s 2020 public disclosure of Alsina’s relationship.
Side note: Alsina claimed that Will approves of Jada and her relationship with the singer. It is also important to note that even if they had an open relationship, it would be their business. This does not reveal anything about Will Smith’s manhood.
However, that is not the way dudes who dream about beating other men’s asses for following their girlfriends on Instagram.
If men like this repeatedly insult another man’s manhood, it can lead to the other being pushed to the edge.
Hyper-masculinity in patriarchal societies is often a response to challenged masculinity. Discrediting a man or his woman (noting the problematic nature of the concept) can quickly trigger this type of reaction in non-violent individuals.
It doesn’t mean it is acceptable. It makes it predictable.
It also reveals that the issue is deeper than Will Smith.
It is a cultural concern that raises questions about how men socialize — to both insult other men they perceive as too alpha or to aggressively respond to men who criticize them or their partner.
It was not just personal history that was being played out on that stage.
Smith’s reaction at Rock’s joke suggested that Smith was attempting to create a psychodrama about a past much more ancient than Will Smith’s marriage, career, or even his existence.
This history could be heard as background noise to Tiffany Haddish’s comment about Smith’s actions being “the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen” because it convinced her that “there are still men who love and care for their women, their wives.”
Let’s forget about the questionable notion that men have their women, whose supposed fragility necessitates protecting from all things. There is also the strongly argued suggestion that ratifying male violence will ever work out for women. I believe there is a subtext to what Haddish was saying.
This subtext is important to consider, especially for white people I know (from 53+ years of being one) who don’t think about it often.
In other words, America’s history is filled with Black men who have been repeatedly disempowered in defending their families or themselves.
It was when their marriage ended and their children and wives were sold.
This happened because their financial ability was limited by economic discrimination and marginalization.
This is still the case with a justice system that has tended to focus more on their crimes than others.
Although Will Smith may not have been aware of this history at the Oscars ceremony, it is part of the cell memories of Black men all across America. Although it may not be visible, the scars are there if we know where to look.
These men are men whose humanity and manhood have been repeatedly challenged by white supremacy, then by other Black men, who too often turn their anger and frustrations on other Black people.
Will Smith can think of slapping Chris Rock. But you cannot imagine him doing that if Billy Crystal told the joke.
( This is also why it’s hard to imagine Chris Rock making the same joke about Nicole Kidman, if she were experiencing alopecia.
The drama that is unleashed on the streets and Oscar stage is far more than the sum individual choices. It is the result of feeling hopeless in a country whose main product is the selling of dreams.
Even a man earning over $20 million per movie cannot overcome a cycle intergenerational trauma.
Money doesn’t change the message that is running through your mind. It can make the message louder. This creates imposter syndrome. It also makes it more difficult to prove one’s strength. Because you have options and some comfort that your forebears did not have, money can do the opposite.
Because of the self-doubt that has been ingrained in your history and the history of your country, you may not be able to trust anything even if you cash the checks.
Smith’s actions are unjustifiable.
You are not ready for this conversation if you don’t know the history of the weapon and have never considered its potential impact on those who have been harmed.
We, as white people, must understand Black experiences and white supremacy. This will allow us to question Black masculinity and the legitimacy of Black families. It will also help us to see the persistence of Black love.
This is why we must have authentic relationships with Black people
These books and trainings will not replace meaningful human contact.
This connection is all we need to understand why Rock’s joke hurt so many Black women. It is all that could allow us to understand the deep wounds in Black people’s souls.
People like Will Smith. Jada Pinkett Smith. Chris Rock.
Yes, it is possible to expect the best of the first when we defend the second and respond to the third.
We must also demand better from our society, and insist upon a deeper understanding how its history continues shaping us all.
Because life is so complicated.