What We’re Not Talking About When We Talk About Last Night’s Slap

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

It’s all anyone can talk about: the Slap. Some have sided with Will Smith, some are calling for his arrest, and some have even called for the Academy to take back his Oscar for Best Actor.

“The Academy didn’t protect Chris Rock! They negligently condoned what happened by not removing Will Smith.  Then gave him the highest award while applauding him! It is a privilege to be given this award which he has tainted with his actions. Remove the Oscar,” one person wrote on Twitter.

“He could have killed him,” insisted director Judd Apatow in a series of since-deleted tweets shared by Variety editor-at-large Kate Aurthur. “That’s pure out of control rage and violence … He lost his mind,” he continued.

“Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters,” comedian Kathy Griffin tweeted.

While violence generally shouldn’t get a pass, there’s more to what happened last night, and the way we’re talking about it today is missing nuance. Most of the discourse online is taking away from Smith’s Best Actor win and framing him as a character he’s never played: a villain. This narrative is not new for Black men, and it matters that white, male-dominated Hollywood and half the Twittersphere is imposing it on Smith. Historically, Black people have had to soften themselves to make white audiences feel comfortable. In particular, Smith has always portrayed himself as an easygoing, funny guy from West Philadelphia. Like clockwork, as soon as the smiles and laughs are gone and the man has an emotional reaction, he’s immediately called “violent,” “angry,” “a monster,” and so on.

Black men and women spend their lives controlling their anger in fear of being labeled as aggressive. A 2017 study by the American Psychological Association revealed that people perceived Black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men. The data also showed that participants believed that Black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them — even if the men were unarmed.

Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have been public about many things: their open marriage, her affair, how they choose to raise their children. Yes, being a celebrity opens you up to public scrutiny. But everyone has a breaking point, and this may have been Smith’s. Even before the Slap, it was an emotionally charged night in which Smith was anticipating his first Oscar win. A win that would make him only the fifth Black man ever to win the Best Actor award.

As for Rock, his G.I. Jane joke was not only in bad taste; it was also ableist and hypocritical. In 2009, Rock’s documentary Good Hair, which he dedicated to his daughters, explored Black women’s relationships with hair and beauty politics and even addressed the topic of alopecia. Rock interviews a woman with alopecia named Sheila Bridges, who tells him, “The reason hair is so important is because our self-esteem is wrapped up in it.”

So you would think Rock would know better.

Back in 2018, Pinkett Smith opened up about her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that attacks hair follicles and results in bald spots and hair loss. During an episode of her Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk, she explained, “It was terrifying when it first started. I was in the shower one day and had just handfuls of hair in my hands, and I was just like, Oh my God, am I going bald?

We don’t have to imagine how she must have felt last night because we could see her face. Pinkett Smith was visibly uncomfortable as Rock made his crack at her expense. Black women have been one of the least protected classes in our society, navigating racism and sexism simultaneously. They are expected to remain composed in the face of opposition, as judge Ketanji Brown Jackson just experienced during her Supreme Court nomination hearings. So what is the right way to stand up for Black women?

Some people have pointed out that Smith’s response wasn’t heroic but a form of toxic masculinity. Technically, they are correct. Yes, assault is wrong, and the concept of “the protector” can be a form of toxic masculinity. But I don’t think this was the case for Smith. He was simply doing what any husband would do at that moment. He was protecting his wife, which I don’t believe is wrong. If you take a step back and look at the situation in good faith, you see that Rock degraded a Black woman in a room full of her peers on live TV, and the world expected her and her husband to take it. Words, like fists, have power, and they can be just as violent.

What We’re Not Talking About When We Talk About The Slap