“We do not condone violence.” “Assault is never the answer.” These words have echoed through all of my social media accounts since Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for making a poor-taste joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The joke referenced Pinkett Smith’s shaved head from her, a decision she made from her due to her struggles with the autoimmune disease alopecia.
Most people agree the slap shouldn’t have happened. But there’s something that feels precious at best, and downright racist at worst, about white people’s reaction to the now-infamous smack. The Hollywood director Judd Apatow declared in a deleted tweet that Smith “could have killed” Rock (seriously?), calling it “pure out of control rage and violence”. Apatow later confirmed he wasn’t even watching the show when he made the remarks. The radio host Howard Stern compared Smith to Donald Trump, while white women on Twitter somehow decided that Smith’s actions meant he must be beating his wife. It would seem that there’s a layer of hyper-violence that’s being projected on to Smith simply because he is a Black man who was defending his Black wife from him.
While it’s justifiable – important, even – to interrogate his motives for delivering the slap (was this really all about defending his wife or more about his own ego?), it’s clear that the backlash against Smith is rooted in not just anti-Blackness, but respectability politics as well.
It’s also not just about what Smith did; it’s where he did it and who he was watching. Anyone who has been following these shows can see that Smith is being held up to much stricter standards than white men who have behaved just as badly or even worse in those settings. In 1973, John Wayne had to be restrained by six security guards when he tried to rush the stage and attack the Native American actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. Littlefeather was on stage to accept the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando, who was boycotting the awards in protest at Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans.
Wayne got to keep his awards after the incident, but pending a review, Smith could very well have his historic best actor win revoked. Mind you, this is the same academy that gave Roman Polanski an award in absentia after he pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor and fled the country before he could be sentenced. The double standard is glaring.
I also find it hard to believe that the same white audiences who consume violence against Black people on screen to an almost fetishistic degree (and are quite happy to have the Academy reward these gratuitously violent projects year after year) are so distraught about an open- palm slap. Again, this kind of performative pearl-clutching is only ever reserved for Black men who mess up.
But white outrage isn’t the only problem. For Black people who have been conditioned to constantly perform the most non-threatening version of themselves in order to retain white approval, the image of a Black man being “violent” in a notorious space for its overwhelming whiteness must have felt like an abomination. The ESPN commentator Stephen A Smith lambasted the actor on Twitter for “staining” the greatest moment of his career, before taking a video to express his disappointment.
It’s the Black Hollywood equivalent of being dragged to a corner and told off by your parents for “cutting up” in public and embarrassing your family. Except Smith isn’t a child and the stakes here are much higher. Either way, it’s clear that many people (even those in the community who mean well) only find the incident so objectionable because they hoped Smith would perform property for white people in that space.
But let’s not forget why all this started in the first place. In case there was any confusion, alopecia is absolutely a disability, and one that Black women are more prone to. Whether or not Rock knew about Pinkett Smith’s condition, the politics of Black women’s hair is well known to be a historically fraught and often traumatizing topic (he should know – he made a documentary about it in 2009).
Still, this kind of punching down on Black women remains typical of many Black male comedians who, like the rest of the world, don’t see Black women’s struggles and experiences as real or legitimate. And this lack of care for Black women also partly explains why people were so taken aback by the image of Smith standing up for his wife from him in that way. The world is so used to seeing Black women as unworthy of being protected and fought for that it can’t see any merit to Smith’s actions or the emotions that spurred them.
Smith has since apologized to Rock and the Academy, and this event will soon become just another wild story in our pop culture memory. But as we await the results of the Academy’s investigation, what I hope will remain is the opportunity to truly question how society views Black men, what we see as disability, and who we see as worthy of protecting.