How you feel about the slap at the Oscars says something about your perception of Black men

By Hadera McKay, Opinion Editor

“Keep my wife’s name out of your f—cking mouth!” Those were the words that— muted in the producers’ attempts to de-escalate the gravity of the situation for viewers—were unmistakably uttered by Grammy, Golden Globe, Emmy, and now Oscar award-winning artist and actor Will Smith. This occurred following Smith’s reverberating slap to the face of Grammy and Emmy award-winning comedian Chris Rock on the stage of the 94th annual Academy Awards ceremony. 

Immediately following the debacle, viewers flooded social media with commentary ranging from “what the hell just happened?” to “was that real?” to even, “Will Smith belongs in jail.” As viewers attempt to make sense of the show-stopping moment, there’s a layer of nuance that is vital to the conversation, a layer characterized by the truth of Black families, Black masculinity, and celebrity culture. 

This is not the first time the Smith family has been embroiled in public conflict. Since Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage in 1997, the two have constantly been under fire. From their choice to embrace freedom of agency and expression in raising their children, Jaden and Willow, to the reveal of their temporary separation, and finally, the couple’s Red Table Talk conversation where Pinkett Smith clarified her romantic relationship with rap artist, August Alsina. All instances were met with extreme public uproar, such as the jests at Jaden Smith wearing a dress to his senior prom, and the harsh critique and meme-ification of Pinkett Smith’s “entanglement.”  

The charged moment at this year’s Oscars is no different. Following presenter Chris Rock’s G.I. Jane joke, directed at Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald-headed look as a symptom of the autoimmune disorder, alopecia, Will Smith gave a good-hearted laugh, while Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes in a sign of annoyance and pain. Next thing we knew, Will Smith had hopped onto the stage and delivered a slap to Rock’s face that immediately catapulted viewers into a flurry of emotions. 

Twenty minutes later, Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Richard Williams, famed father of two of the best tennis players of all time, Venus and Serena Williams in the film King Richard. Smith opened up his acceptance speech by focusing his prior action on the themes of family and protection seen in the film. He said, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” Smith began to cry as he relayed his gratitude for the ability to “protect” Aunjanue Ellis (Brandi Williams), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), and the Williams’ family story. 

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When comedian Tiffany Haddish was asked about her perspective of the incident in an interview with Entertainment Tonight, she said, “It was a great night, tonight… I saw a man stand up for his wife, which we don’t see that much anymore. That made me have hope.” This was a sentiment parroted by many other women of color on the internet, including actress Jameela Jamile, and rapper Nicki Minaj

In a world where Black women are constantly insulted, berated, and ignored by the forces of the white male patriarchy that underlie our societal institutions, it was gratifying to see a Black man take immediate action to defend a Black woman—no matter how outlandish the action was.

This perspective is at odds with many viewers who saw Smith’s action as a hot-headed show of toxic masculinity. When the brawny man steps forward to defend his damsel in distress without giving her the agency to deal with the offense on her own terms. What makes this any different than that played-out trope? 

Historically, the idea of the gallant white knight protecting a damsel in distress has always been reserved for just that, white people. So when a Black man steps up to defend a figure who has been traditionally deemed not worth protecting—namely the Black woman—of course people are going to critique the rationality of his actions. It makes you wonder, if it were Brad Pitt on that stage who slapped some white comedian to defend the honor of Angelina Jolie, would people have half as many reservations? 

Living in a world defined by whiteness certainly means that whiteness defines our understanding of masculinity, toxicity, and feminism.

While palatable masculinity is reserved for white wife-guys on Instagram who record themselves washing their wife’s hair for them, the term toxic masculinity is reserved for Black men who seek to make a point that their wives’ hair is not a joke. If it’s a white hero traversing adversities to defend his white damsel, it’s considered bravery. Yet if it’s a Black man who seeks to make a point about the care and sensitivity that his wife’s experiences should be handled with, it’s worthy of jail time.

It troubles me that this divisive conversation has run so quickly into language of heinous violence and prosecution. This rhetoric mirrors and perpetuates the failures of the American justice system that promotes Black male mass incarceration and police brutality. 

When are we going to stop villainizing Black men for having feelings? Or for seeking to protect their families, no matter how drastic the decisions seem to us? Some of the same people who were calling for reform of the federal prison system and to defund the police two summers ago are the same people calling for Smith’s head on a pike. This conversation cannot be isolated from your understanding of your relationship with Black men, Black male incarceration, or the corrupt American justice system.  

With all of this being said, the strength of Black men does not have to manifest in an act of physical strength or violence. Smith cried during his Oscar acceptance speech and stressed the importance of love. He also communicated a clear internal struggle between protecting his family and protecting his view in the public eye. This struggle is reflected in Smith’s career and many other Black people in the entertainment industry. You can either be an American hero, palatable for a white audience, or an aggressive villain; America’s Fresh Prince, or a figure that incites fear. 

Smith also sincerely apologized to the Academy during his acceptance speech, reflecting an inclination to work for the approval of white Hollywood for the sake of preserving his career. Smith has also since apologized to Chris Rock. 

Perhaps the most disappointing part of this Oscars moment was not the slap itself, nor the sorry excuse of a joke from the usually more creative and funny Chris Rock, but that it immediately took away from revered musician and activist Questlove’s Oscar win of Best Documentary. His film, Summer of Soul, documents the importance of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival on the music and culture of Black Americans, and by extension the music industry as a whole. 

With a moment in the Academy Awards that had so many Black men visible, in both positive and negative ways, I encourage viewers to assess their own reaction to the infamous smack. Chances are it’ll tell you something about your understanding of Black men that could be illuminating.