- Everyone was shocked when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, but then reactions diverged.
- People’s responses reflected their own traumas, triggers and personal histories.
- Mental health experts say it’s healthy to have conflicting ideas about what happened.
As reactions to the Will Smith oscars‘slap snowballed Monday, it became clear the most revealing story wasn’t about what occurred between Smith and presenter Chris Rockbut about what our intensely divergent reactions to that violence said about ourselves.
In a surreal moment initially mistaken for scripted comedy, Smith slapped Rock across the face and yelled profanities at the comedian after he made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, comparing her shaved head to Demi Moore in the movie “GI Jane.” Pinkett Smith has alopecia, an auto-immune disorder that can cause hair loss, a side effect the actress has called “terrifying.”
At the moment of impact, everyone watching united in collective shock and confusion. But as the night wore on, as people replayed the violence over and over again, as they frankly texted and tweeted, an initial shared reaction gave way to a spectrum of ideas about what the incident meant, who was harmed and who served empathy.
Experts in race, violence and trauma say those analyzes are guided by people’s own experiences with violence, their trauma histories, as well as their race and gender. It explains why everyone watched the same incident but diverged on moral conclusions.
“As we are trying to make sense of things, sometimes what feels most safe or most comfortable is trying to have a dichotomous view of what happened. So either what happened was unacceptable, or there was some justification for what happened. But in reality, these are very nuanced situations and you can hold competing feelings,” says psychotherapist Janel Cubbage. “You can not condone violence and also understand how Will Smith may have been driven to respond in that way. That’s something that a lot of people are grappling with.”
Some have called for Smith to be suspended from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, others for the repeal of his best actor Oscar (he’s only the fifth Black man to win the award). The Academy issued a statement Monday condemning Smith’s actions of him and announcing a formal review of the incident.
On social media, celebrities and viewers shared reactions that reflected the complexity of the moment. Some Black women viewed the incident as a welcome display of a Black man protecting a Black woman’s dignity. Survivors of domestic violence saw the hit and Smith’s proclamation during his acceptance speech for best actor that “love will make you do crazy things” as promoting dangerous myths linking love and violence. Some white people erroneously saw it as further evidence that Black men are inherently aggressive and violent. Some said they saw a man in pain.
Experts say the incident likely brought up difficult feelings for many viewers – feelings of being the butt of a joke, of being hurt or unprotected, of failing to make someone laugh. Those feelings shape perspectives, as well as create biases.
“It’s important for people to consider how our past experiences shape and influence the story we tell ourselves about what happened,” Cubbage says.
the shock of the moment
Cubbage says the slap was initially jarring because it challenged social norms about how people respond to violence and how the public believes people of a certain stature are expected to behave. Many people had a visceral reaction to witnessing violence in an unexpected space.
The audience first thought the slap was a joke. But once realization set in, one could hear a pin drop in the theater.
Dr. Jennifer M. Gomeza fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University whose research explores the effects of interpersonal trauma in diverse populations, said the incident felt like a normalization of violence, especially because Smith was able to return to his seat and later accept the award for best actor.
That normalization, she said, likely contributed to viewers’ confusion and discomfort.
“For violence to occur so publicly – in front of many people in the room and televised around the world – is disturbing. It makes such violence appear normal, not just in frequency but also normal in acceptability,” she said.
After the initial shock wore off, people began to try and make sense of it through their own histories and ideas of morality.
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“Your personal experience and where you are, even in the evolution of your understanding of how you resolve your own internal and external conflicts, affects how you view what happened,” said Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, director of McLean Hospital’s Institute for Trauma -Reported Systems Change in Massachusetts.
Exacerbating the moral grappling is the fact that Smith is a deeply likable celebrity who the public respects for his vulnerability – his memory published last year details an abusive childhood and he has joined Pinkett Smith during her talk show “Red Table Talk” for candid conversations on their marriage.
“When we like someone, then we will justify their behavior. If we don’t like someone, then we’ll blame them or hold them accountable,” said Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and adult rape and an activist who promotes greater accountability for violence within African-American communities.
A slap in the context of deeper conversations about Black women’s vulnerability, masculinity and trauma
Experts in race and trauma say Smith’s act cannot be divorced from issues of Black women’s vulnerability, brands of masculinity that promote violence, as well as intergenerational trauma. It’s why mental health experts say any analysis of the incident demands empathy and nuance, without excusing violence.
In the past two years, there has been greater discourse examining the mistreatment of Black women. Some Black women said they appreciated that Smith stepped up for Pinkett Smith in such a bold way.
At the same time, Gómez noted for many survivors of violence, Smith’s behavior was triggering and retraumatizing. Smith displayed a lack of control over his emotions, she said, while also showing deliberateness and presence of mind in storming the stage in the first place.
“That combination of volatility and control is both dangerous and familiar to many victims and survivors,” Gómez said.
Moreland-Capuia called Smith’s violence unacceptable but underscored she sees this as less about masculinity and race and more about triggers and trauma.
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“I would say that this actually has less to do with toxic masculinity. I think that it could be a part of it, but every time you talk about Black men, I think that’s the first set of language that folks want to go to. I think it’s more about how you reconcile the fact that this is a traumatized man who was triggered and reacted to that trigger for all the world to see,” Moreland-Capuia said.
A cultural trap for communities of color
Some of the critiques of Smith’s behavior, both within the Black community and outside of it, suggested it perpetuated a stereotype that Black men are inherently violent. Experts say this reflects the unique burden for communities of color, who live with the cultural mandate that a wrong act by one member of the community negatively represents the community as a whole.
There are many layers to the incident between Smith and Rock and many questions viewers need to explore, which Gomez said should include: Who has the freedom to identify violent behavior as violent and therefore unacceptable? Who does not? What would healing look like between Smith and Rock? What would healing look like for everyone who witnessed it?
Cubbage said anyone who is still trying to make sense of the incident is probably exactly where they should be.
“I don’t even know that there’s going to be an answer to land on for people as to whether this is justified,” she said. “I think we have to learn to be OK with that.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism