The public’s reaction to Will Smith’s Oscars slap underscores the unique burdens felt by Black men when they do something wrong, particularly in public.
After Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock for making a cruel joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia, many people denounced Smith for reacting with violence. But the critics quickly became racially charged and experts in racial stereotypes say many of the responses, particularly among white people, were rooted in anti-Blackness.
“I am certain that if one white man slapped another during the Oscars, the world would be buzzing about it, too. But the buzz would be different – it wouldn’t be racialized. When white men act badly, their actions aren’t attributed to their race. Because Will Smith and Chris Rock are both Black men, so much of the conversation about their altercation is being characterized as Black male violence, which is unfair,” said Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Southern California.
Experts say the public’s reaction shows the pressure Black men face to be the best versions of themselves at all times, a cultural mandate that can exact a harmful and sometimes deadly toll.
Black men are taught from the start to be careful how they dress, to always smile, to be aware of how their bodies and demeanors are perceived by the people who may be socialized to see them as a threat. They are taught their emotions and especially their anger is not permissible, which can have harmful mental health consequences.
“We have way too much evidence to confirm that there are double standards and harsher consequences for Black boys and men than there are for our white counterparts,” Harper said. “One often-cited example is the crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine sentencing inequity that contributes heavily to the mass incarceration of Black men.”
While the cultural conservations surrounding the Oscars incident reflect its racial gradient, Harper notes it’s premature to say whether Smith will be punished unfairly.
The Academy said in a statement Wednesday that its Board of Governors has begun the process of disciplining Smith, adding that the actor was asked to leave the Oscars after slapping Rock, but refused.
Black men walk a tightrope
David Fakunle, an associate with the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, said for any non-white person to survive in a society that is dominated by white people, white systems and white power, they must learn to operate within that system until they can dismantle it.
Fakunle said Smith is a Black man who has been able to find a balance of relevance and trust within Black and white spaces. d
“For Black folks, maybe unconsciously, they think, ‘Oh, he’s the one who could show them our ways. He’s the one that can demonstrate our creativity, our beauty, perhaps in the manner that they will understand.’ From the white side, it’s ‘Oh, he’s the one that makes us feel comfortable. We feel safe around him, yet he still has cred with the other Black folks,” Fakunle said. “And that’s a balance that men like Will Smith, Bill Cosby before (#MeToo) and Sidney Poitier achieved. And it’s not necessarily that it was an intentional campaign by any of those men, they just became the ones that were able to do it .”
While some Black men can successfully walk this tightrope, Fakunle said it’s problematic that people of color feel they need to satisfy the metaphorical masses.
“Plenty of Black men just want to live their lives, have whatever semblance of peace and understanding and love that they can have. And they should have that right,” he said.
Will Smith is ‘a carefully crafted and honed character’
Smith has said much of what the public sees is a carefully crafted persona, formed in response to watching his father abuse his mother and the guilt he felt for not doing more to protect her.
“What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction – a carefully crafted and honed character – designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward,” he wrote in his memoir published last year.
Smith may have long been viewed as a role model, but he has admitted that in many ways he’s just a wounded man.
Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, director of McLean Hospital’s Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change in Massachusetts, called Smith’s violence unacceptable but said it showed a person working out their pain in front of millions of people.
“This is a traumatized man who was triggered and reacted to that trigger for all the world to see,” she said.
Concerns that Smith’s behavior reflects negative racial stereotypes
With the slap, some Black people saw Smith perpetuating negative racial stereotypes about Black men as inherently aggressive and violent.
In a blog posttitled “Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote that the “Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith. One of the main talking points from those supporting the systemic racism in America is characterizing Blacks as more prone to violence and less able to control their emotions. Smith just gave comfort to the enemy by providing them with the perfect optics they were dreaming of.”
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, an activist who promotes greater accountability for violence within African-American communities, said public reaction to the incident shows the burden of white supremacy places on Black men.
“White men commit violence and harm, and they don’t have to answer for the race,” she said.
Everyone gets angry, many people have defended their spouses, some have wrongly resorted to violence, she said, but when a Black man acts out, that expression is used to demonize all Black men as inherently aggressive and violent.
“It is these white supremacist stereotypes and tropes that are used to keep us in check,” Simmons said.
‘It’s not just as simple as, he didn’t like the joke’
Many people agreed the night’s biggest tragedy was the way Smith’s slap eclipsed Black achievement.
“I’m sure in retrospect he realizes not just the damage he did to that event – because who remembers that he won best actor? Who remembers that Questlove won for best documentary. Samuel L. Jackson finally got an honorary Oscar for all the work that he’s done. All these achievements of Black men are completely overshadowed by that moment,” Fakunle said.
Many people feel Smith should be held accountable for his actions, but they also acknowledge the many challenges layering the moment.
“We’re starting to explore what racism does, what sexism does, all these systems of oppression, what they really do, the everyday challenges to health and wellbeing,” Fakunle said. “You aren’t supposed to assault people, just keep that real. At the same time, we’re exploring the nuance and the context behind it. Because it’s not just as simple as, he didn’t like the joke. No, it is more than that. And it is usually always more than that.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism