There’s a thing often said in situations where someone has been called to the carpet publicly for bad behavior. It’s that line about how whoever did the outing “should have stepped to me privately so we could handle this.” (The “like men” at the end is silent, but like all lettres muettes, still present.) The perpetrator wants the kind of consideration that they did not afford the people they have harmed. It’s a transparent Jedi mind trick that never really works. As someone with a long list of people I have taken to task publicly, I can tell you that a public airing is often the safest way to handle such situations. I cannot promise you civil and measured discourse one-on-one. You want me to have witnesses. You want me to be held accountable for what comes next. I don’t say that to sound tough. I’m simply noting my insufficiencies as such, and present them only to show that my high horse was butter churned for glue a long time ago.
There are three versions of the public conversations swirling around the Will Smith/Chris Rock Oscar debacle: the one centering Black women, the one centering Black men, and the one the rest of the world is having. For the record, that is also the order of their importance. I’m not diving into any of them exclusively here. I’m mostly concerned with the ground rules of any further discussion. To engage any of them productively, there should be some base acknowledgements:
- Chris Rock shouldn’t have made the joke.
- Will Smith shouldn’t have attacked Chris Rock onstage.
- There is nothing morally superior about the Oscars.
Anything anyone has to say about the matter should acknowledge those three realities out the gate if they wish to engage productively.
When I saw what happened, my immediate reaction was, “I wish Will would have done that backstage.” In my initial response to the moment, the lizard brain logic at play was, “If there is a way to correct a public wrong, it should, in some way, be resolved publicly.” Will Smith lived up to the letter of that not-a-law, but the spirit of it begged him to consider the consequences of his reckoning. The fact that my more-ideal version of events still involved physical violence meant I wasn’t much more evolved in that moment than Will, and that I probably needed to sleep on the matter. I have experienced violence from all sides of the table enough to know it never really puts the demons down that it means to. So I slept on it. When I woke up, I had a different, better version in mind:
Rock makes the joke he shouldn’t have. Will goes up on stage and takes the mic off Rock. He tells the audience about alopecia, and how Jada is the strongest woman he knows for standing up in her beauty regardless of what ails her or what anyone has to say about it. Will then says to Rock (off or on mic, dealer’s choice), straight in his eye, “I’m going to go sit back down. Keep her name out your mouth. I can’t promise it won’t be on-sight after this.” Will sits down. Everybody in the world calls him amazing and Rock looks like the jackass he is.
If some version of that would have happened the only people who would have been upset are the neanderthals who think violence is a dope way to go through what life you can manage between prison stints for assault.
I know “toxic” anything has become a yawn-inducing phrase, but applying toxic masculinity to this moment is appropriate. The implication of “toxic” means that whatever it’s describing is poisonous, that it has some negative infectious quality. Will slapping Rock out of some sense of protection is toxic masculinity. Rock’s joke was toxic masculinity. That one upends the other doesn’t make it less toxic. It’s why so many people are swimming in indecision and distressed over something that, technically, should have no impact on their lives whatsoever. And yet, the feeling is there. Why? I don’t know. You’d have to go down the line of people who feel that way and ask them, and even then they may not have the answer. Such is the power of poison. Even I am attempting to suck the venom out here.
We don’t know if Rock knew Jada was dealing with alopecia, but to make such foresight a dealbreaker sidesteps a truth that every Black person knows: Black women have to contend with beauty standard warfare every day of their lives. That daily charge always starts in the battlefield of what they do or do not do with their hair. Rock knows this because in 2009 he produced and starred in a documentary called Good Hair, in which Black women gave up all the goods. Even Rock’s then 3-year-old daughter was in that documentary. But even if he hadn’t made that documentary, any Black person who has spent time around Black women knows the deal: Black hair is not for play. The rule, “Don’t touch Black women’s hair” isn’t just a physical warning; it applies to what you have to say about it as well. Rock didn’t need to know about Jada’s condition to know he shouldn’t make fun of her lack of hair. He knows Black women. He knows the hair rules. He knows better.
Jada Pinkett-Smith may be a lot of things, but weak isn’t one of them. In an ideal world, Jada’s response would be the response that the world would be forced to contend with because the slight was done to her. She automatically becomes the arbiter of how the slight should be handled. Perhaps she condones what Will did. The slap may be the punishment she feels fits the crime. As of this writing, only she and maybe Will know. What I do know is that honor is a fickle thing in this day and age. Any defense of it seems almost archaic. And short of Jada siccing Will on Chris for his trespass, the only honor Will was protecting was his own.
That said, Black women are the most put-upon people in the world. That was true before that Malcolm X quote (“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman”) and it’s been true since. That truth is so universally recognized that to argue otherwise proves you a fool. Black women are maligned as a matter of course in America, so much so that any public defense of a Black woman causes confusion in the observer. Black women have been telling us for generations that they’d prefer we didn’t assume they were superhuman on a daily basis, for all the reasons such backhanded compliments are a problem: the lie of it, the opening of the door to deeper offense, the erasure.
I don’t know if Will Smith cares about Black women in the general sense. I do know he cares about that Black woman. I know I saw Ketanji Brown Jackson being attacked over the course of several days by some of the most powerful white people in the country and how gratifying it was to see Corey Booker hold her up. I do know that there are tons of Black women who saw both scenarios as a respite. I am not here to tell Black women they are wrong (on this day or any other). They have more than earned the right to their processing, however it falls. If anybody wants to dissuade Black women from such determinations, let us all be about the business of changing the reality of how they are treated as par for the course.
If Chris Rock were a better race man – meaning he cared more genuinely about the plight of Black people in a way that you could measure in his work – none of this would have happened because he would have never told that joke. The fact that he could look around that auditorium and see how few Black faces there were, and then see how few Black women there were (all things which he knew before getting on stage, mind you), and still feel like it was okay to take a shot at one of them because of her looks, is almost criminal. As someone who makes fun of people randomly from stages as a matter of course, I do that math. I generally don’t crack wise about Black women unless I’m in a Black venue. White folks don’t get to laugh at what me and Black women share, and sure, I had to learn that the hard way. Not slapped in the face hard, but hard in its way.
This moment is being billed as “The Slap Heard Round the World” and I wish it weren’t. To focus so much on the slap takes away from the fact that Chris Rock told a joke with horrific implications and that also broke the first rule of comedy: it wasn’t funny. I suppose I want this situation to be referred to as Two Wrongs Make an Oscar Moment. I don’t ever want Rock’s joke divorced from Will’s slap. One may be less legal than the other, but I don’t want one prioritized over the other. I want each act to be seen for the abuses they are. That two wrongs actually come out to a right to some people is instructive, but I need that math equation to stay intact. We witnessed two wrongs. Each of us should take the time to figure out why the sum of those actions is so different between us. There is good work to be done in that space.
Let’s clear another bad sentiment off the table: that Will’s slap opens up the door to people launching into altercations and other violence with comedians doing their acts. I don’t wish harm on any comedian, but this logic only serves to shore up the contextual argument against Rock making the joke in the first place. Rock wasn’t doing his stand-up at a club or in an arena where people bought tickets to hear him and who conversely know the deal. This was the Oscars. It is basically family television that happens to run late at night. The same rules don’t apply to a general audience stage that apply to a comedy show. That comedians have been getting away with these mini-roasts unmolested to this point was just luck. Rock should have saved that joke for bowling in a lane where the audience bumpers are shelved. Maybe I’m just tired of comedians playing revolution, whining about not being able to say what they want as they say what they want to more people than ever before.
If you’re reading this, you probably don’t know any of the people involved in that Oscar moment, so what most of us are saying is worse than opinion; it’s projection. This whole escapade is a Rorschach test, with people looking into it and pulling out what we believe in and value. I am working hard today to be cognizant of the fact that it’s a test, not just of Will and Rock and Jada, but of myself. I saw a situation unfold and had several reactions to it. Some of them were not intellectual. I stood several hours on an anti-intellectual response to it, and I don’t know any of these people. That’s a big deal to me. I worry about people who can brush that off with “it’s just a joke” or “I guess Chris Rock found out” and get on with their day.
The feeling I’ve been experiencing most since this all went down is sadness. I am sad that Rock turned Questlove’s soon-to-be-historic moment into an opportunity to launch a weak roast. I am sad that Will slapped Rock in front of a billion people. I am sad that Will’s speech wasn’t up to the moment, but was apparently enough for a standing ovation.
But mostly I am sad that this moment – a moment which more people have commented on than any topic worldwide that I can recall in five years – will draw more lines than it erases. I am sad that it will expose how far we have not come as human beings or Americans or as Black men on and offstage. I am sad at the death of nuance, at the survey-like engagement of pretty much every person I have ever seen post anything to the internet checking their respective boxes, only to move on to the next flare-up having shared our worst impressions, not our best.
I am sad at how such disposable violence has made our ability to process how such moments come to be a disposable act as well, and why. I am sad at approaching such moments as if our answer is the conclusive and correct one, rather than the beginning of a process to figure out why we feel so entitled to our projections over such complicated realities. There is a timeline of events that led up to that joke and that slap, but filling in those points is a far less productive exercise than figuring out why any of us think either act was okay. Or, if we’ve at least gotten over that smallest of hurdles, why it doesn’t make more of us sad. And if the answer is because it doesn’t concern us, then what are we even talking about?