Will Smith, Chris Rock and The Math of Black Sadness

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:

  1. Chris Rock shouldn’t have made the joke.
  2. Will Smith shouldn’t have attacked Chris Rock onstage.
  3. 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?

10 thoughts on “Will Smith, Chris Rock and The Math of Black Sadness

  1. Yours is the only thought piece I shared about this issue. So many feelings. You have the most balanced and nuanced approach to what happened. I found myself explaining to one of my white friends what “the dozens” are and where it comes from. I’ve been watching people cape for both men all day and watching Black women reel—even if they THINK their stance today won’t evolve with time and reflection. I’ve talked about how we’re taught not to air this shit out in front of the white folks. I’ve talked about how I just wanted to celebrate my man Questlove. I’m exhausted. But thank you for your post. Critical thinking skills are not dead among us all. ❤️

  2. I’m sad that it’s not ok anymore to just say that violence is never an option. There are no nuances or gray areas that make this acceptable and the action did more to hurt us all than anything else. Rocks behavior requires verbal/ social consequences but Wills behavior requires immediate legal intervention and it got none. So can we talk about ego and privilege? Why is rocks status as a person of color who was slapped for his scripted yet free speech on TV not the dialogue? He has said he no idea about her condition. So what of that? What about how Wills rage detracted from every person of color and CODA’s victory ? Why wasn’t he removed from the theater? Wealthy men, of any color, always hold the most cards. Always. And chris rock isn’t elite enough to deserve justice and support. Why isn’t the Academy’s feet in the fire for the scripted joke? Chris will be the biggest fall guy in every way for doing his job and Will will have zero consequence for making a showboating decision to employ violence on a smaller man in stature ( physical, economic and social). So I guess the front row at the oscars wasn’t enough for Will.

  3. There’s a lot going on in the world now that just isn’t right. Somehow this feels like more of that. There are also many reactions to the above that’re different from so much that’s come before. A lot of old ways that have always been bad but accepted are no longer tolerable. Some reactions have not been predictable or seen as appropriate. People are taking stands and saying, “That’s enough of that.” It’s messy, ungraceful and necessary. Who knows where it will lead?

  4. Thank you for sharing your reaction and process with us. There have been so many comments and posts and such about this incident. A friend of mine who has alopecia commented from her perspective, which is another experience I cannot have, and for which I was grateful. It is so important for those of us who live outside of these experiences to listen.

  5. Amen. Its also sad that a man’s lifetime of goodness and positivity, love and uplifting, can be erased by one thoughtless action. Will Smith was wrong, but he has decades of being a good, stand up man, and human being that are seemingly erased. It makes you wonder, what’s the point in being upstanding if one mistake is enough to erase a lifetime of goodness. That is incredibly sad.

    1. I agree. …

      Also, general male aggression or ‘toxic masculinity’ might be related to the same constraining societal idealization of the ‘real man’ (albeit perhaps more subtly than in the past). Apparently, he is stiff-upper-lip physically and emotionally strong, financially successful, confidently fights and wins, assertively solves problems, and exemplifies sexual prowess.

      Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn-in as president, a 2016 survey of American women conducted not long after his abundant misogyny was exposed to the world revealed that a majority of respondents nonetheless found him appealing, presumably due to his alpha-male great financial success and confidence.

      Interestingly enough, I read a June 24, 2020 Toronto Now article headlined “Keep Cats Out of Your Dating Profile, Ridiculous Study Suggests” that was self-explanatorily sub-headlined “Men were deemed less masculine and less attractive when they held up cats in their dating pics, according to researchers”. Hmmm.

  6. During my own 1980s troubled-teen years, I noticed how by ‘swinging first’, in general, a person potentially places himself (or herself) in an unanticipated psychological disadvantage—one favoring the combatant who chooses to patiently wait for his opponent to take the first swing, perhaps even without the fist necessarily connecting.

    Just having the combatant swing at him before he’d even given his challenger a physical justification for doing so seemed to instantly create a combined psychological and physical imperative within to react to that swung fist with justified anger. In fact, such testosterone-prone behavior may be reflected in the typically male (perhaps unconsciously strategic) invitation for one’s foe to ‘go ahead and lay one on me’, while tapping one’s own chin with his forefinger.

    Yet, from my experience, it’s a theoretical advantage not widely recognized by both the regular scrapper mindset nor general society. Instead of the commonly expected advantage of an opponent-stunning first blow, the hit only triggers an infuriated response earning the instigator two-or-more-fold returned-payment hard hits. It brings to mind an analogous scenario in which a chess player recklessly plays white by rashly forcefully moving his pawn first in foolish anticipation that doing so will indeed stupefy his adversary.

    I’ve theorized that it may be an evolutionary instinct ingrained upon the human male psyche—one preventing us from inadvertently killing off our own species by way of an essentially gratuitous instigation of deadly violence in bulk, which also results in a lack of semen providers to maintain our race. Therefore, in this sense, we can survive: If only a first strike typically results in physical violence, avoiding that first strike altogether significantly reduces the risk of this form of wanton self-annihilation. In other words, matters should remain peacefully peachy when every party shows the others their proper, due respect. It’s like a proactively perfect solution.

    It should also be noted, however, that on rare occasion (at least from my many years of observation) an anomalous initiator/aggressor will be sufficiently confident, daring and violently motivated, perhaps through internal and/or external anger, to outright breach the abovementioned convention by brazenly throwing the first punch(es).

    Perhaps with the logical anticipation, or hope even, that his conventional foe will physically respond in kind by swinging at or hitting him, the unprovoked initiator/aggressor will feel confident and angered enough to willfully physically continue, finishing what he had essentially inexcusably started. It was as though he had anticipated that through both his boldness in daring to throw the first punch and then furthermore finish the physical job he himself had the gall to unjustifiably start in the first place, he will resultantly intimidate his (though now perhaps already quite intimidated) non-initiator/non-aggressor foe into a crippling inferior sense of physical-defense debilitation, itself capable of resulting in a more serious beating received by that diminished non-initiator/non-aggressor party.

    Or, another possibility remains that the initiator/aggressor will be completely confident that when/if he strikes first and the non-initiator/non-aggressor responds with reactor’s fury, he, the initiator/aggressor will himself respond to that response with even greater fury thus physically/psychologically overwhelm the non-initiator/non-aggressor with a very unfortunate outcome for the latter party. Regardless, it has always both bewildered and sickened me how a person can throw a serious punch without any physical provocation.

  7. Thank you Scott for your measured comments on this incident. As Zora Neale Hurston said in Their Eyes Were Watching God (quoting from memory) ‘The Black woman is the mule of the world’ sighs.

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