I want to open by stating that I generally couldn’t care less about this issue, because as I will explain later, Will Smith and Chris Rock are millionaires who will be perfectly fine in just a short while, and whose specific actions with regards to this ultimately have no impact on me, or literally anyone who isn’t obscenely rich themselves.
With that said, I felt the need to write this in response to the ridiculous responses and “hot takes” about this issue, most of which are steeped in anti-Blackness and respectability politics.
As most probably know by now, at this year’s Oscars, on March 27th, famous actor and rapper Will Smith smacked comedian Chris Rock on live television, for Rock’s “joke” about Jada Pinkett Smith’s disability. The comedian made a joke about Pinkett Smith playing “G.I. Jane” because of her shaved head, a result of her Alopecia. Alopecia is an autoimmune disorder, one that Pinkett Smith has talked about at length in terms of how it has affected her and her life since being diagnosed in 2018. In the middle of a massive disabling event, the historical context of Black women’s pain and disabilities never being taken seriously, and her own pain regularly expressed, Rock thought Smith’s disability would be the perfect thing to joke about in front of a large, international audience (an audience of the Smiths’ peers, at that).
The outcry was immediate, and Twitter was in flames for over a week after it happened. In the few weeks since it has happened, Will Smith has resigned from the Academy, been banned from all Academy events (including the Oscars) for the next 10 years, has started to lose movie deals, and has even been asked to return his Oscar win for Best Actor from that night to “restore the honor of the award.”
Not to mention the numerous absurd pieces on his personal history with abuse in his own family, song parodies about the event, arguments that Smith claiming he slapped Rock out of love is just a regurgitation of the kinds of excuses interpersonal abusers make, that Jada Smith is actually abusing Will Smith, and that he would’ve been arrested if he were white. Also that he should’ve been and should still be arrested (completely ignoring and actually calling for Smith, as a Black man, to face the inhumane violence of the criminal system), and the correct analysis that Smith won’t be held legally liable because he’s rich, coupled with the incorrect analysis that Smith acted incredibly violent and could have “seriously injured Rock.”
And honestly my personal favorite from Jamie Lee Curtis:
So what does Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars actually mean? There are definitely arguments to be made about the ways that his act of defending his wife by slapping Rock for insulting her is simply an embodiment of toxic masculinity and male chauvinism. And as I mentioned earlier the critiques about Smith being able to get away with assaulting Rock is certainly a demonstration of his power and privilege as a wealthy individual. And yet… most of the takes about this conflict have nothing to do with these very real concerns.
Let’s start with the fact that Chris Rock has a long history with disrespecting Black women and making them the brunt of his “jokes,” especially in reference to their hair (as he did with Pinkett Smith), and other “jokes” that place Black people as the punchline. He also has a history with disrespecting Jada specifically, so really, it’s not at all surprising that this has finally come to a head. Rock being slapped certainly isn’t him being “held accountable” in any way that’ll actually reduce harm, especially to Black women, but with this context, it makes a lot more sense that Smith went as far as to publicly slap and yell at Rock, and this history has rarely been addressed in the discourse around this, because why would a history of disrespecting Black women matter to those who are turning this into an excuse to push forward anti-Black sentiments and beliefs?
We of course can’t forget all of the frankly bewildering-yet-unsurprising and comical arguments about how this will somehow set back rights for Black people for years to come. Columnist Jonathan Capehart went as far as to claim that the “smack was a blow to all Black people who have worked for our dignity and acceptance,” and that anyone who cries respectability politics as a case against his argument is needs to understand that “the harsh truth is that ‘respectability’ is the exorbitant tax we African Americans are forced to pay daily as we try to live out our versions of the American Dream.”
Who are we (as Black people) fighting for “dignity and acceptance” from? Who is actually trying to discover the infamous so-called “American Dream,” and in doing so is willingly orienting their lives to please those who get to decide who reaches the Dream (i.e. white people)? Because I, as a Black person, certainly am not, and neither are most of my friends, and neither are most of their friends. In fact, there’s a pretty strong understanding amongst a large part of the global Black population that the American Dream doesn’t actually exist, and that respectability doesn’t matter in the face of anti-Blackness and oppression.
More importantly, what do the actions of two rich Black folks have anything to do with your average Black person? How does Will Smith missing out on a decades’ worth of Oscars’ gifts (which include literal plots of land) impact me and other Black folks? What does any of this have to do with anything that actually matters (e.g. the climate crisis, rising global fascism, late, dying capitalism, etc)?
Will Smith has certainly been treated inequitably in the aftermath (banned for 10 years even though the Oscars regularly invite known abusers and sexual assaulters, like Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein), but in the end, he will be perfectly fine, as will Chris Rock.