Now This Is A Story All About How ‘The Slap’ Became About Race

This week, much of the valid analysis about Will Smith, Chris Rock and that slap was overshadowed by an increasingly racist discourse. We should probably talk about it, huh?

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Stacy Lee Kong

Apr 01 2022

13 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

‎Confession: I have been tired of the discourse around 'The Slap' since approximately 11:21pm on Sunday night. That, btw, was the moment Judd Apatow tweeted that Will Smith “could have killed” Chris Rock when he hit him after Rock made a cruel, ableist joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars that night. Listen, I don’t think we should hit people at work events either, but killed him? My guy!

‎In fact, I spent this whole week hoping some juicy celebrity story would drop so the internet could talk about literally anything else. Instead… the exact opposite happened (sigh). It wasn't that every opinion was awful; it was that valid points about ableism, misogynoir, unexamined trauma, respectability politics and toxic masculinity were overshadowed by frankly unhinged, if not downright racist, takes from (mostly) white people. So apologies, but I really do think we need to talk about how this conversation evolved over the course of the week—and what so many people were really saying when they discussed it.

ICYMI, here’s why everyone's still talking about Will Smith, Chris Rock and the Oscars

In case you have miraculously managed to avoid the details, a brief overview: on Sunday night, Chris Rock was on stage at the 94th Academy Awards to present the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature when he made a G.I. Jane joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia.  

“Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it. Alright?” Rock said.

While Smith initially laughed, Pinkett Smith was visibly annoyed by Rock's joke, and justifiably so. As many people have pointed out, it was deeply problematic for a number of reasons. And when Smith saw that she wasn’t laughing, he walked onto the stage and slapped Rock before returning to his seat, where he yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.” Twice.

‎‎After that, a lot of things happened: Rock announced the winner (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson for Summer of Soul, who gave an emotional if understandably disjointed acceptance speech); Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry and Bradley Cooper comforted Smith; P. Diddy tried to lift the energy of the room; and, as we learned in the past few days, there were immediately serious conversations between Rock’s manager, Jason Weinberg, and the LAPD, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s CEO, president and publicist and Smith’s publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan Wasson. A short while later, Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard and gave a speech that I… did not love. In the following days, he, Pinkett Smith and their kids, Jaden and Willow, each made social media statements, Smith’s of the PR-vetted-apology variety. And so many people wrote hot takes.

I have zero interest in adding to that number by analyzing the slap itself, beyond stating for the record that I think Smith hitting Rock was a bad call that unfortunately distracted from several history-making moments. Instead, I’ll direct you to Soraya Nadia McDonald, whose nuanced piece perfectly explained how many things can be true at once: Chris Rock made a Black woman with alopecia the butt of a shitty joke, Will Smith’s ego propelled him on that stage more than any sense of protectiveness and the Academy just keeps telling on itself. Also worth a read: Roxane Gay on rejecting the idea that it’s virtuous to be thick-skinned, B.A. Parker on how award shows undermine and disrespect Black women specifically and David Dennis Jr. on the it’s-dangerous-to-be-a-comic discourse and who is actually at risk for physical violence. (Not super-wealthy straight dude comedians who get invited to the Oscars, just fyi.)

But for this newsletter, we're going to focus on the discourse.

It didn’t take long for white people to go from shocked to racist

Admittedly, the slap was jarring and, as I tweeted that night, way too fucking much for (I can’t stress this enough) a work event. But while I felt unsettled by the unexpected disruption and the sight of Will Smith losing control in perhaps the most public way possible, it quickly became clear that for some people, this slap was more than just an ill-advised yet relatively mild moment of physical violence. It was something major, something reprehensible—something that required punishment. ‎

Apatow, who later admitted he hadn’t even been watching the Oscars at the time, sent a string of tweets that painted Smith as a hypermasculine, angry Black man who had “lost his mind” and acted in “rage and violence.” He even warned Amy Schumer to be careful lest Smith hit her, too. I mean… is the racism even subtext at this point?

And it wasn’t just the director, of course. In a now-deleted tweet, Mia Farrow also engaged in a little hyperbole, calling the slap the Oscar’s “ugliest moment.” Really, Mia? The ugliest moment of all time? Worse than John Wayne trying to assault Indigenous activist Sacheen Littlefeather? Worse than Adrien Brody sexually assaulting Halle Berry on stage? Worse than Roman Polanski getting a standing ovation when he won Best Director for The Pianist in 2003—after he’d fled the U.S. to avoid sentencing when he was convicted of drugging and raping a 13-year-old? Worse than your own ex-husband’s 25 Academy Award nominations and four wins, many of which happened after your daughter Dylan accused Allen of sexually abusing her? But of course, in a world where Black men’s actions are understood as uniquely dangerous, Smith’s slap actually would be worse than these other examples of violence, wouldn’t it?

Then, on Wednesday, Oscars co-host Amy Schumer posted a now-deleted Instagram post where she said, “I think we can all agree that the best way to unpack what happened is to stream my series @lifeandbethhulu and see me on tour this fall. But for real. Still triggered and traumatized. I love my friend @chrisrock and believe he handled it like a pro. Stayed up there and gave an Oscar to his friend @questlove and the whole thing was so disturbing. So much pain in @willsmith anyway I'm still in shock and stunned and sad. Im [sic] proud of myself and my cohosts. But yeah. Waiting for this sickening feeling to go away from what we all witnessed."‎

So much of the discourse following the slap involved white tears

Obviously, people can be legitimately triggered or traumatized by unexpectedly seeing someone hit someone else on TV. But I think it’s obvious that Schumer’s use of the words “triggered” and “traumatized” is more likely an example of the way therapy speak has crept into mainstream language than an expression of actual psychological harm. As Slate’s Shannon Palus explained last year in a piece about the popularization of the term trauma response, “the trend of trauma-ifying common behaviors is so pervasive that there are now viral jokes about it. It seems, in part, a simple case of social media rhetoric: relaying a vast assortment of relatable annoyances and pitfalls of being human while simultaneously upping the stakes by saying, ‘We are all this way because we are traumatized.’”

By recasting her discomfort, annoyance, anger and/or uneasiness as trauma, Schumer was, consciously or not, making sure that her audience understood her feelings as serious and legitimate, regardless of whether they were grounded in fact. ‎

In fact, lots of (white) women took that approach. Author S.E. Cupp tweeted about how “traumatic [it was] to see actual violence—not Hollywood pretend violence—on live TV,” while screenwriter Krista Vernoff and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll both drew connections between Smith slapping Rock and domestic or child abuse. And that’s not counting all the ‘regular’ people who speculated that he must hit people all the time. Maybe some of this can be explained by our social media-inspired need to comment on everything, often without thinking about the implications of what we’re saying. Obviously, white women weren't the only ones using the words “triggered” and “traumatized.” (Wanda Sykes shared the same sentiment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Wednesday.) But context matters, so we can't ignore how these kinds of statements, especially when expressed by white women, play into dangerous, racist stereotypes about Black men.

As writer Stitch pointed out in a Teen Vogue op-ed this week, “when white women claim a Black person is ‘scary’ or ‘abusive’—especially in a situation where they’re not even remotely in danger—they’re doing so to trigger a particular defensive response. They’re trying to say that watching Will Smith slap Chris Rock in defense of his wife is the exact same thing as being a child cowering from an abusive parent… so that their criticism of Smith and portrayal of him as a ‘Black Brute’ can’t be rooted in respectability politics and racism. Instead of being about their disappointment that Smith isn’t the squeaky clean Black man they’ve believed him to be, it’s about their trauma.”

It's not just how we're talking about Will Smith, btw

And that desire for punishment that I mentioned? That’s about race, too, at least in part. Based on all the reporting I’ve seen so far, Rock never even considered pressing charges against Smith—but people still made #ArrestWillSmith and #TakeBackTheOscar trend on Twitter. Never mind that the over-policing of Black people has been pretty topical for the past couple of years, and that no Oscar winner—including Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Sean Penn, Woody Allen and many other alleged and admitted abusers and racists—has ever been stripped of their award. For some people—including, hypocritically, Jim Carrey (who sexually assaulted a 19-year-old Alicia Silverstone at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards, among other past examples of abusive behaviour)—the prospect of Smith facing professional consequences for his transgression was more important than history or context.

Even the focus on Smith's actions over Rock's comes down to race, too. As activist and academic Bryan Levya points out in a recent Twitter thread, "white people focused almost exclusively on Chris’s behavior AFTER his attack on Jada, and in some instances it almost felt like they were praising him not for acting in congruence with his own moral values and principles, but for acting in concert with theirs... We then saw white people using Chris to promote respectability politics, contrasting his behavior with Will’s as a way to demonize and criminalize Will, and to police the behavior of other Black men. A behavior that historically has been romanticized in American novels and movies (a guy punching another guy for disrespecting their girlfriend or wife) all of a sudden became 'how could he?!' and 'how unAmerican,' simply a Black person did it. I’m not saying it was right. It wasn’t. But still this was weird to see." (Sidenote: the whole thread is very smart and helped me clarify my thinking on why I found the discourse so frustrating. It even inspired my subject line! Highly recommend reading.)

‎And if you think it's weird that I've spent this whole newsletter talking about two men, not the Black woman who's ostensibly at the centre of this conflict, well... yeah. For all that people have opined about the slap this week, they generally haven't centred Pinkett Smith. In all the talk about apologies, no one—not Smith, not the Academy and definitely not Rock—publicly said sorry to her, even though there was arguably lots to apologize for: Smith created a spectacle that means we'll be talking about her alopecia and appearance for approximately forever; the Academy nurtured an environment where jokes about Black women are acceptable and Rock, you know, mocked her appearance and, knowingly or not, medical condition. That's not even taking into account the weird amounts of vitriol that have been levelled at her, as if she was to blame for this whole thing.

Now, let's talk specifically about the Academy

The hot takes, celebrity social media statements and calls for punishment were bad enough, but the Academy’s handling of this situation has been politically furstrating to see. On Monday, the organization released a statement saying it “condemned [Smith’s] action” and had “officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.” Fair enough. I don’t think anyone expected him to escape all consequences. But on Wednesday, it released another statement, this one saying Smith’s “actions at the 94th Oscars were a deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness in-person and on television” (again with the invocation of trauma), that it has started “disciplinary proceedings”—and claiming they asked Smith to leave following the slap, but he refused. Only, sources dispute that version of events, saying that, while some Academy members thought he should be escorted from the building, there was never a formal or explicit request for him to leave.

Maybe it’s not completely fair to compare the Academy’s reaction to Smith’s slap with previous reactions to problematic behaviour, especially since there were no policies in place for handling assault for most of Oscars history, and Smith is in clear violation of the ones that were drafted post-#MeToo. But claiming he was asked to leave when that’s not what happened? That sounds to me like the Academy is trying to punish Smith for its own mishandling of the situation, something that will likely feel familiar to many racialized people.

All of which is to say, Will Smith shouldn’t have slapped Chris Rock. But I also don’t think white people and institutions should be projecting their anxieties about Black anger onto a situation that, in the grand scheme of things, is nowhere near the worst thing to ever happen on the Oscars stage.


And Did You Hear About…

This lovely piece on what it means to see South Asian representation in Bridgerton, and this Twitter thread that touches on the same theme.

Jezebel’s extremely thorough breakdown of the long-running fan theory that Taylor Swift is gay.

Bruce Willis’ aphasia diagnosis—and the L.A. Timesreport that people have been concerned about his declining cognitive state for years, especially after he appeared in 21 movies in just over two years.

Nylon’s brilliant piece on the Karashians, that viral Miu Miu mini skirt and why fashion is turning away from the BBL aesthetic. (A super-short excerpt: “to celebrate the supposed ‘end of the BBL’ is synonymous with the desire to kill the ways in which Black women, especially Black trans women, and especially Black trans sex workers, have shaped the culture and were co-opted by the mainstream.”)

Every magical, ridiculous word of GQ’s recent Nicolas Cage profile.

Bonus: This nerdy but fascinating Twitter thread.

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