Like millions of others, I saw Will Smith slap Chris Rock during the 94th Academy Awards. I felt my heart start to race and my chest constrict as I waited for a sign that the exchange was one of those awkward Oscar bits— poorly written, but expertly executed by these two men. I also, like many, started scrolling through my social media feeds for confirmation. Because after it happened everything seemed to flow almost normally in that space of golden statues, chiseled faces, and sparkling ball gowns. Somehow my immediate emotional reaction told me it was not staged. An unedited version of the altercation was on Twitter within minutes, thanks to viewers in Australia.
An enraged Will Smith really did physically assault Chris Rock.
My emotions moved from awe, to disappointment, to sadness. And then I accepted that I was offended. For a few reasons. One, because as a Black woman, I had just witnessed two Black men who are considered examples in my community, make a spectacle of themselves in a very public forum over something that felt petty. Secondly, in reading the online debates and responses, a lot of people believed that Will Smith was justified in his actions. Their rationale: He was defending Black women. Well, his Black woman. That notion in and of itself is offensive because Jada Pinkett-Smith is not the property of Will Smith, but more importantly, I did not look at that moment as chivalrous or a way in which I would want to be protected.
The idea of protecting Black women became a rally cry over the last few years, coined by the subjects themselves, who were just tired of watching fellow Black women die and very few of our Black male counterparts offering support. We observed Black women mourn Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor publicly in ways that fell far short of the responses to George Floyd and Trayvon Martin. And as Black trans women have been brutally murdered, often at the hands of straight Black men, Black women started to question: who was truly looking out for us? And the demanding decree of “Protect Black Women” became a mantra.
A more recent instance of an overwhelming demand for the protection of Black women occurred during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of candidate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. As her professional record was dissected in a public forum, she was often ridiculed and patronized for her rulings on cases, typically those of the most extreme circumstances, as a means to disqualify her eligibility status and diminish her accomplishments. While we were allowed to express our fury over the apparent racist and sexist treatment, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson had to maintain a diplomatic and stoic disposition, with perfectly phrased and poised responses.
In these particular instances, I agree. Black women deserve to be protected because we are valuable. As living, breathing humans who add depth and layers to this complex world. We deserve to exist in our boldness, in our timidity and all of the spaces in between, but we should also be able to thrive. However, Will Smith did not advance that cause through his behavior.
The scene reminded me of a date I was on once. I was around thirty years old and on a casual meetup. We were at the bar inside of a restaurant, ordering frothy margaritas in colorful glasses, when another man walked up to the bar to place his order. He asked me a question, probably something along the lines of if the margaritas were any good. The music was loud so I doubt my date could hear the exchange. However all of a sudden he was loudly demanding that the other man back up and give “the lady her space”. He was so loud, everything instantly became quieter, and I, immediately embarrassed and nervous. After some intense glares and a few exchanged words, the other man retreated.
While it seemed safe enough because nothing physical happened, it was what was activated within me that sent off all types of alarms. At that moment, I did not feel protected. I felt afraid. And not of the unexpected questioning customer, but of the reaction of my date. I wondered if he got that bent out of shape about someone leaning in to ask me a question, what would happen if the infringement had been greater. Or worse what would be his reaction towards me if I acted outside of his expectations?
I grew up in a family with a history of violence. Some witnessed directly, others in stories passed down through generations. There were the fist-making, gun-toting, knife carrying people with short fuses mixed in with those that were docile, obedient, and downright afraid to say anything out of the boundaries. At times these dynamics resulted in arguments which evolved to battles and discipline that should be deemed abusive. Its inception was typically ill-spoken words that turned into intense voices, which morphed into yells. But the endgame was often violence. So for me, when voices raise, it is a warning, and a trigger. Hence my visceral response to Will Smith’s altercation with Chris Rock.
Watching that moment, which unfortunately is cemented in history for posterity to replay, made me question if Will Smith was able to get that upset over a joke and strike out so violently in a public manner, how does he respond behind closed doors? We could write it off as an impulsive reaction to his wife’s public embarrassment, but then shouldn’t we question Will Smith’s lack of self-control?
It was painful to read the responses, many from women like Tiffany Haddish, who defended Will’s actions as standing up for his wife’s honor—further explaining that we cannot in one breath demand respect for Black women and then dictate how that respect should be expressed. But I wonder if these same individuals introspectively asked if that moment was truly about Jada Pinkett Smith or Will Smith? And if the subsequent answer is not crystal clear, then can we truly say he was protecting Black women?
Will Smith went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. In a tear-filled acceptance speech (which I recommend everyone go back and watch), he referenced love—a lot. And doubled down as a man who would fight for his family. I waited for his apology to Chris Rock. It did not come. I also listened closely for a specific reference to his wife. He mentioned his commitment to protecting his co-stars Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton by name. He also praised Venus and Serena Williams. However, he very briefly acknowledged his “wife.” Not by name and absent of any dynamic and powerful recognition of his devotion or defense for her. How ironic is it that this proclamation of being a conduit of love was preceded by violence and failed to openly acknowledge the same passion for his wife—the woman everyone assumed he was defending?
The intention behind the rally cry for our protection as Black women may have been birthed in catastrophic events, but what I think is more practical, realistic and necessary is what is required of men daily that is often shoved to the back burner as black women’s ‘personal issues’ or worries, deemed as having little or nothing to do with the men themselves. For example, equal and fair wages, adequate healthcare or the eradication of violence against women and girls. While those systemic issues may seem global and out of reach, what about starting within yourself and evaluating how you speak to, speak about and interact with Black women on a daily basis? To me, protecting Black women goes beyond standing up to a man telling a joke. It is the commitment to using your privilege and power as a man to improve the lives of women who look like me.
Will Smith slapping Chris Rock did not do that.
Originally published on Medium.com link: https://medium.com/@vangieluvs/will-smiths-behavior-was-not-protecting-black-women-f34b8effd1c
Evangeline Lawson is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, V-Day and The Progressive.