What we can all learn from the palm of Will Smith’s hand
Like most of us, when I saw Will’s face and the Super Fly strut towards Chris Rock, I thought it was a sketch. A bit the two master entertainers put together to zhoosh up the night. Even after the slap, I laughed awkwardly at first, but that quickly dissipated when I heard the words, “Keep my wife’s name out your FUCKING mouth!” ring through the crowd. As a connoisseur of the phonetics of cuss words, I must say that there has not been a more satisfying fuck on screen since Denzel’s, “Get your fucking hands off me!”
But behind the words and the action is a reason. A reason that if you weren’t paying close enough attention the first time you watched, you probably missed. The first few seconds after the joke is why some Black women, in particular, are rallying in support of Will Smith. Jada’s face — it was written all over her face. The pain and disrespect. Whether you agree with how her husband resolved this conflict or not, the overwhelmingly positive response from Black women is rooted in the mere existence of a response, a meaningful response, from a Black man. Will Smith — single-handedly (pun intended) — made Black women feel like their pain would not go unnoticed. That there would be a response when someone disrespects them, and that their tears and hurt matter. For some, Will Smith is a long-awaited hero. After the incident, Will Smith offered an apology that felt sincere, as he realized he had more tools in his belt to handle that conflict differently. That’s a beautiful thing: recognizing when you are wrong and seeking authentic atonement. He didn’t apologize at the award show to Chris Rock, which likely would have been disingenuous at that moment, but after further reflection, he came with a respectful apology and, most importantly, accountability.
Immediately after the incident, we all learned two things about Chris Rock. First, that he’s got one hell of a jaw, he bounced back with the swiftness and grace of a gazelle and got through the rest of his responsibility, barely skipping a beat. Second, we learned that he is an absolute professional — in a way many of us could never. If someone slaps the shit out of me at work, at best, that’s going to be the end of my shift, and at worse, I’m screaming profanities and swinging wildly as I’m dragged out of the building in hysterics.
And for my Black folks, who respond to the hit of the decade by saying, “They can’t take us nowhere,” “Black people don’t know how to act,” or if you hold even an ounce of embarrassment that this occurred in front of non-Black eyes, you have work to do to deconstruct the internalized racism within you. Our liberation lives outside the white gaze. So if you are focused on responding to, or for them, you are focusing on the wrong thing. With that said, there is a conversation we must have with ourselves, about what physical acts of violence means to our future and our wellness, and how we address disrespect culturally, when we are all too often the butt of a joke. Also, swirling in Black spaces is the question: would Will have hit a white man for making that joke? There is certainly merit behind that question, and only Will Smith can answer. Some people point to the video from 2012, where Will slapped a reporter who tried to kiss him, but obviously the conversation would be different if it were a white comedian at the same level as Chris Rock.
However you felt about the slap, wherever you land on the meaning or the results of the strike, I am hopeful that your conversations yield a more realistic understanding of violence than mainstream media’s commentary. Mainstream articles and commentators worldwide are all jumping on the bandwagon to shame Will Smith for slapping the taste out of Chris Rock’s mouth. People are spewing hypocrisy in the way they examine the merits of violence.
There is an aggressive lie in the message being shared:
All violence is bad violence. Violence is never the answer.
Well, that’s simply not true, particularly in the United States. America chooses violence and has chosen violence since its very inception. This country changes the definition of acceptable violence as it supports its agenda, but what has never been tolerated is Black people using violence outside of Black spaces and in any capacity except for entertainment. If Black people hit each other on a reality show or in the confines of the hood, no one cares, but if it is in mixed company, most especially in front of white folks or in respectable places, it must be corrected immediately.
Contrast that with forms of violence sanctioned by our government and the systems in which we operate. These forms of violence have long-lasting effects and often multigenerational damage. As a family law attorney, I’ve seen horrendous acts committed against the most marginalized, much of which comes from the hands of the state. The type of violence that leaves a trail of destruction and pain in its path. You sound like an asshole if you draw the line at a slap but are totally fine with mass incarceration, people being taken from their homes and incarcerated for decades. If you’re saying that violence of any kind is wrong, I need you to move with that same energy in supporting families who have their children stripped from them in the family regulation system (formerly known as the child welfare system).
That violence is egregious and should shock the senses. Yet, a corrective slap across the face between two adults is arguably less harmful than much of the violence we choose not to see.
Notwithstanding the questionable nature and motive for Will Smith’s slap, I would argue there may be appropriate uses of a slap in the adult world. Personally, I’ve seen many a righteous slap. When a righteous slap occurs, we all walk away having learned something. There is a message for the sender, the receiver, and the audience at large.
In the summer of 2016, on 14th and U street, a young Asian man slapped the taste out of his Asian friend’s mouth who refused to stop saying the N-word. The young man provided many a warning. After the wrongdoer paid no heed, the correcter reached up to the heavens and brought down the wrath of God on that man’s face. That may have seemed extreme to some, but there was a lesson to be learned, everybody ain’t with it, and words have consequences.
All this to say that if you were so shocked by the slap of the ’20s, I hope you move with that same energy against government-sanctioned violence, violence that may not cause physical harm but damages whole communities, and all the other violence you turn a blind eye to because it doesn’t affect you.