Content warning: This article discusses anti-Black racism.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the incident that occurred at the 2022 Academy Awards. I’m referring to when actor Will Smith walked onstage to slap comedian Chris Rock in the face before cursing him out. Later in the night, Smith accepted the award for Best Actor for his work in King Richard.
The next day, I woke up to a text from my roommate, who had sent me a tweet showing Lupita Nyong’o’s facial expressions behind an angry Smith. At first, I didn’t understand the situation — was she sending it to me because of how pretty Nyong’o looked?
After a quick Internet search, I was caught up — Smith had slapped Rock because the comedian had compared his wife’s — Jada Pinkett Smith’s — shaved head to that of actress Demi Moore’s in G.I. Jane. In 2018, Pinkett Smith revealed that she suffered from alopecia areata, a disease that occurs when one’s immune system attacks hair follicles, causing hair loss. In 2021, via Instagram, Pinkett Smith explained that her condition led her to the decision to shave her head.
When reacting to the slap, however, history wasn’t the first thought that came to mind; instead, like many, I assumed that Smith’s actions were a joke. It was only after I saw Australian footage of the occurrence — which featured Smith’s now infamous line, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth!” — that I realized the severity of the situation.
To give context, Rock’s round of jokes can be attributed to the informal tradition during which an award show host — usually a celebrity — criticizes audience members in a joking manner. Many white entertainers have done this, such as when Jimmy Kimmel hosted the Academy Awards in 2017, and referred to Matt Damon as “fat.”
There was also Ricky Gervais’s 2020 Golden Globes rant, during which he said Felicity Huffman’s children must be “embarrassed” that she served prison time for paying someone to give her daughter a fraudulent SAT score. It’s not right, but this is what comedians do; they make immature jokes in the name of ‘humour.’
It seems that, in recent memory, no award show host has paid such a severe price for offending someone with their jokes. As a Black woman, it bothers me that this backlash is surrounding Rock, a Black man with a successful career. From voicing Marty, our favorite zebra in Madagascar, to performing sold-out stand up comedy shows, Rock’s image as a ‘funny Black man’ seemed to benefit him — until it didn’t.
In my opinion, Smith’s actions were disappointing, because they were aimed at a fellow Black man. They also demonstrated — to both audience members and to the Academy Awards’ 16.62 million viewers worldwide — how easy it can be to assault a Black man.
In 2020, Pinkett Smith faced a pit of online jokes when she and Smith discussed a relationship she had with singer August Alsina at the time of their marriage. I’ve heard many people mention this situation to justify Smith’s behavior; they assume that he must be tired of witnessing his wife — and marriage — receive mockery and the public’s unsolicited opinions.
In 2021, Smith wrote in his self-titled memoir that, in his childhood, he felt guilty for not standing up for his mother when she was being abused by his father. To some extent, I guess his behavior at the Academy Awards can be seen as chivalrous; it’s an example of a Black man defending his Black wife from an insensitive joke about her hair. But I wouldn’t feel ‘rescued’ by Smith’s actions, and I don’t want my significant other to attack people who disrespect me.
On the other hand, Rock’s distasteful joke contained racial undercurrent, even if Rock wasn’t aware of it. Throughout history, Black women have often been humiliated for their hairstyles — the Eurocentric beauty standard of having long, straight hair is often at odds with the texture of Black hair. Even though Rock’s joke was not about Pinkett Smith’s hair, but about her baldness, hairstyles that a Black woman wore were once again at the center of a controversy.
Despite the Smith versus Rock debates occurring as I write this article, I believe that I don’t have to choose a side to agree with to comprehend the situation. Although the incident evoked global conversation, that’s what celebrities do nowadays — they say and do things that will provoke us into speaking about it.
Instead, I wish that they got us talking about Riz Ahmed, whose film, The Long Goodbye, won Best Short Film, making him the first Muslim person to win in that category. Additionally, Ariana DeBose, a woman of colour who openly describes herself as LGBTQ+, won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in West Side Story. Many beautiful moments happened at that ceremony — but we’re busy discussing a slap.
Despite my hatred for celebrity culture as a whole, I don’t believe that Smith or Rock should be boycotted for their actions — cancel culture is a mob mentality built upon the idea that humans are disposable. Instead, I hope that this situation transforms into a beautiful redemption story in which comedians start to write their jokes with empathy and actors understand that their violence is subject to consequences.