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Add nuance to your conversations about Will Smith's Oscars slap or don't speak at all

Will Smith's slap of Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars was the slap heard 'round the world — but none of the conversations about it focus on the real issue. – Photo by DiscussingFilm / Twitter

So, the slap.

It’s been the hottest topic of discourse for the past few days to the point where, for one of my classes, we spent the entire class time talking about the incident.

I didn’t understand why I felt so passionately about this topic when, on the surface, it seems like celebrity drama. I couldn’t fathom why I was so angry when I heard people, including my professors, call Will Smith an abuser, a maniac or a power-hungry machismo man.

The labels felt hasty and reductive, and they left a bad taste in my mouth. It felt strange to hear professors call Smith these names, especially because he is a Black man, and these labels reinforced the angry Black man stereotype, whether my professors or my colleagues recognize it.

After reflecting, I realized that a lot of the conversations surrounding what happened lack nuance, cultural and racial context, and most of all, empathy for Black women. 

I suffered through an hour of my professor and my colleagues reveling in an echo chamber of white voices all reiterating that Smith is a violent, selfish man and that Jada Pinkett Smith should learn to take a joke and that comedians should be allowed to make jokes because that is their job, etc.

But not once in the conversation did anyone bring up the fact that a Black woman was humiliated on live TV about a medical condition she can't control or that this act is violent in and of itself.

Here’s the thing: Jokes determine who should not be taken seriously, who should not be respected and who should not be heard. History has shown that jokes often target women and people of color in an attempt to dehumanize and humiliate us for entertainment. If the only material comedians have are at the expense of already marginalized groups, then maybe they're just not funny. 

Women of color, especially Black women, are always the butt of the joke. I am not a Black woman myself, so I can't speak to Pinkett Smith's pain, but as a South Asian woman, I recognize what it's like to be the target of laughter at the expense of white audiences. I understand what it's like to be called ugly, undesirable, cheap, dirty or whatever else comics come up with for a few laughs. 

There's no question that Smith should not have slapped Chris Rock. This is true. Despite this, two things can be true at once, and what many white people are not recognizing is that Smith calling Rock out and telling him to stop shows the world that humiliating Black women isn't okay. Most of all, Smith shows that Black women deserve to be defended. 

One Twitter user put it perfectly: “(White) women are not yodeling online about domestic violence, they are yodeling online about the deeply held belief that they are the only women worth protecting.” 

I was told by one of my white professors that this incident had nothing to do with race but that it had to do with power — namely male power and male ego. I disagreed and stated that the situation was more complex. She interrupted me consistently. I was the one who took the class out of the echo chamber, but my professor shut the conversation down only after I offered a different opinion.

What many white feminists do not understand is that the experiences of minority women are not the same as theirs. What Pinkett Smith experienced was a case of ableism and misogynoir — a term coined in 2010 by Black feminist Moya Bailey to describe misogyny directed at Black women where race and gender both play significant roles.

I reiterate: Smith should not have slapped Rock, but Smith shutting Rock down is a direct refute against misogynoir and ableism, and that meant a lot to many people. 

In our society, Black women and women of color are never seen as being worthy of being cared for, loved or protected by a man.

The "Strong Black Woman" trope often creates the assumption that Black women do not need care, support or love because they are already strong. Yes, Black women are strong, but why should they be expected to carry all their burdens alone? This stereotype allows for people to believe that Black women are superhuman — it's dehumanizing. 

Wanting love and affection from a man isn't an unfeminist desire and to exclude women from feminism because they want to be loved is reductive and hypocritical. A woman isn't any less powerful nor any less of a feminist for wanting love and support. 

Here is where people will insert their opinions about Pinkett Smith and Smith’s open relationship, specifically Pinkett Smith’s relationship with singer and rapper August Alsina. Many have suggested that Smith should have beaten the man who slept with his wife instead. Keep in mind, these are the same people saying that Smith treated Pinkett Smith as his property by slapping Rock.

If Smith had hurt Alsina, would that not be treating Pinkett Smith as property? Her body does not belong to him, therefore, he has no right to hurt Alsina. Either way, Jada and Will’s relationship has nothing to do with the matter at hand. The situations are completely different.

I don't speak for Pinkett Smith but to say that her power was taken from her solely due to Smith’s actions erases layers of nuance and is, frankly, a narrow-minded view. 

The narrative surrounding this event is that the slap was one of the most embarrassing moments in Oscars history, including many people saying that Smith should lose his Oscar or be removed from the Academy. I find this interesting, specifically because it feels that the Academy picks and chooses what violence it condones. 

In 1973, Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather was booed on stage at the Oscars after being asked by Marlon Brando to represent him at the Oscars and refuse his award. Why? She was asking to raise awareness for better representation of Native people in Hollywood and draw attention to the Wounded Knee Occupation.

Hollywood western star John Wayne had to be held back by six security guards because he wanted to physically assault Littlefeather for simply asking that indigenous people no longer be dehumanized and she was also mocked by Clint Eastwood.

The first Black actor to ever get nominated and win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, was not allowed to sit with the rest of the cast of "Gone With The Wind," for which she won Best Supporting Actress. She was isolated, seated at the back of the prestigious whites-only ceremony.

While he was eventually not reinstated to the Academy in 2018, Roman Polanski was celebrated and still got a standing ovation in 2003 after he won Best Director, even though Polanski fled the country for charges of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He's not been forced to give up his Oscar, either.

If Smith is called to return his Oscar due to this incident, then I demand that every rapist, abuser and racist return theirs as well.

People are entitled to their opinions about what happened, but history shows that there is no way that what Smith did was anywhere near the ugliest moment at the Oscars. 

At the end of the day, Smith apologized to Rock, Serena and Venus Williams and to the Academy. Rock also decided not to press charges. It's time to stop clutching pearls and calling for arrest.

Every conversation has context and every situation is more complicated than it appears. Discourse should allow for a holistic approach. It's disappointing that near 400 level seminar courses at Rutgers do not encourage that kind of productive discussion, and instead, revel in echo chambers.

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