It started with a Black man slapping another Black man on live television at the globally televised Oscars, presumably in defense of a Black woman who was being ridiculed over her hairstyle.
But to many Black people, it was about more than a slap or an insult. It was about Black manhood, about what is expected of Black men in the 21st century — and about attitudes toward Black women.
The stunning physical altercation between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday has sparked debate about the appropriate ways for Black men to publicly defend Black women against humiliation and abuse.
While many women have long rejected the misogynist premise that their safety and protection is the province of men, some see Smith’s professed defense of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, as a principled act of love and pushback to those who say Black men don’t do enough to protect Black women.
Ayanna Abrams, a clinical psychologist and founder of Ascension Behavioral Health in Atlanta, said what protection from a spouse or partner looks like can be different for each woman.
“Protection for some of us does look like something that is more assertive, in terms of going to speak to somebody,” said Abrams, who is on the board of Black Girls Smile, a nonprofit that focuses on Black girls’ mental health.
Abrams added, “For some people, protection of Black women would have been (Rock’s) joke not happening in the first place. That’s also protection of Black women and their bodies, and how they are regarded in the media.”
But for many observers, protecting Black women from verbal insults stops short of physical assault.
During Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, Smith shocked the Dolby Theatre crowd in Los Angeles and millions of television viewers when he walked onstage after Rock joked: “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it.”
It was an unscripted dig at Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. The 50-year-old actor has spoken publicly about her alopecia diagnosis, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss, as well as the negative effect it can have on sense of identity and self esteem. When Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes in displeasure with Rock’s joke, her Academy Award-nominated husband strode onstage and open-hand slapped the presenter across the face.
After returning to his seat, Smith twice shouted at Rock, “keep my wife’s name out your (expletive) mouth.”
Baruch College professor Shelly Eversley said Smith’s language toward Rock left her questioning whether the actor’s motivation for slapping the comedian was an act of love.
“‘My wife’ — get my wife’s name out of your mouth — is a logic of property ownership,” said Eversley, who is interim chair of Baruch’s Black and Latino Studies program.
“In the history of racial slavery and violence against Black women, we can certainly see all the ways in which Black women in particular have been treated as property,” she said. “For Black men to do it does not make it any better than when white people do it.”
Black men and women in the U.S. have navigated gender roles that historians say are rooted in the experience of slavery and Jim Crow, during a time when sticking up for each other in defiance of an enslaver or authority figure invited violence or worse. In the midst of legal apartheid and systemic racism, disproportionate poverty rates and mass incarceration, generations of Black men have been raised to believe that success in life includes protecting the honor of one’s spouse and defending one’s family from danger in a white-controlled society.
And on its surface, that’s not entirely unlike the expectations placed on generations of white American men, and men of other ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Still, times have changed. Today, behavior like Smith’s slap at the Oscars is more likely to be condemned as a consequence of an unchecked ego than to be cheered as a righteous defense of a Black woman, Eversley said.
“Jada Pinkett (Smith) is not a damsel in distress,” she said. “The idea that somehow Will Smith should be applauded for treating her as if she doesn’t have a voice or doesn’t have her own agency is also a problem.”
“That he can get away with that kind of violence on national television, go back to his seat, receive an award and then go party,” Eversley continued, “suggests to me that even the tears about defending his wife aren’t really about defending his wife but his own ego.”
As he tearfully accepted his best actor award for “King Richard,” Smith apologized to the academy and fellow nominees for casting a shadow over an event that, until he slapped Rock, was full of historic firsts for people of color, LGBTQ representation, the Deaf community, all happening in a room where Black people have fought to be represented.
In a statement released Monday, Smith acknowledged his behavior “was unacceptable and inexcusable,” and offered an apology to Rock that he failed to offer during his acceptance speech.
“Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally,” Smith said. “I am a work in progress.”
After condemning the actor’s behavior, the academy met Wednesday to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violations against the group’s standards of conduct. The academy, which said Smith was asked to leave after the incident but refused, said disciplinary action could include suspension, expulsion or other sanctions.
Smith has described looking out for his loved ones as a kind of lifelong mission. In his best-selling memoir “Will,” published last fall, he recalled watching his father punch his mother so hard that she fell and spit blood. Smith was 9 at the time and would long chastise himself for not defending his mother.
“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day,” Smith wrote. “For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”
Phillip Agnew, an activist and co-founder of Black Men Build, a national group focused on the empowerment and political education of Black men, said he rejects the racist and media-perpetuated idea that Black men are any less protective of or loving to their spouses, families and communities than others.
But some response to Smith’s behavior at the Oscars, particularly from those who saw his confrontation with Rock as an example of protecting Black women, is evidence of how low the bar has been set, he said.
“Protecting Black women absolutely includes how we engage in our relationships, both intimate and platonic,” Agnew said.
However, “if your true goal was protecting your wife’s honor and integrity, there were probably better ways to do it,” he said of Smith’s actions.
The Oscars controversy came at the end of a week that included a different approach to defending a Black woman. Sen. Cory Booker, a Black Democrat from New Jersey, delivered a widely praised speech pushing back on his Republican colleagues’ combative questioning of Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson, who is poised to become the first Black woman confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You faced insults here that were shocking to me,” Booker said on the third day of Jackson’s confirmation hearings last Wednesday.
“You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American,” the senator continued, drawing tears from Jackson and others who listened with rapt attention.
Paige Woods, associate director of Black Girls Smile, said there’s some value in the conversation over the Oscars incident.
“The history of Black women being used as the butt of jokes in front of predominantly white audiences, for the sake of a laugh and with no regard for Black women and girls’ humanity, is something that this country has done for so long,” she said.
“This at least has people talking, for good or for bad reasons.”