Why did Will Smith really slap Chris Rock at the Oscars?
The dust has now settled following last week’s Oscars where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock live on television. Rock, making a GI Jane joke in reference to Jada Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head, was attacked by Smith who appeared to be acting in defence of his wife. Yet the reasons for Smith’s actions run far deeper.
It’s important to acknowledge the context of the joke in understanding why Smith may have been triggered. Jada Pinkett-Smith suffers from alopecia — a hair-loss condition. Rock claims he was unaware of this and the GI Jane joke would therefore have been an innocent, if not mediocre, joke around her appearance. However, we must recognise two factors at play here.
Firstly, hair is a significant feature of black identity and more so for black women. As a black man, Chris Rock knows this. Although he also knows because he made a film, Good Hair (which he’s alleged to have stolen the idea for from a black woman), about the relationship black women have with their hair. Pinkett-Smith has said she now embraces her shaved-head but her journey in reaching that point as a black woman would not have been easy.
As a black woman, losing her hair would have felt like losing part of her identity; it would have felt akin to having some of her blackness erased. Even with his artistic licence as a comedian, Rock should arguably have exercised sensitivity when discussing a black woman’s hair that didn’t conform to mainstream expectations.
Secondly, as black men, we have a duty to protect black women. It is our duty because we cannot expect anyone else to do it. And if we don’t, no one else will. History has proven that to us in abundance and misogynoir can be seen all around us. The argument that Smith was merely protecting his wife, particularly as a black woman, is therefore not one that can be dismissed. Nevertheless, was this the primary driver behind Smith’s actions?
The defence of black women is not something that needs to be justified. But was Smith’s approach the most appropriate in the context? Addressing the joke directly with Rock is something most people agree on. Yet in slapping Rock, followed by shouting…