Posted on March 30, 2022

White Outrage About Will Smith’s Slap Is Rooted in Anti-Blackness

Tayo Bero, The Guardian, March 29, 2022

“We do not condone violence.” “Assault is never the answer.” These words have echoed through all of my social media accounts since Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for making a poor-taste joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The joke referenced Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, a decision she made due to her struggles with the autoimmune disease alopecia.

Most people agree the slap shouldn’t have happened. But there’s something that feels precious at best, and downright racist at worst, about white people’s reaction to the now-infamous smack. The Hollywood director Judd Apatow declared in a deleted tweet that Smith “could have killed” Rock (seriously?), calling it “​​pure out of control rage and violence.” {snip} The radio host Howard Stern compared Smith to Donald Trump, while white women on Twitter somehow decided that Smith’s actions meant he must be beating his wife. It would seem that there’s a layer of hyper-violence that’s being projected on to Smith simply because he is a Black man who was defending his Black wife.

While it’s justifiable – important, even – to interrogate his motives for delivering the slap (was this really all about defending his wife or more about his own ego?), it’s clear that the backlash against Smith is rooted in not just anti-Blackness, but respectability politics as well.

It’s also not just about what Smith did; it’s where he did it and who was watching. Anyone who has been following these shows can see that Smith is being held up to much stricter standards than white men who have behaved just as badly or even worse in those settings. In 1973, Western star John Wayne had to be restrained by six security guards when he tried to rush the stage and attack the Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. Littlefeather was on stage to accept the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando, who was boycotting the awards in protest of Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans.


I also find it hard to believe that the same white audiences who consume violence against Black people on screen to an almost fetishistic degree (and are quite happy to have the Academy reward these gratuitously violent projects year after year) are so distraught about an open-palm slap. Again, this kind of performative pearl-clutching is only ever reserved for Black men who mess up.

{snip} For Black people who have been conditioned to constantly perform the most non-threatening version of themselves in order to retain white approval, the image of a Black man being “violent” in a space notorious for its overwhelming whiteness must have felt like an abomination. {snip}