They Not Like Us: How Black Culture Never Dismissed Will Smith

It was the evening of March 27, 2022 and many Black Americans were doing what we always do – suffering through the boredom of the Oscar Awards, hoping to see some of our faves win the coveted trophy associated with the event.

It was almost a given that rapper turned actor Will Smith would win an Oscar for his portrayal as Venus and Serena Williams’ father in “King Richard.” With anticipation, comedian Chris Rock served as the night’s host and proceeded with jokes that some people perceived as funny.

In one of his mid-show segments, Rock delivered a distasteful joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair. Considering she suffers from alopecia; it was doubly shameful. Her husband quickly withdrew his smile and made his way to the stage.

As Rock attempted to make another joke, Will Smith open hand slapped this man on live television. Smith then fixed his jacket, returned to his seat, and yelled the now infamous line, “Keep my wife’s name out your f*ckin’ mouth.”

Despite all of this, the 55-year-old won the Oscar. However, the entire focus of the night shifted to the shocking event (insert Lupita Nyong’o’s face because she was all of us). Immediately, news outlets and social media accounts began to report what occurred, with many predicting the end of Smith’s career.

As the days proceeded, the posts and stories became more egregious, villainizing Smith as a monster. Although many can argue about the appropriateness of Smith’s actions, the industry’s response was grossly exaggerated, and here’s why.

Smith had every right to defend his wife. Although the ever-evolving relational issues between Will and Jada prompted several public opinion perspectives, it was really none of our business. Defending his partner, despite popular culture’s conclusions about her previous actions and sound bites, was his choice. He made an intentional choice, which many would also consider appropriate if they were in his shoes.

So, it begs the question, was the slap and defense the issue, or was it a matter of time and place?

This, in no way, condones physical violence. As adults, we should have more mature means to handle beef. However, Rock has a history of coming for Pinkett Smith. Will Smith also admitted to being in a bad place then. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar just told us, “Sometimes you have to pop and show n*ggas.” And maybe, just maybe, Smith saw this as an opportunity to pop out and end Rock’s behavior once and for all.

But this “popping out” did not come without consequence. Nevertheless, I cannot help but notice that the attempt to cancel and punish Smith did not align with the treatment of other problematic men in Hollywood. One of the glaring differences here is that Smith is Black, and the others are white.

I can hear the critics now, “Here is an angry Black man making this about race.” Sure, but are you telling me that this Black man slapping another Black man at this historically white and systemically problematic event did not have racial undertones in its outcome?

Are you ignoring the inappropriateness of tweets from people like Kathy Lee Griffin suggesting she feared for their life as a comedian after that moment? Was it okay that the man who was beloved by all of America and seen as a fun-loving boy wonder became the face of the old trope of Black-on-Black violence?

Yes – this is racial. Yes – this is deeper than the slap. Yes – we are going to talk about it because Hollywood has consistently upheld white men who have done far worse and continued to progress.

In this instance, preserving whiteness was far more critical than attempting to understand why Will Smith responded that way, which deprived him of the ability to be human but with error.

Again, I am not excusing Smith, but where was the outrage when Harvey Weinstein was sexually assaulting the people he worked with? How about Mel Gibson, Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey, who all are documented abusers and have a history of going to work and winning awards and remaining in Hollywood’s good graces?

Lest we forget Alec Baldwin, who murdered a colleague on set and received sympathy for his actions, and the academy ultimately responded how? You got it, passively and empathetically. Upholding whiteness is the preservation of one of the most irritating yet ubiquitous phenomena in history – a mediocre white man who believes he’s great (Hey, Donald Trump!)

Why is this relevant to the conversation? Preserving white mediocrity lowers the bar and moves the goalpost to enable them to be great when in error. In what world should a convicted felon be running for president? Conversely, in what world should the actors, as mentioned above, still be out of jail, let alone have thriving careers in the very industry they terrorized?

The juxtaposition is clear. The reactions to who these white men are in their worst state don’t even begin to compare to the one-off poor choice of Smith slapping a dude who pissed him off. So, is it racial? Absolutely.

This is why Black America was upset—we know what it means and how it can impact your career when something like this happens in public. But let’s be abundantly clear—we (a proud majority of Black America) were not and never even considered canceling Will Smith.

Were we confused? Yes. Did we have questions about why he decided to defend Pinkett Smith that way on that platform? Sure. But were we going to throw The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire away? No!

Bad Boys: Ride or Die and its current success are prime examples of how time heals a wound in this specific case. The culture has shown up for Smith and co-star Martin Lawrence in the fourth iteration of this franchise. His acting was on par. In the press runs, his personality shines just as bright. Smith’s social media presence also shows he’s in a great place.

As we continue to thrive in this new era of Bad Boys, we leave that incident in 2022 and settle in the posture of, “Bruh, we get it. Come on back to the cookout.” In fact, he never left. The cousins just gone bring it up every time and make some jokes about it. But throw Cousin Will away – find something else to do.

Updated: June 13, 2024 — 9:04 am