As I write these words, I’m already tired of reading about the slap heard around the world. I’m weary of the many (bad) takes and (excellent) think-pieces that are making the rounds on the internet.
And yet, I still have something to say.
I don’t really care if Will Smith was right or wrong to slap Chris Rock at the Oscars on Sunday, and that’s not the point anyway. The act itself — and our response to it — is much more nuanced and layered. As the word “violence” has been evoked again and again, by people siding with Smith (and against him), the bigger and more important and more interesting question is how to, and who gets to, define violence.
There were (at least) two acts of violence on Sunday night. The physical act perpetrated by Smith; and the non-physical harm, as evidenced by Jada Pinkett Smith, her bald head held high, the butt of Chris Rock’s ableist joke.
But Hollywood stars including Mia Farrow and Jim Carrey and Howard Stern rushed to posture their own definitions of violence. The Academy released a statement and promised a “formal review.” Others began to question whether the show should rescind Smith's award.
Black celebrities and influencers joined the fray, too, expressing their distaste.
Journalist Nikole Hannah Jones tweeted: ”I’m tripping that you can assault someone on live television on stage at the Oscars and just take your seat and watch the rest of the show.” Zoe Kravitz blithely captioned her Oscar Instagram post with, “here’s a picture of my dress at the award show where we are apparently assaulting people on stage now.” NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabar said that Smith, “perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”
This preoccupation with positioning “violence” as bad and “non-violence” as somehow morally superior isn’t new.
This preoccupation with positioning “violence” as bad and “non-violence” as somehow morally superior isn’t new. It’s the same kind of rhetoric we hear every Black History Month when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideologies of “non-violence” are contrasted and favored over Malcolm X’s “violent” tactics. Or when the spirit of MLK is called upon to remind Black people that “non-violence” is the answer. We saw it when people marching for Black lives in the summer of 2020 were urged to be “non-violent."
“Throughout popular conceptions of U.S. history, there is an unfair expectation that white men can employ violence to ‘defend democracy,’ but Black Americans, people of color, and women should always be nonviolent,” writes Kellie Carter Jackson, an assistant professor of humanities in the department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.
This dedication to “non-violence” we’re seeing by Black celebrities is partially because we know what happens when we, as Black people, are perceived as “violent.” It’s why many Black women hate the “angry Black woman trope.” It’s why so many Black men are perceived as “threats” to law enforcement, despite complying with officers.
Black people know that the moment we traipse into “violent” territory, for whatever reason, we’re made into an example.
Smith’s unpredictable act of “violence” threatened the order and glitzy illusion of the Oscars. And he was swiftly made into an example. The sanctity of a show that held its 12th annual celebration at The Ambassador Hotel, which had a policy against admitting Black people at the time, was threatened according to celebrities like Farrow and Carrey. The Academy —the same one that had to be bullied into equity and inclusion by a social media hashtag — was upset by Smith and his “violence.”
The core values of the Oscars, which for years let known predators like Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen attend, were somehow jeopardized by this singular, open-handed slap.
I don’t condone violence. And I don’t think anyone is saying Smith slapping Rock is a liberatory, radical gesture. But there is a hypocrisy in expecting “non-violent” behavior in response to a “violent” joke at the Oscars, a ceremony and honor built on elitism and racism.
Smith’s unpredictable act of “violence” threatened the order and glitzy illusion of the Oscars. And he was swiftly made into an example.
Guardian journalist Area Mahdawi argued in her piece covering the 2020 protests, “Many of the people yelling ‘violence is not the answer’ about the riots in Minneapolis are the same people who wholeheartedly support America’s endless wars.” In a similar way, many of the (Black) people angry about the slap are the same ones touting Malcolm X memorabilia or posting Assata Shakur quotes each February. While I don’t doubt that people like Abdul-Jabbar and Kravitz believe in non-violence, I find it increasingly hard to believe that they could truly think Smith’s act is worth being turned into an example of “violence” by white celebrities and a white-dominated awards show.
Why is this expectation of “non-violence” and decorum expected? Because Smith is a celebrity? Because he’s representing all of us Black folks? Or because he’s at one of the most elaborately produced and elite awards shows?
Places like the Oscars enforce a code of respectability that separates it from a plebeian world where someone slapping someone else over an insensitive, bad joke is … well, maybe less unexpected.
The Oscars has declared itself above that type of lowly behavior. It, and others who support its mission, will undoubtedly use this incident to provide an illusion of commitment to non-violence. But in doing so, the Academy will once again ignore the fact that true violence also lies in what we don't see. It lies beneath the surface — and is much quieter and less visible than a slap.