Will Smith's Oscar Smack Says a Lot About Privilege in America
Updated: Apr 3
When a wealthy black man commits an act of violence in front of millions of people, his punishment is limited to light shaming
What happened at the Academy Awards on Sunday speaks to so much that’s going on in America now on so many levels. I can’t even begin to cover all these levels in a single post, so I’m just going to hit the highlights.
In case you don’t know what went down on Oscar night: before presenting the award for best documentary, Chris Rock cracked a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s lack of hair, insinuating that she was preparing for a G.I. Jane sequel (unbeknownst to Rock, Pinkett Smith is currently waging a battle with alopecia).
It was a completely tasteless and insensitive quip, and Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, didn’t take kindly to it. Seconds after the joke landed, he marched onstage and smacked Rock in the face — hard — in front of millions of people, all around the world.
But it didn’t end there. After Smith returned to his seat, Rock attempted to defend himself: “Wow, dude. It was just a G.I. Jane joke.” To which Smith replied by yelling: “Keep my wife’s name out your f — king mouth.”
I’ll lead with the obvious.
For centuries, blacks have struggled against stereotypes and the racism those stereotypes perpetuate. We’ve spent decades trying to get white people to understand that being black is not synonymous with being violent and that we’re as well-equipped as white people to use our words (not our fists) to resolve conflicts. Chronic poverty and other by-products of systemic racism often make it challenging for us to overcome these stereotypes, but we’ve always looked to accomplished black men and women as examples of who we can be, if given the opportunity.
Smith was once one of those people. But at this year’s Oscar ceremony, he undermined our effort in a disturbing and horribly tragic way that’s almost Shakespearean.
For any quasi-racist white person who might have been on the fence about whether black people are violent by nature, Smith’s outburst gave them reason to ask the question every black person shudders to hear: If even Will Smith does something like this, does that mean the stereotype is true?
As a black woman who’s moved between black and white America all my life, I can tell you the stereotype is unequivocally false. Black people aren’t inherently violent; we’re not more prone to aggression than anyone else. But I’m not going to lie about the optics of Smith’s Oscar smack; they’re bad. They’re really bad.
Of course, the fact that black people are even in the position of having to overcome racist branding is distressing and unfair. It’s the cold, hard reality of a legacy of slavery that’s still with us. But the best way to overcome the expectation that you’re violent and aggressive is to defy it. While this may be extremely difficult for young black men born into poverty and surrounded by crime and drug addiction, it should be effortless for a man who was smart enough to be admitted to a pre-engineering summer program at M.I.T. and is worth $350 million.
But I think last night’s episode showed us something else that’s going on in America, beyond racial stereotyping. We don’t want to talk about it because it’s awkward, but it needs to be said. Although we can’t know with certainty what the fallout will be from Smith’s Oscar smack, based on Hollywood’s reaction so far, I think it’s unlikely his career will become a dumpster fire. Why? Because Smith enjoys racial privilege.
The idea that a black person can benefit from racial privilege may sound heretical and even counter-intuitive, but I believe it’s real. Keep in mind that privilege doesn’t always equate to higher socio-economic status or greater respect from law enforcement, courts, or other institutions. Sometimes privilege means having the freedom to behave a certain way without blowback, or the ability to offend or abuse other members of our community with relative impunity. Let's call it intra-racial privilege. Although most black people don't like to acknowledge this privilege, we clearly benefit from it.
The “N” word is a perfect example. If anyone other than a black person dares to utter, whisper, or write the word, they’ll be shamed and “cancelled” in the worst possible way. Yet black people can use the “N” word any way we choose — in a Tweet, in song lyrics, or joking around with each other. We can even incorporate it into the name of a rap group. Sure, we may get disapproving glances, raised eyebrows, or confusion from white people, but that’s all. We have linguistic privilege to use a word that’s off-limits for everyone else.
Intra-racial privilege also keeps us from focusing on the fact that 97% of black Americans killed in the U.S. die at the hands of other black people. We minimize the impact and scope of black-on-black crime by insisting that law enforcement and other authority figures must be held to a higher standard. In doing so, we’re essentially downplaying violence against our own people. The reality is that when a black person is beaten, abused or killed, it’s no less damaging to their body and psyche if they share their assailant’s pigment. It’s still brutal, it still hurts like hell, and in Rock’s case, it’s also incredibly humiliating.
Imagine if Russell Crowe, a notorious hothead with a history of violent outbursts, had lumbered onstage and smacked Rock for making a joke about his wife. Can you picture the outrage? How long would it have taken for security to escort him from the theatre? How many black activists and white progressives would be calling for his head?
But that didn’t happen to Smith because he enjoys intra-racial privilege. He felt completely justified, and even entitled, in slapping a brother who offended his wife. After striking Rock, Smith even swaggered back to his seat, smug. Almost triumphant. A Tweet from Smith’s son, Jaden, perfectly captures this privilege: “And that’s how we do it.”
Smith’s race likely benefited him in another way that we’re even less inclined to talk about: Hollywood has become so hyper-sensitive to skin color that it’s loathe to punish or even speak poorly of a black person. Let’s call this inter-racial privilege. The response of his celebrity peers clearly illustrates this.
Smith wasn’t escorted from the theatre. There were murmurs of shock and “disappointment,” but he wasn’t booed. Incredibly, he later appeared onstage to accept his Oscar for best actor and received applause, even though he didn’t bother to apologize to Rock during his speech. I’m not saying Smith should have been denied an award for his wonderful work in King Richard, but couldn’t the Academy have at least removed him from the Dolby Theatre and couriered the statuette to his home? He was even allowed to celebrate his Oscar win at the star-studded after-party (didn’t anyone have the courage to tell Smith he wasn’t welcomed at these festivities? Or were they too star-struck or woke to tell him to take a hike?)
No one expected Smith to be arrested. Since the incident was classified as a slap without the intent to do seriously bodily harm, and because Rock has refused to press charges, Smith won’t be prosecuted. But regardless of what the law requires, the question remains: what will Hollywood demand of him?
According to its code of conduct, released in 2017 following the sexual misconduct scandals that hit the industry, the Academy emphasizes the importance of fostering inclusion, supportive environments, and “respect for human dignity.”
The Academy has the power to send a clear message that it takes inclusion and human dignity seriously and to ensure that its members uphold these values. It could condemn Smith’s behavior in a pointed and personal way. It could suspend his membership. It could even ban him from attending Awards ceremonies for a period of time.
But Hollywood’s most elite club hasn’t taken any of these actions, at least so far. Instead, it sent a brief Tweet: “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.”
You broadcast an assault and battery in real time to millions of people, then allow the assailant to take to the stage to receive your industry’s highest honor, yet insist you don’t condone violence? In what world does this make sense?
But there’s another privilege at play here, and it’s one we really don’t like to talk about in America: class.
Social justice advocates often opine about how the intersection of race and class has disenfranchised untold numbers of black people, and this is unquestionably true. Black Americans are more likely to be born into the lower class than their white counterparts and suffer the cascading effects of poverty. And we all know that rich white people (especially men) enjoy a privilege that 99% of America doesn’t.
But Smith is showing us that race and class can also intersect in another way that benefits select members of the black community even more than rich white men.
If Smith were a poor black man or a poor white man, events would have played out a lot differently. His smack would likely be viewed as a punch intended to cause seriously harm, and he would have been arrested. And if he were rich and white, his career would likely go up in flames (witness Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and other wealthy white men accused of bad behavior).
But when you’re wealthy and black in America, you’re gifted with double privilege that insulates you from anything more than light shaming and a career speed bump. When you’re wealthy and black, it takes an awful lot to get “cancelled.”
That’s why Whoopi Goldberg could insult Jewish people on TV and be suspended from The View for just two weeks, while Roseanne Barr’s career was wiped from existence when she insulted a Valerie Jarrett, a black woman, in a Tweet.
That’s why it took three years for Jussie Smollett to be brought to justice for clearly fabricating a hate crime against himself (the prosecutor initially dropped charges after a former Michelle Obama aide reached out with “concerns” about how the case was being handled).
That’s why O.J. Simpson literally got away with murder.
The message is clear: if you’re going to misbehave in America, you’d better have some privilege to back it up.
Yet Smith is even a cut above Goldberg, Smollett, and O.J. because he represents the most valuable commodity in woke America: race, class and power — in a deliciously handsome package. In other words, he enjoys triple privilege.
Smith is indisputably one of the most charismatic, wealthiest and powerful actors in Hollywood today. Wrapped in this package, elites will forgive his trespasses and forget his missteps — not just because the world is always kinder to good-looking people and because it “looks” bad for the Left to punish a black person, but also because Hollywood elites will be loathe to jeopardize the career of a blockbuster star who’s now vaulted himself to critical acclaim with an Oscar.
Armed with triple privilege, I think it’s unlikely Smith will get any meaningful comeuppance. He’ll probably lay low and avoid high profile public appearances for a while, waiting for the uproar to die down. He may not pursue any movie projects in the short-term. He may even lose a few projects and sponsors.
But his career won’t come to a screeching halt. Like Bill Cosby, a man worth $400 million who was able to sexually abuse women for three decades while Hollywood looked the other way, Smith is far too valuable to the industry.
Calls will be made, deals will be struck. Smith’s team has already released a well-crafted apology to Rock and the entertainment community. His publicists will do everything in their power to put this ugly episode in the rearview mirror, as if it never happened — just as Agent J wiped the memories of witnesses with the flash of a neuralyzer in Men in Black. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Smith in a well-placed photo opp with Rock in the coming months, joking it up like old pals do:“Yo, remember that time I bitch slapped you at the Oscars? That was some funny shit, dawg!”
Smith will be fine.
And that’s the problem. If the industry doesn’t cancel him or even punish him for his actions, there will be repercussions for all of us.
Hollywood has long been accused of hypocrisy, but its aggressive virtue signaling in recent years has left it especially vulnerable to these claims. Celebrities have gone to lengths to shame, ridicule, and condemn anyone who’s remotely insensitive or intolerant, even as powerful sexual predators like Cosby and Harvey Weinstein roamed freely among them.
If the industry now allows a man to commit assault and battery in the most public forum possible without serious repercussions, is it really in the position to keep virtue signaling? How can Hollywood expect others to take its message of inclusivity and equality seriously if it holds its most privileged members to a completely different standard of conduct? Reasonable people can’t help but ask: “Is this just a case of do as I say, not as I do?”
The black community must also reckon with its tepid response to Smith’s behavior. There’s been virtually no condemnation from its leaders, and celebrities like Sean “Diddy” Combs are doing their best to sweep the incident under the rug. Actress Tiffany Haddish even called Smith’s actions “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen” because it proved there are still men who “love and care about their women.”
Don’t get me wrong; the black community has a justifiable and vested interest in maintaining the best optics possible in high-profile incidents. We are, and should be, highly protective of our role models.
But if we don’t have the courage to shame Smith for egregiously bad behavior — the same way we would shame a white man who commits violence against one of our own — then we’re setting a dangerous double standard, in the most public way possible, that won’t advance the cause against racism. In fact, it could invite blowback in the future.
If black celebrities and leaders fail to vigorously condemn Smith, any reasonable white person will be justified in asking the obvious: do black people expect to be treated equal to, or better than white people? If the answer is the latter, that won’t bode well for race relations. We can’t seriously expect white people to believe that equality means double standards.
And here's the hardest pill to swallow: when black elites get a free pass for their misdeeds, it makes life harder for the rest of us, i.e. black people without money and power who won’t get off with light shaming. This double standard may create resentment and affect the way white people treat us. It could even lead to more racism — and unlike Smith and his peers, we won’t have the money and power to defend against it.
The irony is that the most vocal proponents for inclusion are missing something fundamental about our quest for equality: the best way to teach people is to lead by example. But we can’t possibly achieve equality for all Americans if people of different races and classes are held to different standards. Equality isn’t just about wearing a T-shirt, putting a sign in your yard, singing at a telethon, or marching in a protest. Equality means putting your money, deeds, and heart where your mouth is.
I hope Hollywood and black leaders choose wisely and do the right thing. But given what we’ve seen so far, I’m not holding my breath.
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