The Two Americas Debating Will Smith and Chris Rock

Black people and white people aren’t necessarily discussing the Oscars slap in the same way.

An illustration of Chris Rock and Will Smith at the Oscars, with Smith slapping Rock
Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

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I was on an overnight flight from Los Angeles to New York City during the Academy Awards, so at first I didn’t see the Will Smith–Chris Rock fiasco that sent America into a complete tizzy. But when I was finally able to turn on my cellphone, I had 653 text messages.

Six hundred and fifty-three.

By now, you’ve probably seen multiple videos and angles of Smith slapping Rock. Right before the comedian presented the Oscar for Best Documentary, Rock joked offhand that he was looking forward to seeing Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, in G.I. Jane 2. Rock was referring to Jada’s bald head. The problem with the joke is that Jada has been open about having alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that commonly results in significant hair loss. When the cameras panned to her, her expression showed that she was not at all pleased with Rock’s barb. Moments later, Smith walked onstage and smacked Rock in the face.

While I was on the plane, my group-text threads exploded with a lot of jokes, and a lot of stunned reactions. Most of my 653 texts, I should note, came from Black folks. A lot of them, both men and women, said they at least understood Will Smith’s fierce reaction to Rock’s mockery of his wife, even if they disagreed with how and where Smith showed it.

What has developed since that unforgettable moment at the Oscars is a classic “two Americas” conversation. By that I mean: Black people and white people aren’t necessarily talking about the incident in the same way. That much was evident in the celebrity reaction. Tiffany Haddish, a Black actor and comedian who starred with Jada Pinkett Smith in the blockbuster movie Girls Trip, told People: “When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife, that meant so much to me.” To my eyes, Black commentators were more willing to joke about the incident—perhaps because, as Will Packer, the television and film megaproducer who oversaw the Oscars broadcast, tweeted after the show, “Black people have a defiant spirit of laughter when it comes to dealing with pain because there has been so much of it.”

In contrast, Judd Apatow, a director who is white, tweeted that Smith “could have killed” Rock. “That’s pure out of control rage and violence,” Apatow continued. “They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They are not freshman [sic] in the world of Hollywood and comedy. He lost his mind.” Apatow has since deleted this tweet.

The radio shock jock Howard Stern even went so far as to compare Smith to former President Donald Trump. “This is how Trump gets away with shit,” Stern said on his show. “Will Smith and Trump are the same guy. He decided he’s going to take matters into his own hands.”

Hoo boy.

I’m not saying that all Black people agree with Haddish or that all white people agree with Apatow and Stern; one poll found that, across racial lines, most Americans think Smith shouldn’t have slapped Rock. But I can’t help but notice the disproportionate outrage that many people in white America—and many in the Hollywood elite—are showing. According to The New York Post, unnamed industry insiders already are asking whether Smith’s award should be rescinded. The Academy announced that it will conduct its own investigation and “will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.” If the Academy chooses not to allow Smith to present an award next year—an honor typically bestowed upon Best Actor winners—that’s fine. But taking away Smith’s Oscar would be absurd, considering that the producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been convicted of rape, still has his Oscar. Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to statutory rape, and Mel Gibson, who has an ugly history of racist and anti-Semitic remarks, still have theirs too.

Some critics seem incredulous that Smith would respond the way he did. He and his family have been in the public eye for decades, and a physical confrontation also doesn’t jibe with the gregarious image that Smith has always presented. If anything, Smith has had to deal with the perception that he isn’t tough, because throughout much of his rap career, he was considered the antithesis of hard-core hip-hop, which used imagery about violence, drugs, and poverty. Smith’s songs were fun, joyful, and light-hearted. To some, that meant he was soft.

As a married couple, the Smiths have leaned into exposing their flaws. They have been extremely open—some would say a little too transparent—about the challenges they’ve faced as a married couple. Two years ago, Jada confirmed on her popular Facebook talk show, Red Table Talk, that she’d had an affair with the R&B singer August Alsina. (During the show, Jada and Will Smith said she had done so when they were separated.)

Jada described her affair with Alsina as an “entanglement.” At the Screen Actors Guild Awards earlier this month, the E! network’s red-carpet interviewer, Laverne Cox, said to the couple: “We can’t wait for more Red Table Talk and more entanglements.” To put it mildly, it was an extremely awkward moment.

The Smiths’ willingness to reveal certain aspects of their personal lives doesn’t mean that they should be subjected to tasteless jokes. At the same time, Will Smith has no right to go around putting his hands on people. Shortly after smacking Rock, Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the boisterous father of the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, in the movie King Richard. Smith tried to bring some levity to the situation during his acceptance speech. “I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams,” he said. “But love will make you do crazy things.” Unfortunately for Smith, his first Oscar win is now sullied by his egregious behavior.

A number of the people who texted me also worried that the incident—an embarrassing moment involving two prominent Black celebrities—would sully Black people more generally. Last night’s Oscars were the first with an all-Black production team. Black people are conditioned to believe that we deserve respect, admiration, and recognition of our humanity based only on good behavior. But Smith’s overreaction does not reflect on anyone but him, and the suggestion that our community should feel any measure of collective shame is completely misguided. Nor should we feed into the dehumanizing stereotype that Smith’s conduct is typical for Black people.

Unlike some people reacting on social media, I refuse to look at this ordeal beyond face value. The only people I feel bad for are Jada Pinkett Smith, the Williams family, and my friend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson—all of whom saw their own achievements overshadowed at the Oscars. Thompson, a co-creator of the hip-hop band The Roots, directed Summer of Soul, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature—the category Rock was announcing before his run-in with Smith’s hand. Somehow, Thompson managed to overlook the absurdity of the situation while onstage giving his touching acceptance speech. I don’t know how he did it. Ultimately, laughter is about the only emotion I can muster when thinking about everything that transpired last night.