It all began with a Black man slapping another Black man on live television at the Oscars, presumably to defend a Black woman who was being ridiculed for her hairstyle.
For many Black people, it wasn’t just a slap or an insult. The discussion was about Black manhood, what is expected of Black men in the 21st century, and about attitudes toward Black women.
At the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday, actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock engaged in a physical altercation that sparked debate about the appropriate ways Black men should defend Black women.
There are many women who reject the misogynist assumption that their safety and protection is a man’s responsibility; however, many see Smith’s stance in defending his wife and pushing back against people who say Black men don’t do enough to protect Black women as a principled act of love and love for family.
The way each woman protects herself from a spouse or partner is different, according to Ayanna Abrams, founder of Ascension Behavioral Health in Atlanta.
Black Girls Smile, a nonprofit that focuses on Black girls’ mental health, is a nonprofit with a board member who describes protection as assertive behavior.
“For some people, the joke about not protecting Black women would never have been told. That’s also about protecting Black women and their bodies, and how they are portrayed in the media.”
Most observers agree that Black women should be protected from verbal insults, but not physically assaulted.
After Rock said, “Jada, I love you,” Smith walked onstage during Sunday’s Oscars broadcast. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it.”
Pinkett Smith’s shaved head was the target of an unscripted jab. Actress Kim Basinger has spoken publicly about her alopecia diagnosis, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss, and the negative effects it can have on her sense of identity and self-esteem. In response to Pinkett Smith’s snarky response, her Academy Award-nominated husband strode onstage with an open-handed slap to the presenter’s face.
When Smith returned to his seat, he shouted twice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your mouth.”
According to Shelly Eversley, a professor at Baruch College, Smith’s attitude toward Rock left her wondering whether his slapping of Rock was an act of love.
“‘My wife’ — get my wife’s name out of your mouth — is a logic of property ownership,” said Eversley, who is the interim chair of Baruch’s Black and Latino Studies program.
Black women, in particular, have been treated as property in the history of racial slavery and violence against them, she said. Whether Black men do it or white people do it, it is no better or worse than either of them.
Women and men in black communities in the U.S. have navigated gender roles that historians claim are rooted in slavery and Jim Crow, when standing up to enslavers or authorities invited violence or worse
. Despite legal apartheid, systemic racism, disproportionate poverty rates, and mass incarceration, generations of Black men have been taught that success in life includes protecting the honor of one’s spouse and defending one’s family.
On the surface, that’s not so different from the expectations placed on generations of white American men and men of other ethnicities.
Time has changed, however. According to Eversley, behaviors like Smith’s slap at the Oscars tend to be condemned as a result of an unchecked ego rather than cheered as a righteous defense of a Black woman.
According to Jada Pinkett Smith, she is not a damsel in distress. “The idea that Will Smith should be applauded for treating her as if she doesn’t have a voice or her own agency is also troubling.”
“That he can do things like that on national television, go back to his seat, receive an award, and then go party,” Eversley continued, “suggests to me that even the tears about defending his wife aren’t really about defending her, but about protecting his own ego.”
Smith apologized to the academy and to fellow nominees for casting a shadow over an event that, until Rock slapped him, was full of historic firsts for people of color, LGBTQ representation, and the Deaf community, all taking place in a room where Black people have fought to be represented.
He apologized for not apologizing to Rock during his acceptance speech for his behavior, which he described as “inexcusable and unacceptable.”
A joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for Smith, and he reacted emotionally. “I am a work in progress.”
Following its condemnation of Smith’s behavior on Monday, the academy said it would consider other consequences for the actor as a member.
According to Smith, caring for his loved ones is an act of repentance and a lifelong mission. In his best-selling memoir “Will,” published last fall, he described watching his father punch his mother so hard that she fell and spit blood. At the time, Smith was nine years old and long chastised himself for not defending his mother. He even fantasized about killing his father as an act of revenge.
“Throughout everything I have done since then – the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs – there has been a subtle apology to my mother for my inaction that day,” Smith wrote. “For failing her in the moment. “For failing to confront my father. For being a coward.”
Activist and co-founder of Black Men Build, an organization promoting the empowerment and political education of Black men, Phillip Agnew rejects the stereotype that Black men are less loving and protective of their spouses, families and communities than white men.
He believes, however, that some of the reaction to Smith’s behavior at the Oscars, particularly from those who saw his confrontation with Rock as an example of Black women being protected, demonstrates how low the bar has been set.
According to Agnew, “Protecting Black women includes both our personal relationships and platonic ones.” “But it also involves speaking out against people of all colors and genders who pass policies that do not protect Black women and who represent television shows and entertainment programs that aren’t for the edification of Black women.”
“If your true goal was protecting your wife’s honor and integrity, there were probably better ways to do it,” he said of Smith’s actions.
The Oscars controversy came at the end of a week that included a different approach to defending a Black woman. Sen. Cory Booker, a Black Democrat from New Jersey, delivered a widely praised speech pushing back on his Republican colleagues’ combative questioning of Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson, who is poised to become the first Black woman confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You faced insults here that was shocking to me,” Booker said on the third day of Jackson’s confirmation hearings last Wednesday.