When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars, after Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, reactions to the incident ranged from shock to laughter. This mixed reaction soon led to discourse on how Smith's slap poorly reflects not only on him, but also on the Black community at large. Smith has faced harsh consequences just weeks after the slap, resigning from the Academy after a formal investigation was launched against him. Production of his upcoming movies Bad Boys 4 and Fast and Loose have been stalled, with BBC reporting that his career is now “mortally wounded.”
The reactions and conversations around the slap are bigger than just this one incident. Part of the reason the backlash has been so harsh for Smith is the fact that when you’re a person of color, you're seen as a representation of your entire race. To the public, white people can act inappropriately and commit crimes, and it doesn’t mean all white people are bad. But Smith acting inappropriately is reflected on every other Black performer. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, for example, called the slap “a blow to all Black people who have worked for our dignity and acceptance—and especially to the legacy of those Black performers who made Smith's presence at the Oscars possible in the first place.”
Not to mention, Black people are simply not allowed to slip up in general because they risk confirming offensive stereotypes of Black people. Amy Schumer, who had been one of the hosts at the Oscars, remarked that the slap left her “triggered and traumatized.” In a now–deleted tweet, director and writer Judd Apatow called the slap “pure out of control rage and violence” and deemed the slap as evidence that Smith had “lost his mind.” Their characterizations of Smith as a violent, scary person—even though all he did was slap someone who insulted his wife—are very reminiscent of the stereotype that Black men are naturally hyperaggressive.
White people have done and said much worse at award shows and in the industry yet have not faced half the public uproar Smith has. Remember when comedian Jim Carrey forcibly kissed Alicia Silverstone at the MTV Movie Awards in June 1997? Or when Roman Polanski, who was already a convicted rapist and fugitive from the United States government, won the Oscar for Best Director even after his conviction? Yes, the lack of repercussions against these celebrities could be attributed to the fact that these incidents happened in a pre–#MeToo era, but these events nevertheless highlight that the actions of white men that have been brushed under the rug for far too long.
In 1973, Apache and Yaqui activist Sacheen Littlefeather accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor at the behest of Marlon Brando as a protest of the treatment of Indigenous people. In response to this protest, white actor John Wayne, who legitimately self–identified as a white supremacist yet remained a prolific actor, had to be physically restrained because he tried to attack her on stage.
Outside of widely televised moments, several other award winners and prolific performers have done much more deplorable actions out of the public eye. Actor Mark Wahlberg was imprisoned in 1988 for attacking two Vietnamese men in a racially charged assault. Two years earlier, he and his friends threw rocks at Black elementary school–aged children and called them slurs. But despite these racially motivated crimes, Wahlberg has had an extraordinarily successful career in Hollywood, starring in Oscar–nominated films and remaining a major box office draw.
The Smith slap incident is not the first time a Black performer has been heavily penalized for a mistake that a white performer could've rebounded from. Another incident that comes to mind is Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, where Timberlake ripped Jackson’s shirt in a wardrobe malfunction, revealing her nipple for less than a second. It was seen as so scandalous that she was disinvited from the Grammys, mocked by news publications, and her music saw drastic drops in sales. Her career has never really recovered, while Timberlake’s has continued to grow.
Not to mention, The Cut writer B.A. Parker has argued that awards shows have a tradition of humbling Black women that Smith stood against. By using Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, an autoimmune disorder, as a punchline to a predominately white audience, this year's Oscars demonstrated “one more instance of a Black woman being othered and belittled and expected to grin and bear it,” Parker says. “The only difference is that this time, someone stood up for her.”
At the core of this all is respectability politics—as a person of color, you must present yourself correctly at all times and defy the stereotypes surrounding your race in order to receive quasi–equal treatment to white people. While Smith’s slap was unnecessary and shouldn’t have happened, the extreme backlash he’s facing is undeniably a product of anti–Blackness that the entertainment industry must reckon with.