Will Smith’s slap heard around the world forces us to imagine a life without transgressions against black women
Comedian Chris Rock, left, reacts after actor Will Smith slapped him onstage during the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on March 27. (AP/Chris Pizzello)
For the first time in what seems like weeks and weeks of uninterrupted coverage of violence in Europe and around the world, our attention quickly turned to the Oscars, where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for making a joke insensitive about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
The slap has sparked polarizing discourse, much of which, aside from that of black women and men, focuses not on the violence and ridicule of a black woman at the Oscars, but on Black-smithit’s behviour, whether right or wrong. Almost all criticism, especially that of white Americans, seems rooted in personal stances on sin and transgression: what is acceptable versus what is not; what breaks with our society’s unwritten/written moral codes of conduct and what does not; how we should behave in public versus how we shouldn’t.
Smith’s individual behavior is a symptom of a culture still committed to morality/values/response to evil rooted in white supremacist Christian ideas of individual sin. Rather than questioning our broader culture and art consumption, many have instead chosen to scapegoat Smith as some kind of rare and unimaginable incident happening in perfect Hollywood.
The Oscars are just one of many microcosms in which black people are publicly hurt and then expected to respond with class.
It is important to understand these issues/themes by linking Christian ideas of transgression with the feminist scholar, writer and author of Misogynoir Transformed: The Digital Resistance of Black Women Moya Bailey’s definition of misogynoir.
Transgression means presumptuous sin. To transgress is to intentionally disobey. Samson deliberately broke his Nazirite vow by touching a dead lion (Numbers 6:1-5; Judges 14:8-9) and having his hair cut (Judges 16:17). In doing so, he committed a transgression. David referred to this kind of sin when he wrote, “Happy is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). When we knowingly apply a stop sign, lie or blatantly disregard an authority, we are transgressing.
Smith transgressed the Academy’s written and unwritten social codes. His slap was not salvific but simply the physical manifestation of his anger and outrage at a prank at the expense of his wife, a black woman whom he has time and again publicly loved and cared for. Her slap in the face, for so many, was a symbolic and physical rejection of a culturally codified and institutionalized violence against women of color that is too often ignored. Smith transgresses culturally normalized and rehearsed culture transgressions against black femininity in virtually every aspect of American life, including the racism some politicians hurled at Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the callous jokes of comedians.
Smith’s transgression forced us to confront what would happen in a world determined to completely eliminate even the smallest moments of misogyny against black women, a world struggling against what Bailey first defined in 2008 as “the unique co-constitutive racialized and gender-based violence that befalls black women due to their simultaneous and interwoven oppression at the intersection of racial and gender marginalization,” or misogynoir.
Jada Pinkett Smith, left, and Will Smith hold hands in the Oscars audience on March 27. The startling physical altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock has sparked a debate over appropriate ways for black men to publicly defend black women from humiliation and abuse. (AP/Chris Pizzello)
After the Oscars, Bailey tweeted“Black women are meant to endure misogyny, in public, without comment. Pick examples from the past week and how to start this one. We deserve more than light praise for our composure regardless.”
The incident, whether you support or condemn Smith, needs to be contextualized within larger stories of anti-black and misogynistic violence in Hollywood. It is a time for us to reflect on and examine the institutionalized systems of misogynoir within our culture and society, including the spaces we occupy as Christians.
Violence against black women continues in almost every aspect of American life, from our health care to our media to our schools, and almost as great as the violence is the deafening silence when black women are publicly hurt. . The moment Will Smith slaps Chris Rock is no revelation to black women and women of color who know all too well the vulnerability of to be the butt of someone’s joke. Americans — especially non-Black people — should consider this moment and what it might reveal about our culture and values as Americans. It is a moment that invites us to better understand misogynoir and its impact on how we define moral values in our society.
This time is also a challenge for Christians to reflect more fully on responsibility.
In her essay for the xoNECOLE website, cultural writer Hanna Phifer analyzes what this moment can teach us about the way we talk about carcerality. “If a black man who has had a professional and personal reputation as one of the nicest men in Hollywood over his three-decade career can be immediately reviled, I shudder to think of how people treat black boys and black men in their daily lives with far less social and monetary capital,” writes Phifer.
Instead of relegating the slap as just another form of violence to be dealt with through our legal system, she adds, the moment invites us to imagine the work that goes on between Smith, Jada and Rock – outside of the gaze public and white.
Smith’s slap is a transgression, but a “social transgression” which goes against the daily and often overlooked violent transgressions against black women. For me, this is what Jesus did and calls us to do. He transgressed against many the religious and cultural norms of his timeand through her example, we are called to transgress against any harm done to black women and all marginalized people.
Was the moment sacred? No. Was it necessary? No. But is it useful? I would say yes.
This moment forced a conversation about anti-darkness, including how it intersects with how we categorize our citizens into good and bad, and how the ways we understand the two categories were first established at the era of slavery. This means we need to reconceptualize the behaviors we consider good and the people we deem worthy of publicly defending.
This is a time for us to reflect and examine the infrastructures of misogynoir in our culture and society. The Oscars are just one of many microcosms in which black people are publicly hurt and then expected to respond with class. Will Smith broke that illusion and broke the veneer of respectability and moral signalling.
In Civil Wars: Observations from the American Front Linespoet, playwright and essayist June Jordan wrote: “In the context of tragedy, all polite behavior is a form of self-sacrifice.” His words are prophetic, calling on us to question what we hold sacred as an American society, beginning with who we consider valuable, worthy and worth fighting for.
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