“At your highest moment, be careful—that’s when the devil comes for you” was the advice given by actor Denzel Washington to Will Smith on the night of The Oscars. Though Washington did not know all the details of the situation, he knew “the only solution was prayer” to help remedy the amount of emotion shown on stage and felt by fellow actors Smith and Chris Rock.
The intense and high emotion on the stage, and off, as Will Smith yelled “keep my wife’s name out of your f***** mouth” can not be understood without the full context of what led to the “slap.”
Some blame Jada Pinkett-Smith for starting. She’s exposed her family issues various times and she’s made her husband the target of many jokes against their marriage. Jada’s very iconic and very public relationship with R&B singer August Alsina led to various memes and jokes over Will crying after hearing Jada explain her “entanglement.” In July 2020, it became clear that Jada and Will’s relationship was deeper than an entanglement, but more so an unconventional relationship. Some wonder how and why Will and Jada are still together after the infidelity rumors, and open marriage conspiracies, but let’s reconsider something we haven’t spoken about before because the story of Will Smith is more complicated than anyone ever knew: Will Smith’s questioned masculinity.
Though Will Smith has not publicly addressed the rumors that he is gay, with friend Duane Martin, it can be inferred that no matter his sexual preference or Jada’s, the duo insists that divorce isn’t an option for them.
On TIDAL’s “Rap Radar” podcast, he said he and Jada do not say they are “married anymore.” The Oscar nominee elaborated that they “refer to ourselves as life partners, where you get into that space where you realize you are literally with somebody for the rest of your life. There’s no deal breakers. There’s nothing she could do — ever. Nothing that would break our relationship. She has my support till death and it feels so good to get to that space.”
The life partnership bond that the couple has built has made it easy for either one of them to do things in an unconventional manner, knowing that at the end of the tunnel, there would be forgiveness on both sides. But, Will has had enough. Though his own relationships outside of his marriage have kept a low profile, Jada’s haven’t and that’s the anger built up that we all saw on Oscar night. It was Will’s need to emasculate another man due to his struggles with his own masculinity.
Unfortunately, the slap has led into various conversations around the lack of protection Black women have. It was proven that even at the stardom level Pinkett-Smith achieved, her and her hair would still be the brunt of jokes in an all-white room, a feeling that many Black women, including myself, had found far too familiar. Black women’s hair has always been questioned, laughed at, seen as inferior to white women, “good hair” is an achievement rather than loving the hair we’re born with. For myself, it’s taken years to love my own hair – I’ve gone through phases of straightening my hair just to fit in and not be made fun of in an all-white space and it’s far too common (and a conversation for another day) for Black women to only go on job interviews with their hair straightened to avoid stereotypes. What other race of women have to avoid certain hairstyles to not be perceived as inferior? Black women are often adjusting and in positions of having to adjust because of the lack of acceptance around them. Moya Bailey, a professor of communications studies at Northwestern University, says “Black women are always singled out and targeted in ways that other women are not.”
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So, when Rock made a joke about Pinkett-Smith’s hair, whether or not he knew about her illness, at first, I can understand why many thought it served him right to immediately feel the pain and embarrassment that Pinkett-Smith felt. Chris Rock’s joke was rooted in misogyny, testurism, and ableism, wrote artist Christina Brown in a tweet. “Degrading a Black woman, in a room full of her peers, on live TV. The fact ya’ll don’t see that as violent is beyond me.”
As a clear and easy contrast, Black women can confidently say that Chris Rock would not have made that joke to a white woman about their hair, as we haven’t ever seen Selma Blair receive these types of jokes so publicly (and for good reason). Black women feel so unprotected that the “slap” to many was a sign of protection. Pinkett-Smith—a Black woman who has been public about her struggle with the hair-loss disorder alopecia—represented a demographic of women far too frequently felt unprotected.
Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right
Will Smith’s gut reaction to embarrass Chris Rock, slap him, then turn his back on him knowing he would not be attacked back was a result of his own privilege. Smith did not slap Chris Rock to protect his wife, but instead to protect his own image. During his standing ovation speech, Will compared himself to Richard Williams and the love he had for his two little Black girls to rise in the ranks of tennis, a very white-dominated sport. Smith claimed protection in defense of his actions. But to be clear, Black women do not need violence, for their protection. They need to be considered and respected. We do not need to be rescued and that rescue should not be violence.
Featured photo: Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith/Oscars
Her work has been published in Refinery29, Elite Daily, the Copenhagen Post, and more. She studies public relations and corporate relations at NYU. She loves reading, cheese plates, reality TV, and event planning. She lives in Williamsburg, but Miami is her second home. Follow her on Instagram @alyssa_s_ashley.