The veteran actor resorted to violence when Jada Pinkett Smith's medical condition became the topic of a bad joke. We can all learn from their conflict.
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Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars
Credit: ANGELA WEISS,ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly before winning the award for best actor at the 94th Academy Awards, Will Smith made headlines for walking on stage and slapping comedian Chris Rock. The incident happened after Rock made a "G.I. Jane" joke about Smith's wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith, who was recently diagnosed with alopecia-induced hair loss. Smith responded by walking on stage, slapping Rock and yelling, "Keep my wife's name out your f—king mouth. Keep my wife's name out your f—king mouth!" 

In 2016, Rock made a comment about Pinkett Smith making the choice to boycott the Oscars, saying she couldn't boycott something she wasn't invited to. Among other things, viewers speculated whether the slap was a reaction to last night's comment or a deeper, long-standing issue. 

Regardless, the audience—at the Dolby Theater and on social media—was stunned. 

Mainstream hot takes called Smith's actions an example of toxic masculinity, many saying that his actions were inexcusable and simply amounted to assault. In Black communities, among Black women, and among marginalized people, reactions were mixed. Some initially thought it was a pre-planned joke. Others were confused about what they witnessed. Some supported the way Smith defended his wife, others were embarrassed about the way he represented them. 

Smith has since apologized

But the larger world—especially Black families—is still processing what happened. We are trying to decide how to feel, and what we want to communicate to our children, many of whom have seen the incident and are looking to us for answers. 

Physical Violence Is Never Okay, and Neither Are Jokes That Hit Below the Belt

It's important that Black communities move away from normalizing violence. Our communities have had countless experiences that normalize violence and make us feel small and in response to very real threats to our safety. Considering this history, we may also understand what it's like to be overwhelmed by unreasonable behavior and what to act out physically. But we can't excuse Smith's actions just because we understand. It's equally crucial to normalize hard conversations and model what problem-solving and healing look like. 

Nedra Tawwab, a licensed therapist, boundaries expert, and author tweeted just after the incident. "It was just a joke," she wrote. "It's gaslighting, not a joke. Making harsh statements and pretending that those statements are jokes is gaslighting." It's a welcome reminder that often, making jokes about insecurities is considered "cute" or all fun and games, which is not fair.

At the same time, it's important to say that though Smith's actions may have seemed heroic to some, they did nothing to create a long-term shift for Black women facing hair ridicule and discrimination. Violent responses leave us with more questions than answers. Instead, we should have wrapped Jada in love and called out Smith and Rock for their actions, both of which have made a spectacle out of Jada's pain.  

Simply, we shouldn't condone physical violence or normalize making jokes at others' expense. Often, words do hurt and they are the stepping stones to hurtful actions. 

It's Bigger Than "Just Hair" 

For many, Rock's comments felt personal. Our community knows our hair is never "just hair," it's a source of expression, identity, and self love. But in a society where loose and long is the standard of beauty, Black women's hair has always been a topic of discussion—and often ridiculed.   

Pinkett Smith is one of a growing number of Black women, including Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who is vocal about her experience with alopecia and hair loss in recent years. Still, the conversation about Black women and their hair is even deeper than hair loss resulting from an auto-immune condition. 

For generations, Black women have felt pressure to adapt to mainstream Eurocentric beauty standards that equate hair length to beauty and value.  We know that hair discrimination is a real form of racism and Black women have been subjected to it for cenuries. 

In fact, many have pointed out the irony that Rock produced a documentary depicting Black women's relationship with their hair, which highlighted the hoops so many jump through to be considered beautiful. Others noted that his joke was in especially bad taste after the House of Representatives passed the Crown Act, now headed to the Senate in response to decades of discrimination towards traditionally Black hairstyles

Some also believe that Rock's choice to make fun of Pinkett Smith shows we're too comfortable with misogynoir and ableism

Privilege Still Matters

In big ways, this is also a conversation about privilege and who can act out publicly. Despite Rock and Smith's vulnerability to racism as Black men, wealth and class protect them from the consequences of a public altercation in ways "ordinary" Black people don't experience. There's obviously a double standard at play. 

In a different place, with different people, the conflict could have ended up with both men arrested, detained, or worse. At the same time, we've witnessed that being well-known isn't always a protective factor.

As "regular people" we have to remember for ourselves and teach our kids that while Smith's efforts feel valiant to some, the consequences will look very different if we choose to follow his lead. We can gain the most from this incident if we understand all of the layers at play. 

It's muddy territory. 

We Need to Watch Actors Who Model Conflict Resolution 

 Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggetts, author of "Black Joy," addressed the conflict on Instagram

"Someone asked in a previous post, 'what does this teach our children?' I believe children learn so much more from the way we repair conflict than the conflicts themselves. Humans who can't, or won't, emotionally regulate exist. Humans who believe that the only way to be funny is at someone else's expense exist," said Lewis-Giggetts. "Whether on the playground or on the Oscar stage, our children will not avoid some version of conflict. Sometimes even severe considering the culture we've created. The question to me is, what do we teach them about repair and accountability? There's an opportunity here, for sure."

We have the opportunity to accept these humans for who they are: people with complicated emotions who acted improperly. Just like them, if we understand our own emotions correctly, conflict can be a necessary site of transformation. 

After the conflict, there were several men who called Smith in instead of calling him out. Tyler Perry and Denzel Washington, and Bradley Cooper each went to comfort Smith to make sure he was OK. 

In his acceptance speech, Smith shared Washington's words. "Denzel said, 'at your highest moment, be careful. That's when the devil comes for you,'" said Smith. "Like, Denzel's always one of my first calls when stuff's not going right. He's given me critical advice at really critical moments."

In February, at the 2022 SAG awards, Smith spoke to the mentor-like relationship between him and Washington. "[Tonight], he just hugged me and said, 'This is your year,' and he said, 'I'm so proud of the man you've become,'" Smith said that night. "He grabbed a weight off of [my] shoulders and said, 'You got it.'"

Likewise, Pinkett Smith's feelings were overshadowed and ignored by everyone but Washington who made it a priority to check on her.  

It's possible that this is the most important takeaway of the night. Neither Rock or Smith acted appropriately, and the solution for their behavior isn't involving the police, or choosing sides, but calling them in, as opposed to calling them out.

The challenge is making sure a support network is available to all of us in the Black community, not just those with status and privilege. As a community, we need to work to create more opportunities to be accountable and apologetic. We also need to do more to make sure everyone is protected, not just those married to men with the status to get away with it. 

The Academy has officially condemned Smith's actions and announced it's conducting a formal review. And Chris Rock has refused to file a police report against Will Smith. Still, it's reasonable to wonder who, if anyone, is calling Rock in. Not just as a person who was attacked on live TV, but also as someone whose humor can cause others great pain.

Smith and Rock have privileges that most Black people, especially Black men, don't have. They can have a conflict on TV and keep their careers, lives, and their freedom. We can hope this incident starts conversations, about both reflection, and healing for all of us.

 This isn't just important for us—it's important for our children.