Personally, I could care less that Will Smith and Chris Rock have some sort of a feud going on.
But from a societal standpoint, Smith, in one impulsive and stupid action, aided the cause of those who believe Black people are not as good as other people. He has played into the historical stereotype of Black men being violent brutes. He has done a grave disservice to all of those who look like him.
The slap coverage mostly involves the gossip surrounding the incident. It’s far more interesting to speculate about whether Smith and Rock will reconcile. The coverage focuses on the inappropriateness of the joke that precipitated the slap, and armchair quarterbacks Smith’s quick reaction from laughing to angrily confronting Rock.
That’s a lazy way to examine the implications of what happened.
Research shows Black men continue to be perceived as big, dangerous, brutes that can’t be trusted. It’s a holdover from the days of slavery when Blacks were portrayed as predatory ape-like beings. It continued when silent movies launched in the early 1900s, in which movies like Birth of a Nation showed the defenders of the white race – the KKK – taming the savages via lynching.
These dangerous stereotypes lead to death. Treyvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery were killed simply because they looked suspicious. In Derek Chauvin’s trial, his attorney pointed out the size difference between him and the man he murdered, George Floyd.
It fed into the stereotype that these large Black men – Floyd stood 6’3 and 223 pounds compared to Chauvin’s 5’9, 140 pounds – needed to be treated with more force because their size alone makes them threatening.
And like all stereotypes, physical size isn’t true. One study showed Black men to be, on average, only about one-inch taller and four pounds heavier than white men.
Need more? This 2016 poll showed that half of Trump supporters — and there are a lot of them — viewed Blacks as “criminal,” “unintelligent,” “lazy,” and “violent.” But don’t look cross-eyed at just Trump supporters. Nearly 1 in 3 Hillary Clinton supporters thought the same thing.
Smith’s action gives cover to people who can now say, “See we told you so. We don’t dislike Black people. We just dislike the violence. And they’re violent. Just look at Will Smith.”
Immediately after the incident, there were wrath of new memes on social media and a new verb. Getting Smithed quickly moving to our vernacular for being put in your place.
But there is no real discussion of the damage he’s done.
Maybe that’s not surprising. Most of the entertainment & movie reviewers and program hosts are white. I could see them shying away from tackling an issue as sensitive as this one – how one Black Man treated another and the societal implications moving forward.
And, if you’re black in that field, do you really want to take on a powerful and beloved movie star?
There is a right answer. We should talk about the issue here that matters. Will Smith has done a disservice to Black men in America. He needs to own it and figure out how to repair the damage.