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Was Will Smith's smack to Chris Rock an act of chivalry or over the line?

When Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars, some praised him for defending his wife’s honor. But what does it actually mean to protect Black women? Activist Jamira Burley weighs in.

Transcript

Into America

Was Will Smith Protecting Black Women?

Archival Recording: And the Oscar goes to.

Archival Recording: And the Oscar goes (APPLAUSE) to.

Archival Recording: And the Oscar goes to.

Archival Recording: And the Oscar goes to.

Trymaine Lee: The Academy Awards have had a few viral moments before, like the Moonlight-La La Land mix-up for Best Picture in 2017.

Jordan Horowitz: Guys, I'm sorry. No.

Archival Recording: There's a mistake.

Horowitz: There's a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. (CHEERING) (APPLAUSE) Moonlight won. This is not a joke.

Lee: John Travolta butchering Broadway star Idina Menzel's name just a few years earlier.

John Travolta: Please welcome the wickedly talented one and only Adele Dazeem.

Lee: But they've got nothing on this year.

Chris Rock: Lord.

Lee: On stage to present the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, Chris Rock began roasting the celebrities in attendance. When he got to Jada Pinkett Smith, he made a joke about her shaved head.

Rock: (LAUGH) Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane II. Can't wait to see it, all right? (LAUGH)

Lee: At first, the camera showed Will laughing while Jada rolled her eyes. But a moment later, Will strolled up on the stage and slapped Chris Rock across the face.

Rock: (LAUGH) Oh, wow. (CHEERING) Wow. Will Smith just smacked the (BEEP) out of me. (LAUGH)

Lee: Will immediately went back to his seat at his wife's side. ABC cut the sound for the next 20 seconds of their broadcast. But around the world, in places like Japan and Australia, viewers got an ear full.

Will Smith: My wife's name out your (BEEP) mouth. (LAUGH)

Rock: Wow, dude.

Smith: Yes.

Rock: It was a G.I. Jane joke.

Smith: Keep my wife's name out your (BEEP) mouth.

Rock: I'm going to, okay? (LAUGH) Oh, okay. That was the greatest night in the history of television. (LAUGH) Okay. Okay.

Lee: With Will yelling from his seat, the audience was shocked into a stunned silence. In the auditorium as well as online, people weren't sure if what they had just witnessed was staged or if it was a genuine moment of unbridled emotion. Jada has opened up in recent years about her struggles with alopecia. It's an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. And, according to Johns Hopkins, it disproportionately affects Black women. In December, she completely shaved her head.

Jada Pinkett Smith: I don't give two craps what people feel about this bald head of mine, 'cause guess what? I love it.

Lee: Forty-five minutes after the slap, (APPLAUSE) Will Smith went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. And we saw a man at his breaking point.

Smith: (CRYING) I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse. You gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you. And you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that's okay.

Lee: In his tearful acceptance speech, he apologized to the Academy for his actions, (APPLAUSE) and talked about protecting his family.

Smith: Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said. (LAUGH) I look like crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. (APPLAUSE) But love will make you do crazy things. A lotta this moment is really complicated for me, but to my mother.

Lee: As the ceremony continued, social media blew up. Some condemned Will's actions, like writer and director Judd Apatow who tweeted the move was, quote, "pure, uncontrolled rage and violence," and that it could've killed Chris Rock. Apatow has since deleted this and other tweets without further comment.

But others, notably several Black women, said the situation was much more complicated than that. Tiffany Haddish was quoted as saying, "When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife, that's what your husband is supposed to do, right? Protect you."

Since Sunday, Will Smith has issued a public apology and Diddy told Page Six that Smith and Rock quickly made amends. But the Academy says it has opened a formal review of the incident. Between all the social media chatter and talk show punditry, I can't help but wonder: what's the takeaway from this moment, if there is one? I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America.

Archival Footage: Sometimes discipline needs to be administered.

Archival Footage: This was completely avoidable, and something that he brought on himself.

Archival Footage: Two things can be true at one time.

Lee: Today, how one viral slap sparked a conversation about how society talks about Black women, what it actually means to protect Black women, and who gets to decide what that protection looks like. Jamira, thank you so much for joining us.

Jamira Burley: Thank you for having me.

Lee: Jamira Burley is an activist based in Portland, Oregon. And, just like Will Smith, her roots are in Philly. She was one of the folks who weighed in on Twitter and tried to bring nuance to the conversation, referencing the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, she wrote, "Y'all were just screaming 'Protect Black women' last week. But you don't really understand what it means to live it." On top of that, Jamira says she was frustrated by the people who were talking about hypothetical situations on how badly this could've gone.

Burley: You know, a lotta people are saying, "What if? What if? What if," And it's not "What if." We're gonna talk about what actually happened between these two individuals at that moment 'cause I actually was not watching the Oscars, for a host of reasons.

But I remember receiving, like, 15 text messages around the same time, telling me to turn on the Oscars. And my initial reaction was rarely do we see Black men, especially Black men of this particular status and power, actually openly protecting Black women, or perceiving to protect Black women in a moment of humiliation, in a moment of degradation.

There're so many layers to what is happening in this conversation, especially when you think about Chris Rock and the traditional history of how he uses Black women oftentimes as the punchline for his jokes. And so I saw the pain in Will Smith's face.

And, as someone who just recently read his autobiography, as someone who's from West Philly, and hearing him talk about how his father treated him and his mother, I think this was a combination of so many different triggers at the same time.

And since the actual slap has happened, I think there's been a lot of opportunity and moments within the Black community for us to have an intersectional conversation to really weed out the nuances of this conversation. I don't condone violence of any form unless you're physically protecting yourself against violence.

There is conversations around the fact that, had Will Smith not said anything, then there would be a whole conversation of that he's a punk and that he doesn't really respect himself and his relationship. So in many ways, there might not have been a great response of where everyone would've been satisfied in the moment.

Lee: You know, I wonder, speakin' of Will Smith's book, he talks about that feelin' of bein' a coward, right, for not standing up when his mother was getting abused. But how much of that do you think in this moment was projecting that, and how much was actually protecting not just Black women, but his wife? Like, or is this so tangled that we're just seeing what we wanna see out of it?

Burley: One, I definitely think we're seeing what we wanna see out of it, right? We're not in Will Smith's head. We weren't there in the moment. We're not in his household, having the conversation with his wife right now. So I think it's a combination of many things.

Like, nothing happens in isolation. No particular moment is not boggled down also by the baggage in which we carry, the invisible baggage. And so, I think it is a combination of what has happened in his lifetime. But also, with the disrespect that has been geared towards Jada Pinkett Smith over the last few years, especially in regards to their relationship.

And I think, you know, coupled with the fact that Jada is going through a very hurtful moment in her life, particularly in a lot of women's lives who've been impacted by alopecia. And to have it being put on national television, used as a punchline, when this is a very serious health issue that is impacting millions of women around the world.

And for Chris Rock, who just produced a documentary on Black women's hair and the political implications, also at a time where we literally have to get legislation to protect Black women's right to wear our hair in the workplace, so there are so many layers happening at the same time.

But I guess for me as a Black woman who grew up with ten older brothers, who my mother taught me that you never use words unless you are ready to back it up with your hands because you can't judge how someone is gonna respond to the things you say, I in that moment immediately after seeing it, I felt very happy seein' a Black man protect his woman where he felt like she was being disrespected. And we can have a conversation on whether or not that is a form of protection, but I think that's where the nuances come in.

Lee: Why do you think we so rarely see Black men in particular, right, and this is a conversation between a Black man and Black woman, but why do we see it so rarely, that defense?

Burley: Well, it's so interesting that you say that 'cause I think that's also the other side of many people's argument about why this particular slap was inappropriate at that particular time, and it's through the white gaze, right? We, as Black folks, particularly folks who have had access to power and privilege, as we move up the success ladder, we oftentimes are taught that there is a certain type of behavior in which we have to exude in order to be welcomed into those spaces where the white gaze, by our white counterparts in order for them to believe that we represent some level of civility in order for us to bear witness to their spaces.

That's why I think a lotta people responded initially the way they did, and still respond the way that they do, especially Black feminists who look at this work from an intersectional lens. At the same time, this was also unique because this was a Black man protecting a Black woman, against a Black man.

And that is even more rare when Black men hold each other accountable for how we treat Black women within our community, and how we use them as punchlines in front of a white audience, because even if he didn't know the full history of Jada and her health condition, that's where Google comes in, right?

Google's free. Like, it enables for us to be able to ensure that we're not seeing things that can be potentially really detrimental to someone's health. And there's also a number of stories of people being harmed and bullied and committing suicide due to alopecia. So this is not a joking matter, even if people saw it as a joke. And we need to really define what joke means if we use words to put people physically at harm and/or cause them mental harm at the same time.

Lee: And in another sense, this felt like a very Black moment playing out in the whitest of white stages, the most mainstream main stage. You got Chris Rock and Will Smith, and Will Packer is in the control probably losin' his mind like, "Yo, what y'all doin'?"

But then we saw white folks on social media weighing in. The now-deleted Judd Apatow tweet I think says a lot about what they perceive as this kind of over-explicit violence. And baked into it, it sounded like you're talkin' about these old brutes, right?

Burley: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Lee: How did it feel for you, weighing in on social media, but then seeing white folks also consumin' this and weighin' in?

Burley: Well, first of all, I would love to say my white allies knew better. (LAUGH) They have learned over the last years that, like, some things need to be discussed within ourselves. And also, they don't have a clear enough lens to really understand the nuance of the conversation.

That being said, it's so interesting what white people consider to be brutal, right, because the Oscars have honored a number of very harmful men throughout the course of existence. But also, have many people on that stage, include a Native American woman, who was just asking for her equal right under the law, was being brutalized and booed.

Sacheen Littlefeather: My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am president of the--

Lee: Jamira is talking about one event at the Oscars in particular. In 1973, Native American actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the Oscar stage on behalf of actor Marlon Brando, who had just won Best Actor for The Godfather.

Littlefeather: He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry. Excuse me. (BOOING) (CHEERING) (APPLAUSE)

Lee: Littlefeather was booed and harassed backstage. As the story goes, six people even had to hold John Wayne back to keep him from getting to her. And as Jamira says, the Oscars have a history of honoring harmful and dangerous men, men like Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, who have both been convicted of rape.

Burley: It's always ironic things that white people consider to be violent, and yet they exist within a society that has used violence oftentimes against marginalized communities in different forms of entertainment. And also, this is also a profession in which we have multiple movies that showcase brutality, and we have normalized it across many different genres.

And so this is a clear example again why white folks need to not be the benchmark for what civility looks like at a time in which they've oftentimes used violence as forms of media and entertainment and also as a way to kind of marginalize other communities from speaking up on behalf of themselves.

So yeah, no. Mind your business. Stay (LAUGH) out of this. This is not a conversation for you. I get there need to be repercussions. And I get there needs to be someone held accountable. If we're talking about restorative justice, if we're talking about using different forms of accountability beyond mass incarceration, that is a conversation to happen oftentimes with Chris Rock and Will Smith outside of the public eye.

Lee: Yeah. I can't help but think, hearing you talk, it's, like, it reminds me of a conversation I had with an anti-gun violence activist. And he talked about America like, our form of entertainment is murder and bloodshed and violence. But we entertain ourselves (LAUGH) with kind of brutality.

But Jamira, let me ask you straight up. In this conversation about unpacking this incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock, what's been centered in many quarters of social media and in our communities is defense of Black women, right, protecting Black women. And what exactly do Black women need protecting from? I know it sounds like a wild question, but really, this idea, it's, like, listen to Black women. Protect Black women. What are Black women in need of defense from?

Burley: I think Black women are in need of defense from both internal and external threats, right? And that means recognizing that we live in a society that is inherently structured to oppress people of color. And Black women are oftentimes the most marginalized of those communities.

And so for Black men who say they love us, they respect us, they cherish us, that means calling out those institutions. That means recognizing that the patriarchy which oftentimes Black men benefit from also harms the Black women in their lives, and Black women that are not in their lives.

It means calling out their friends when they are having a locker room conversation that is also at times reflective of the violence afflicted against Black women. And it's looking at our own internal behavior, right? Will Smith saw his actions as protecting Black women.

A lot of Black women saw that as him being narcissistic, right, as him allowing his ego to drive the conversation. Recognizing that you as a Black man can't define what protection looks like, that's where it comes in to listen to Black women in your life. Listen to Black women outside of your lives. And look at the intersectionality of that because it can't just be the ones that you're in proximity to. It also has to be the women that you may never come into contact with. So train your friends. Train your sons to be and do better inside and outside the household.

Lee: Do you think it's specifically Black men's, our responsibility, to defend Black women? I would say yes. It's our community and for too long, we've been kind of absent in letting things go down that shouldn't have. But others might argue that, you know, that's an outdated mode anyway. Like, a woman does not need a man to step up and defend her. What's your take on that? Is it our responsibility? And what about the notion that it's dated?

Burley: I think it's dated in the sense of it's only Black men's responsibility, right? And Black men have to do it without including Black women within that narrative. What we're really looking for is not only allyship, but also co-conspirators.

And I think that has been lost in the conversation. We don't need Black men going off, making decisions on their own about our bodies, about our experiences, without having those conversations with us. We need them to strategize with us.

We need them to talk about why these issues are important. But also, we need them to be defending us when we're not in the room. And that is where oftentimes where it gets lost in translation. As Black men continue to become successful, they've been taught to, you know, disassociate themselves from their Blackness.

And oftentimes, that looks like marrying white, outside of their race. And I think for many Black women who are always seen as the less desirable, the less culturally acceptable, it's really hurtful when we don't have men who look like us also defending us in public and in private to their friends and to their colleagues. And so we need them to be co-conspirators with us as we continue to navigate, you know, dismantling institutions that have never been created to benefit us or protect us.

Lee: You know, and certainly, we could tell, had an inkling, that this goes well beyond just the G.I. Jane joke, right? There's something deep-seated here. We don't know the relationship between Chris Rock and Will Smith, but we know there's a lot baked into this moment.

And I wanna go back to Will, Will Smith's autobiography. And he talked about feeling like a coward for not being able to protect his mother from abuse when he was growing up. And I want to play a clip from an interview he did just a few months ago from NPR's Fresh Air in November, 2021.

Smith: That moment singularly shaped my childhood identity. I couldn't shake the idea that I had failed my mother and I was somehow unworthy of love and care because of my cowardice. And that's where the beginnings of wanting to overachieve and wanting to create, and wanting to win, and wanting to build an external life that could somehow and hopefully cover the pain and the low self-esteem.

Lee: It sounds like his history and that feeling of not being worthy is a cardinal feeling for him. It's at the center of who he is, and he's responded in so many different ways throughout the years with the smiley, jokey, kind of, you know, bein' a jester.

But in this moment, it seemed like he cracked through that and he was at his breakin' point. Like, how do you think, you know, his past might parallel? We don't know Will Smith personally, but how (LAUGH) does his history parallel with what we saw?

Burley: Yeah. It's so interesting 'cause you could hear the pain in his voice, and I felt that reading many of the chapters in his book, the deep-seated pain of his childhood and how that shaped his entire worldview, and also his self-worth. As someone who has ten older brothers, right, and who knows many Black men throughout my entire life, I think what Will Smith exuded is also a form of toxic masculinity, not necessarily that he himself created, but one that was designed by our society.

It's this idea that we put so much pressure on men to be seen as the sole protector of the women of their lives, that when they aren't able to actually fulfill that role, how that actually breaks down their own self-worth. It's the same thing with women, right?

Society has told us if we can't have kids and we're not making our husband happy, what actually do we provide and offer to our families? And so I think, as someone who saw my own brothers feeling like they had to fill that fatherly void for my siblings and fill that protective void for my mother, it's a lot of pressure to put on a child, particularly a Black man where that is oftentimes extremely compounded when they are told that they are hyper-masculine, right, that they are seen as these violent protectors within their society.

And so I definitely think that, again, nothing happens in isolation. Nothing is within a silo. But I do think it shaped how he felt he needed to respond in that moment. And also, you know, these things happen in a split second, right? We don't oftentimes get an hour to figure out our thoughts and our reactions.

And I think he regrets it, especially how he responded in that moment, and it took away attention to what needed to really be discussed, which is, you know, Chris Rock using Black women as a punchline and using a disability as a moment to make fun of it at a time where so many people are still being ridiculed and discriminated against across this entire country.

Lee: We'll be right back.

Lee: Black hair has always played a significant role in Black culture and history, but especially for Black women. Whether a Black woman has a head full of thick hair or not, her crown is often connected to her sense of self. But there's a long history of Black women's hair, bodies, and features being judged and degraded by white society. And too often, by Black men who have bought into those same warped, Euro-centric standards of beauty and femininity. So when Chris Rock made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith on Sunday, it cut deep.

Burley: People use words for a reason, right? We say that with our politicians, with our actors, within movies, within real life. Words have the ability to create action. Young people are in classrooms right now being bullied by words. And so I don't care about Chris Rock's profession being seen as a comedian.

That does not give you immunity to use words that could potentially put people at harm's risk. I'm all for a good joke. I love dry humor. I love it. Dark humor, all of it. But I think at a time where we see it being compounded by so many men with microphones talking about how worthless and how undesirable Black women are, and how they are angry and how they only wanna date white women because Black women are this and that.

And so I think again, as a society, especially what you saw on Twitter and Instagram, is responding to that, responding to seeing so many men with microphones using their platforms to degrade women that look like them, that created them, and that they will more likely produce, right? Black men could date white women, but you're still gonna produce a Black child in this society, who has to navigate a world that tells them, based on your own definition, that they are worthless. And no one talks about that.

Lee: No, you're right, 'cause you can keep your mouth shut and do the thing, but you have to feel the need to degrade. But we know what that's about though, right? It's all a response to white supremacy. And that's not an excuse. All responses to white supremacy are valid. They're not all good.

But Jamira, let me ask you this. As a Black woman in America, a Black woman with a platform, right, and thoughts and ideas and a microphone often in your face, have there been times when you felt the need to be protected, that you wish you were protected in some way?

Burley: Yeah. I mean, just lookin' at half the comments on my post by Black men, the excuses being lined up to degradate why Jada needed protection makes me realize that what are the conversations y'all are having in the back room with your friends? What are the things you're saying about us as women who you claim you love and respect?

And I think for many ways, this showed me so many people are not gonna have my back, should I never need it, protection. And also, while it kills me to say, I rarely feel safe in the presence of men. Rarely, because the data and the reality of it shows that, oftentimes, we're not gonna be protected because either they themselves have thoughts of committing harm, or they will look the other way if their friends commit harm. And we see that with many celebrities.

Lee: Let me ask you this. I often think this when I see sisters who I love, appreciate, and respect, and I hear that. Is it an actual fear, or it's fear based on the idea of, like, men generally, they're the ones who are going to kill us, right? If a man's gonna kill you, it's probably gonna be an intimate partner or someone who knows you, a Black man, right? But is that real, actual fear? Like, do you fear for your actual safety?

Burley: Yeah. Yeah. And not just physical, but also my mental safety in my interactions because rarely, do I feel like, holistically, they see me beyond a sexual object, beyond something to entertain them, right? I've met some amazing men who are doing amazing work.

But I've also seen how they have interacted with women in their lives, right? I'm a firm believer that how you treat women in one aspect of your lives, you will treat them in another aspect of your lives. You can't be a good friend to me and then be an (BEEP) to your intimate relationships and to treat women in such a way.

It's always something in the back of my mind. Do I think in that moment physically I'm gonna be harmed? No. But I know that I need to watch what I say. I need to watch my interactions with certain men to assume that they perceive my actions a certain way.

I need to not drink with certain people, right? So those things happen all the time because, even if it's not that particular person, I need to move in a certain way that doesn't give people the idea that I am available either mentally or physically to any form of approach. And I think that that really doesn't enable for me to move through the world in a way that's healthy long term or short term.

Lee: And I thought just bein' Black was exhausting. Bein' a Black woman sounds-- (SIGH)

Burley: It's exhausting and s--

Lee: I was already tired.

Burley: And also imagine livin' in a city that ain't got that many Black (LAUGH) people. So it's a struggle.

Lee: Now, to counter that, have there also been times where you felt the protection and you felt that solidarity with Black men in particular, where you said, "This is a model. This is how it should look like. This feels good and this feels healthy"?

Burley: Yeah. I have an amazing community of Black men that I could turn to who have been in spaces with me, who have called their friends out, who have had conversations with men on the side about their behavior, who I see the way that they treat their relationships and the way they talk about women, that I feel very protected.

But that's a community that I've cultivated. I can't bring that community every single place I go. And that's why I think, you know, the response isn't always to, you know, shout at the institutions. It also requires Black men looking at their own behavior, but also calling their friends out. And training our sons to just do better. Be better, do better, hold their friends accountable because it's not a joking matter when women are really being killed and being abused and being shunned both online and offline.

Lee: You know, certainly, this response has kicked up a lotta conversation and a lotta think pieces. And even we're havin' this conversation. But I think it is an important (LAUGH) conversation though.

Burley: Yeah, it is.

Lee: I can't be, like, "Y'all talkin' too much," and then talk. I think one of the sadder aspects of this is that it undermined what could've been perhaps the Blackest Oscars ever, right? You have Questlove winning. You got Will Smith winning. You got Venus and Serena.

You know, big shout to King Richard, the father who helped guide these young ladies, right? That's the part that I think, even if we somehow can tap in and agree with the response, or understand the response, 'cause no one's condoning violence, but understand the response, it feels like we also did lose somethin' here. Like, we might've gained some insight, but I thought we lost a lot.

Burley: We did lose a lot, and I think part of it is going back to white supremacy, right? It's the idea that any other night, the Oscars could happen, and one white person can do something, but it's not a reflection on all white people, right?

We do not have that luxury as Black people. One incident, regardless of how big, small it is, it is a reflection of our entire community. And it will distract. And white people use it as a distraction to say, "This is why we don't do this" or, "This is why our structures are this way."

That has always been something conscious that my mentor has ingrained in me since I was 15 years old and started speaking, right, is that you will always be a reflection of your entire community. Move through the world how you want people to perceive people that look like you.

And so I think we did lose a lot. And I think we're losing a lot even within our community because folks are not allowing each other to have nuanced conversations without jumping down each other's throats. And I will say the loss will not overshadow the great success of that night. At least, I won't allow it to. But that being said too, we need to stop looking to white spaces as the stage in which we need to seek recognition from, but also as the stage in which we need to seek respectability from.

Lee: And on that note, stay tuned to our bonus episode of Into America, where we actually have engaged with this idea with a filmmaker who says, "You know what? We need to stop turning to them for validation in the first place, and work on spending example creating our own, and loving on our own, and building with each other." My sister Jamira, I knew I wanted to talk to you. I saw your socials poppin'. I said, "I gotta get Jamira on to unpack this." (LAUGH) Thank you so much, Jamira.

Burley: Thank you for having me.

Lee: That bonus episode I mentioned will be in your feeds starting Friday, April 1st. It's my conversation with Stefon Bristol, an up-and-coming filmmaker who is finding his way and is determined to do it with or without the approval of white Hollywood.

Stefon Bristol: Of course. Like, who wouldn't dream of, you know, chasin' an Oscar? But I don't look for validation for the Oscars, personally.

Lee: We hope you check that out. And follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @IntoAmericaPod. Or you can tweet me @TrymaineLee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name. If you wanna write us, our email is IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com. That was IntoAmerica@NBC and the letters U-N-I, .com.

Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow with a bonus episode, and then again next Thursday. See y'all soon.