At the 94th Oscars ceremony on the night of March 27 in Hollywood, Best Actor nominee and later winner Will Smith (King Richard) responded to Best Documentary presenter Chris Rock’s joke about the shaved head of Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, emphatically.

If you’re reading this right now, you’ve already seen the footage, whether in raw form or as hastily censored by ABC in the States (and if you haven’t, here’s a blow-by-blow): Rock tells the joke, it doesn’t go over well, he covers by calling it a “nice one.” Then we see Smith, gamely laughing just a moment ago, saunter with a purpose up to stage center, raise his right hand midstride, and then — quick as a flash — thump — his hand comes down in a well-oiled move, causing Rock to recoil.

People at first thought it was a bit, but then Smith started cussing Rock out from his front-row seat, telling him to leave his wife alone. And of course there was that thump, which had people thinking that maybe Smith had thrown a closed-fist punch; turns out it was just Rock’s lapel mic picking up Smith’s speedy slap.

The Twitterverse went batshit. On the one side were people condemning Smith for stooping so low, and criticizing the producers for not escorting him out after. On the other side were people supporting him and calling his actions justified, given how the joke seemed aimed at Pinkett Smith’s alopecia-induced hair loss and was told by the guy who, when he last hosted the Oscars in 2016, also cracked a joke at her for no apparent reason. Both sides disapproved of Rock’s joke, and of ABC for (presumably) letting it through.

But the story of the slap is much more complex than that.

Before I go any further, let me try to stem the inevitable flood of hate mail by saying that Smith was not justified. He was wrong to slap Rock, in public or in private. And Rock and ABC were wrong for approving the joke. But commentators are also wrong for treating this incident the same as they would had all three people involved been White.

Let’s start from the basics: The culture and society of the United States, taken historically and as a whole, is White supremacist. The sins of the past, let alone the present, cast a long shadow. Short of a truth and reconciliation commission and/or reparations for slavery and dispossession, the influence of the past isn’t likely to wane anytime soon.

This holds doubly true for the world of film, where Smith is just the fifth Black man to win Best Actor in 94 years. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, and things are slowly changing on the representation front, but most members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are old and White, and many were alive to witness desegregation. Even the technology of capturing Black skin on screen had to play catch-up.

As the #OscarsSoWhite campaign keeps reminding us, this isn’t the BET Awards. Setting aside home viewers, Rock was performing for a majority White live audience. Unknowingly, unconsciously, to entertain his audience, he didn’t go out of his way to avoid racial stereotypes (though I wouldn’t necessarily say that he leaned into them either). Maybe he felt that it would be safer to choose a sister to crack an unmotivated joke at.

Smith has also been condemned for the toxic masculinity of his slap, in that it (and his speech later) justify his violence in terms of protecting his wife. (He issued a real apology the following day.) Again, there are many and better ways to safeguard one’s family without becoming a conservative cultural trope.

What I want to point out is that the White gaze had a part to play in this, too. Decades of being unable to keep enslaved family safe from White patriarchy led to the distorted and deeply repulsive trope of the emasculated Black man (PDF, page 6). In that moment, Rock was belittling Pinkett Smith with the stamp of approval of the (White) Man. That Smith is a rich and powerful Black man then on the cusp of a career high point likely just made him feel all the more powerless.

As a guy from a culture whose guys have historically been emasculated, even feminized, by White culture, I can see where he’s coming from. I don’t think he should have reacted with physical violence, but my reasoning is, again, a bit more complicated.

Many people over the years have noted that White culture in the U.S. — that is, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture — often gives the impression of valuing surface civility over true harmony. And what is physical violence if not the ultimate rupturing of that superficial peace? The gray areas and plausible deniability built into verbal, emotional, and mental abuse (and forms of physical abuse like intimate partner violence) are a key reason it’s often so hard to get those forms of abuse recognized and dealt with by the proper authorities. Physical violence is not, in itself and in all cases, worse than other forms of violence; and different forms of violence often appear together, in any case. One could argue that Rock’s joke punched down in terms of ableism and misogynoir.

Misogynoir is the specific form of marginalization that is commonly experienced by people who are both women and Black, not just one or the other. It’s a case of misogynoir, in which a group of Black women lost a discrimination suit because their employer discriminated on the basis of neither race nor gender separately, that helped launch the much-maligned legal theory known as critical race theory.

Fact is, no one comes out of this looking good, and I’m not here to defend anyone. To explain is not to excuse. Even so, a closer examination of the context can show why the intersectionality of multiple identities in a single person — which is the case for the vast majority of people — means that few such incidents are black and white.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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