Will Smith is whiter than I am

Somehow, some media outlets have decided that white people are to blame for the infamous slap, or at least white people are making it worse, or white people have done worse, or something, so long as everyone understands a hugely successful actor cannot be responsible for their own actions.

I suppose it was inevitable that the infamous slap heard round the world would devolve into yet another conversation about the centrality of race in American culture.  Everything else does, so why not an out of control actor worth some $350 million slapping another actor and comedian worth some $60 million onstage at one of the most privileged events in the entire world?  The keyword is privilege, and according to the woke crowd whites have it and blacks do not, pay no attention to their wealth, power, social status, or long history of adoration from every race, creed, and color.  Nor should we acknowledge the irony:  Chris Rock, the aggrieved party if ever there was one, is also black, and yet because he acted with dignity, restraint, and class, he’s receiving universal praise.  This isn’t because he is black, white, or green, but because he did the right thing in a difficult situation, serving as a model for anyone confronted with unprovoked belligerence.  Some white people are even suggesting they would’ve done much worse, like E-Street Band guitarist, actor, and all around musical legend Steve Van Zandt.  “Chris Rock handled that well — much better than I would have,” he told The Daily News. “I would have been jumping on the son of a b—h’s back as he walked away, strangling the motherf—er. But that’s just, you know, a Jersey thing I guess.”

Will Smith, on the other hand, is the target of derision for obvious reasons, some of it admittedly over the top, but none of it because he’s black at least as far as I can tell.  He interrupted a nationally televised event to assault another human being for no reason, then proceeded to scream and curse in front of a crowd.  It’s difficult to see how his purported “blackness” has anything to do with it.  In fact, it’s difficult to see him as a person of color in the first place as the phrase is normally used.  This isn’t an underprivileged, underserved, economically disadvantaged denizen of the inner city, beset by police and trampled on by the man.  On the contrary, Mr. Smith is the man by most people’s definition, an international star since he burst onto the scene with the hit rap crossover “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in 1988.  He parlayed that fame into a successful television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air which aired for 6 seasons between 1990 and 1996.  This might have been more than enough for most actors and performers, but Mr. Smith managed to take his success to yet another level with breakout roles in summer blockbusters. Bad Boys in 1995, Independence Day in 1996, and Men in Black in 1997.  Incredibly, he would also find the time to earn respect as an actor, earning rave reviews for Pursuit of Happyness in 2006, Concussion in 2015, and ultimately an Oscar nod and win for King Richard this year.

Throughout it all, Mr. Smith’s combination of on screen charisma, charm, and chemistry with his co-stars has earned him legions of fans around the world.  Few of whom look at him at this point, more than thirty years into a previously stellar career, and see a black man.  Instead, they see a talented actor and performer with the rare ability to carry a movie in a leading role.  He has such presence that even his lesser films, like I, Robot or Gemini Man remain watchable and at least somewhat engaging.  Reducing him to just another poor black man caught up in the machinations of white supremacy, is to deny his many achievements, his agency over his own actions, and his personhood, but unfortunately that hasn’t prevented a wide range of racially driven opinions, some well intentioned, others clearly looking to stoke racial grievances regardless of the facts.  Alia E. Dagastir, writing for USA Today, believes Mr. Smith faces an “unfair” burden as a black man, claiming the “public’s reaction to Will Smith’s Oscars slap underscores the unique burdens felt by Black men when they do something wrong, particularly in public.”  She quotes Shaun Harper, professor at the University of Southern California, who said, “I am certain that if one white man slapped another during the Oscars, the world would be buzzing about it, too. But the buzz would be different – it wouldn’t be racialized. When white men act badly, their actions aren’t attributed to their race. Because Will Smith and Chris Rock are both Black men, so much of the conversation about their altercation is being characterized as Black male violence, which is unfair.”  The experts, you see, insist “the public’s reaction shows the pressure Black men face to be the best versions of themselves at all times, a cultural mandate that can exact a harmful and sometimes deadly toll.”

How any of this applies to Mr. Smith is left completely unsaid.  Precisely who is racializing the incident, other than the wokesters themselves?  In their framing, we’re to presume that Mr. Smith is the aggrieved party if not a would-be revolutionary.  As they describe it, he “is a Black man who has been able to find a balance of relevance and trust within Black and white spaces” because “for any non-white person to survive in a society that is dominated by white people, white systems and white power, they must learn to operate within that system until they can dismantle it.”  Setting aside that a net worth in the hundreds of millions certainly indicates more than mere operation of any system, much closer to domination, how does one learn to operate in this system in the first place?  “Black men are taught from the start to be careful how they dress, to always smile, to be aware of how their bodies and demeanors are perceived by the people who may be socialized to see them as a threat. They are taught their emotions and especially their anger is not permissible, which can have harmful mental health consequences.”  This is white supremacy in the modern age, reduced to dressing well, being polite, and controlling your anger.  In other words, the bare minimum we should expect from everyone in a functioning, peaceful society.  Apparently, not. Instead, Dr. David Fakunle, an associate with The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum, believes that some black men can successfully walk this tightrope, but it’s “problematic that people of color feel they need to satisfy the metaphorical masses” in USA Today’s phrasing.  “Plenty of Black men just want to live their lives, have whatever semblance of peace and understanding and love that they can have. And they should have that right,” he claimed.

What specific right he is referring to and who is denying these rights is also left unsaid.  The right to attack people in public?  The right to unleash your anger and your id whenever emotion takes hold?  For that matter, who precisely doesn’t feel any need to satisfy the masses or adjust their behavior based on the social situation?  Who hasn’t been on a conference call at work and wanted to grab the person on the other end and throttle them?  These are universal human emotions, not primarily black ones, and the subtext lurking beneath these statements is rather frightening.  Dr. Fakulne is pretty much saying that black men in particular simply can’t fit in.  They can’t be polite.  They can’t control their anger.  They are incapable of doing the things everyone else has to do to make their way in the world.  USA Today insinuates this is true of Mr. Smith himself, claiming he has “a carefully crafted persona, formed in response to watching his father abuse his mother and the guilt he felt for not doing more to protect her.”  They quote his own memoir, “What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction – a carefully crafted and honed character – designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward,” he wrote.  From there, Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, director of McLean Hospitals Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change, concludes that “this is a traumatized man who was triggered and reacted to that trigger for all the world to see.”

In this telling, Mr. Smith is just another poor black man, crushed under the boot of white supremacy, pay no attention to the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s amassed, or the fact that no small percentage of white America would happily trade places with him.  He’s living a life few dare dream of, much less achieve.  Sadly, this framing might be the least offensive of the bunch.  It’s an insult to Mr. Smith and black people everywhere, but some were not satisfied to stop there.  Tayo Bero, writing for The Guardian, believes that “white outrage about Will Smith’s slap is rooted in anti-Blackness.  It’s inequality in plain sight.”  “Most people agree the slap shouldn’t have happened,” she begins, making one wonder who she’s speaking to who thinks it should’ve happened, but either way, “there’s something that feels precious at best, and downright racist at worst, about white people’s reaction to the now-infamous smack.”  Ms. Bero cobbles together a few unrelated if boneheaded comments on the matter.  Director Judd Apatow who claimed Mr. Rock could’ve been killed by a slap and who described it as “pure out of control rage and violence.”  Howard Stern who bizarrely compared Mr. Smith to former President Trump, along with some unnamed “white women” on Twitter who believe Mr. Smith beats his wife.  From this, she declares it “would seem that there’s a layer of hyper-violence that’s being projected on to Smith simply because he is a Black man who was defending his Black wife.”

Ultimately, “it’s clear that the backlash against Smith is rooted in not just anti-Blackness, but respectability politics as well.”  White people, you see, have done worse and to prove it she reaches all the way back to an incident at the Oscars in 1973.  Yes, 50 years ago when President Nixon was in office and I wasn’t even born yet, John Wayne apparently had to be restrained because he felt Marlon Brando disrespected the ceremony by asking a Native American activist to accept the award on his behalf.  According to Ms. Bero, Mr. Wayne was allowed to keep his own Oscar even after the incident, but Mr. Smith might not be.  Note the “might.”  None of this has happened yet, but it might, therefore the world at large is irredeemably racist.  Ms. Bero and others also point to Roman Polanksi, who won an Oscar in absentia after fleeing the country from charges of drugging and sleeping with an underage girl.  Once again, how any of this is related is impossible to determine.  Mr. Polanksi’s crime occurred in 1977.  He fled the country in 1978, only to win for Best Director in 2003.  This leads Ms. Bero to declare that “the double standard is glaring,” but what double standard is she talking about?  You can argue that Mr. Polanksi should never have received the Oscar, I and many others wouldn’t disagree, but neither was the award taken from Mr. Smith so far.  On the contrary, he remained seated by his wife at the ceremony and delivered his acceptance speech to a standing ovation.  To the extent these unrelated incidents have anything in common, both the white man and the black man that disrupted the Oscars, and the white pedophile all have kept their trophies.  What’s the double standard here, exactly?

In fact, the only double standard at play is the same one cited by USA Today.  Ms. Bero believes that “it’s clear that many people (even those in the community who mean well) only find the incident so objectionable because they hoped Smith would perform propriety for white people in that space.”  In other words, were it a black space, whatever that may mean, he could have punched Mr. Rock in the face and proceeded to kick him in the balls?  I know I’m exaggerating, but what else could she be suggesting?  Nor did Ms. Bero leave Jada Pinkett Smith out of her racial tirade.  Of course, Ms. Pinkett-Smith is a successful actor in her own right, a beautiful woman, so empowered she pursued an open relationship with her husband’s permission, but suddenly she’s reduced to a bundle of anxiety about her potentially kinky hair because “Whether or not Rock knew about Pinkett Smith’s condition, the politics of Black women’s hair is well known to be a historically fraught and often traumatising topic.”  Putting this another way, she has no agency of control either.  She’s as dehumanized as her husband.

What’s left unsaid here is a frightening case study in racialized thinking.  In their view, one of the most successful actors in the entire world should be completely robbed of their agency and humanity.  Mr. Smith had no choice in the matter because of race.  He is nothing more than a black man, and black men simply cannot fit into polite society.  They need their own black spaces, where presumably violence and anger rules if you read between the lines of their own words.  Further, the grievance around it is so strong, all sense of perspective is completely lost.  Mr. Smith is not facing jail time, or about to lose his house, or any other truly traumatic event thousands of average white, brown, and black people face every day.  The worst that can happen to him is the Academy might strip him of his Oscar, and yet we’re all supposed to react as if we were witnessing a modern day lynching in real time.  Even after the incident, he will continue to live a life of more power and privilege than 99.9% of people on this planet, including white people.  In other words, if whiteness is defined by privilege as they insist, Will Smith remains far whiter than I am and every other white person I personally know.

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