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Opinion | Will Smith didn’t just slap Chris Rock. He slapped all Black people.


White people were looking Sunday night, too, when Sykes co-hosted the Academy Awards. And they certainly saw when Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock across the face. That smack was a blow to all Black people who have worked for our dignity and acceptance — and especially to the legacy of those Black performers who made Smith’s presence at the Oscars possible in the first place.

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In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for and to win an Oscar. It was a step forward, even if most of the country wasn’t ready for it; McDaniel wasn’t even allowed to sit with her castmates, and the award didn’t do much to help her career. But then came the 1959 Oscar nomination and 1964 win for Sidney Poitier. These awards not only built the foundation upon which Black Hollywood sits but also taught White America who African Americans really were.

At the height of segregation, with every film role and public appearance, Poitier redeemed Black folks’ dignity by pushing back against the relentlessly negative narrative against us. As Wil Haygood wrote after Poitier died in January, “He had to represent a whole race of people; no other Black man was prominent on the big or little screen before he showed up. He had to tutor White America with every movement of body and utterance from his lips.”

In accepting an honorary Oscar in 2002, Poitier said, “I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.” In turn, Poitier blazed a trail others followed, including Samuel L. Jackson, who received an honorary Academy Award on Sunday, and Denzel Washington, a 10-time Oscar nominee. Washington won best supporting actor in 1990; his 2002 Oscar for best actor was the first for a Black man since Poitier.

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Jackson and Washington stood on Poitier’s shoulders and acted accordingly, on-screen and off. They knew their every move would ripple through their careers and their community. After more than 30 years in the business and three Oscar nominations of his own, Smith seemed to embody that same ethic. But on Sunday, he stood on his forebears’ shoulders and “slapped the s—” out of them all, to borrow Rock’s words after the assault.

In some ways, what Smith did represents simply the entitlement of any badly behaved Hollywood megastar. He was able to walk up onstage, slap Rock (a star himself), return to his seat, curse and refuse to leave when asked — all before receiving a standing ovation after winning the Oscar for best actor shortly thereafter.

But, unjust as it is, celebrity entitlement isn’t as cute when the badly behaved megastar is Black, nor does the behavior reflect just on the star. Among the many reasons to be upset with Smith, one I keep hearing is that his violence did damage to “us” — “us” being African Americans mindful that the foibles of one person unfairly affect us all. Here, that damage could mean White people in Hollywood rolling back up the red carpet they were pushed to unfurl after 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite. As Sykes warned, the slap could “set everybody else back a couple of years.”

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Some African Americans will slam this as the worst of “respectability politics,” the notion that there is acceptance and safety in speaking and acting in ways that make White people comfortable. The harsh truth is that “respectability” is the exorbitant tax we African Americans are forced to pay daily as we try to live out our versions of the American Dream.

If you doubt that, replay the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, and watch her amiable patience in the face of racist nonsense. Any Black person who thinks there is a loophole to avoid paying the respectability tax is delusional. Recognizing that doesn’t make you any less Black. It makes you realistic.

Who knows whether Smith will suffer any consequences for his actions. Maybe the on-screen and off-screen “respectability” of Poitier and the Black actors who came after will insulate Smith, or maybe the actor’s stratospheric career is simply too big to fail. But this much I do know: Smith might have slapped Rock, but the rest of “us” felt it. And it hurts.


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