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The Oscars Slap Broke White People’s Brains

The failure to process an altercation between Black celebrities made for some historically unhinged tweets

Chris Rock joked about Jada Pinkett Smith at the 2016 Oscars because she wasn’t there, having boycotted the event in solidarity with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. But when he targeted her again at the 2022 show — which she attended with her husband and heavily favored Best Actor nominee Will Smith — it set off a stunning drama that involved no white people whatsoever. 

In response to Rock making light of her baldness (due to alopecia), Smith mounted the stage and slapped the comedian, then returned to his seat, where he yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” Soon after, he would be talked down by Denzel Washington, and Diddy took a moment as presenter to say they would “solve that like family.” Smith, as expected, went on to win his first Oscar for King Richard, and gave a teary speech.

While this drama did unfold before an audience of A-list celebrities and millions watching at home, it was also very much between a small group of Black performers, one of whom could have pressed charges but declined to do so. The vast majority of wannabe commentators could have followed Amy Schumer’s lead and resisted the urge to address the incident directly. Many failed. And white folks grasping for any take at all delivered content that beggared belief.

What went wrong here? In the pantheon of tweets that help to explain Twitter as a whole, we have a legendary post from @ProBirdRights that I believe sheds some light on the matter:

You can read every unhinged analysis of “The Slap” from a white person as a similar admission of narcissism. The Oscars are such a fundamentally white (and male) institution that white viewers were helpless to describe one famous Black man striking another in grounded terms. They turned to outlandish geopolitical analogies — Nazi Germany, the Russian invasion of Ukraine — or the language of pop psychology. They offered up the weirdest fucking hypotheticals and counterfactuals. Also, they pretty universally exaggerated the “violence.”

Yes, the altercation was a shock. It was a “big deal.” If you wanted to call it a case of toxic masculinity, I’m sure you’d find a lot of agreement. That this was by far the most entertaining thing we’ve seen at the Oscars since a chaotic mixup over the Best Picture winner has, let’s say, troubling implications. It’s both ugly to mock someone over a symptom of disease and unproductive to hit someone for doing so. You can hold all these rational responses in your head simultaneously — and articulate them if you must — yet certain white observers were dissatisfied with anything less than grandiose condemnation. They swung for the fences.

It’s almost as if these concerned citizens were more upset by a Black man disrupting a sacred, white-coded industry awards show than anything they’d actually heard or witnessed — and turned this into a matter of life or death. Meanwhile, those of us still tethered to reality could register our surprise without inventing some deeper resonance for the act. A slap is never a metaphor, and that’s kind of the point: There’s just one way to interpret it. You can debate whether it’s justified, but you can’t force it to stand for every other injustice in the world. 

Most of all, it’s important to remember that what happens on TV often has nothing to do with you.