As a person who writes about race, culture, and wellness, I have seen The Slap — and especially the cultural reaction to The Slap — take up more space in my brain than I care to admit. Maybe you have, too.
I wish I could stop thinking about the moment Chris Rock insulted Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia-affected appearance (it’s not clear whether he knew she had the autoimmune disorder), and Will Smith responded by slapping him across the face.
But I can’t stop being intrigued about how the event sparked a conversation about what we mean when we say “victim”, or “protect Black women”, or even “violence.”
Neither can I stop thinking about what our collective reactions say about what we believe we should or shouldn’t have to accept as part of doing our jobs. About who does and doesn’t deserve grace, understanding, or a slap across the face, whether it be literal or figurative. About who deserves forgiveness and under what circumstances, and how much a single moment should define who we are.
The Slap has been called a cultural Rorschach by writers like Charles M. Blow. It’s not so much an event, but the canvas upon which we project our views and our fears. That’s because many of us have shaped this event into a narrative that fits our worldview. We guess at the psychological states of Jada, Will, and Chris. We dig up their old interviews and tease out the quotes that align with what we believe, so we can feel more or less compassion for them. We imagine what we would have done in their shoes and then assign a moral stance accordingly.
In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown says she and other researchers are no longer convinced that we can tell what people are feeling just by looking at them. What we may see as a jovial expression may be masking deep pain. A stoic expression may do the same. I’ve been thinking about this as we scan the faces of Jada, Will, and Chris and declare what they were thinking or what they were feeling. The truth is, they may not fully know what exactly they were feeling in the moment. For some of us, it can take time to process our emotions. Sometimes the emotions come and go faster than we can catch and decipher them; faster than we can consider them long enough to formulate a reaction. So maybe, as we look into the faces of Jada, Will, and Chris, we are remembering our own stories about how we have been victims and protectors and aggressors. When we do, the lines between each can become blurry.
Blurry can be a challenge. The United States is a culture built on binaries and boundaries: between Black and white, rich and poor, male and female. These boundaries have been violently erected and vigorously protected. It can’t be surprising that we often entrench ourselves on either side of an issue, declaring one to be clearly right and the other clearly wrong.
I keep thinking of another cultural Rorschach, the Covid-19 pandemic. A global pandemic seemed as straightforward as a slap across the face, but our collective reaction became an increasingly amorphous ink blot the longer the pandemic lasted.
Depending on your worldview, masks became an emblem of either caring for others or a sign of government overreach. Opening businesses became an argument about not just how much we cared about people, but how we care for them. Open businesses if you care about people’s ability to provide for their families, some people said. Keep businesses closed if you care about protecting those who may fall victim to Covid, others said. Open schools if you care about kids’ mental, social, and academic wellbeing. Close them if you care about their and their families’ physical wellbeing.
As someone firmly in the wear-a-mask-and-get-a-vaccine camp, I found myself getting judgmental about those who didn’t wear masks or get vaccines.
“I’m following the science,” I would think to myself.
I could feel the lure of Schadenfreude when I read about an anti-masking Covid denier who fell ill with the disease. But then I would remember my own Covid-cautious family members who chose not to get vaccinated. I thought of how gutted I would be if someone were smirking at their illness from behind a computer screen. I thought of vaccinated, mask-wearing friends dealing with the grief of burying family members who died from Covid months after denying its severity. And I thought of the people behind the headlines as they gasped for air while the illness took hold of their lungs. Schadenfreude made way for compassion, and reminded me that you can be right and wrong about something at the same time.
Admittedly, The Slap is far less consequential than a pandemic. But I’m still observing that it’s easy to fall into a two-sided debate. Do we condemn Will Smith’s actions or have compassion for him? Do we condemn Chris Rock’s joke or feel compassion for his assault at the hands of Will Smith? Do we rally behind Will Smith’s professed protection of his wife or create a society that supports women as they protect themselves? Do we admire Jada Pinkett Smith for showing grace in the face of public insult? Do we ache for a world where a Black woman doesn’t feel she has to?
Do we have to choose?
If The Slap is a cultural Rorschach, it will probably go the way of many others. We will gorge ourselves on its content, get sick of it, and declare that the world has moved on. We will look sideways at people who insist that the moment isn’t just about a singular event, but about how we, culturally, respond to it. If we’re lucky, we will open ourselves to a perspective we haven’t yet considered and feel compassion for people we were convinced didn’t deserve it.
As for me, I’m using the reaction to The Slap to better understand the friends, family, and acquaintances who have commented upon the event – especially in a way that differs from my own response. Rather than arming myself with counterarguments, I’m trying to better understand why they feel the way they do. I’m trying to better understand why I feel the way I do.
But ultimately, the conversation will move on.
Not everyone will move on with it, of course. Not Jada, or Will, or Chris, I suspect. At least not for a while. And neither will the Black people who were called anti-Black for condemning Will’s actions, the Black people who were accused of being pro-violence for supporting Will, or the Black women who were painfully reminded that their appearance can be fodder for jokes. And maybe all of us will tread a little more lightly – or a little more skittishly – as we remember that any of us could be the subject of a verbal or physical assault.
I hope we aren’t quite over The Slap yet. Because it’s not just about an altercation among three famous and beloved Black performers. It’s a blurry, splotchy ink blot that tells us a lot about who we are.