This is not how you protect Black women

OPINION: What Will Smith did was not chivalrous or honorable. As a Black woman, I want the kind of protection that lifts us, encourages us and nourishes our souls.

94th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Chris Rock, left, and Will Smith are seen onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
Chris Rock, left, and Will Smith are seen onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

We, as Black people, are so used to violence and trauma that many of us normalize it. The past 24 hours since the Oscar flap with Will Smith physically smacking Chris Rock then verbally assaulting him with the “F” bomb have been triggering and upsetting for victims of domestic and familial violence. 

I am one of those people.

This past week, we saw Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson endure four days of disrespect from grown men. Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Josh Hawley and, maybe most of all, Tom Cotton all deserved a slap in the face from the Judge’s husband, Dr. Chris Jackson. You could see he was visibly uncomfortable with how his wife was being handled; at times, his face was red, and he wiped tears subtly. 

But, not once did he yell out profanities, nor did he walk up to the Senate podium in the middle of the hearings and physically assault one of his wife’s verbal assailants. 

What Will Smith did was not chivalrous or honorable. It was assault and battery of another person. He is no hero. He is no prince galloping in on a white horse to protect his damsel in distress. Worse, we have live video. He actually did this in the presence of the entire world and then had the audacity to sit back down and curse at Chris Rock. Did Will, in his anger, consider that Chris has a family? That he has children? And they had to see their father slapped and humiliated while simply doing his job as a comedian at the Oscars?

When Will’s youngest son Jaden tweeted, “And That’s How We Do It,” my stomach sank. I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Let me just say it straight: I grew up in a family that normalized anger, alcoholism, rage and violence. My father and his family were an angry lot. And that anger was always just bubbling beneath the surface. I hated holidays, family gatherings and social outings because I knew how they’d turn out. The next day, after all of the rancor and the hangovers wore off, nobody spoke of what happened. 

I know that, like me, Smith grew up in a home of domestic unrest. In his memoir, “Will,” Smith bared his soul and shared some of the most painful parts of his childhood, which involved witnessing the physical abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his father. I know what that is like. My father did not physically abuse my mother per se; he was a serial verbal and emotional abuser of us all. I caught the wrath of his physical violence a time or two, once while making dinner when he came in drunk, and he didn’t like the food. That’s the problem with rage-a-holics; you never know what will set them off. They cannot control their emotions. At all.

Will Smith holds his award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for “King Richard” as he attends the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 94th Oscars at the The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Smith further shared in his memoir that the trauma he viewed stayed with him well into his adulthood, to the point where he considered killing his father. Although I have never felt those emotions, I am estranged from my father and have been on and off for years. It’s a choice I make to keep my peace, to protect myself from the pain of enduring something I cannot change. My point is that I have empathy for Will. I get it.

But I did the work of dealing with my trauma, and I am still doing the work. I am intentional about not allowing my unhealed childhood wounds and anger run my life. 

The result of growing up in these kinds of environments always ends in trauma, poor choices, divorce and lots of generational dysfunction. I’ve seen it play out time and time again in my own family. So much so that I wrote an entire book about it that releases this summer. What really baffles me about Will is that, like me, he knows what violence does to children. So, it begs the question, why would he display such poor judgment for his children on the world stage?

Beyond watching in real time what Smith did to Rock, I have been utterly horrified at my social media feeds. The bravado, the excuses, the justifications for Smith’s out-of-control rage displayed for us all. Many used Jada’s alopecia as an excuse. There is no excuse. Will could have handled Chris Rock after the Oscars privately. Perhaps, by walking up to him and saying, “I need to speak with you, man. I need you to apologize to my wife. Here she is. Please make it right.”

Instead, we witnessed a different kind of cancel culture in Smith’s entitlement. Yes, even Black men have entitlement and privileges when they are Hollywood superstars, like Smith. I am still stunned that he was able to physically assault an equally high-profile Black comedian at the Oscars, go back to his seat, curse the man out twice, and then go on to win the best actor award. 

Worst of all was Smith’s acceptance speech, which was off-base and tragic all at once. He spoke of being a vessel of love after slapping a man in the face and cursing him. He ruined his otherwise well-earned moment with his out-of-control temper. What actor Denzel Washington told Smith off to the side was quite true: ”At your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.”

As a Black woman who has been on her own for most of her life, I look to the Cory Booker standard of protecting us as Black women. The kind that lifts us, encourages us and nourishes our souls. He defended Judge Jackson like a real man. He verbally smacked down her detractors, shaming them with history, calling out their lies with facts and doing so filled with human grace, strength and wisdom. We need more Cory Booker and less toxic masculinity, particularly in the Black community where domestic violence ruins the lives of so many Black women and children, and their children and on and on.

Lastly, I will end where I started: For those of you offering the same old tired defense we always grant men acting poorly, which is that somehow Will didn’t do what we all watched him do, please stop. Will is better than this, and as such, he must rise to a higher standard at that moment. He owes Chris Rock an apology—a very public apology. He should do community service projects to protest violence and rage-a-holic behaviors. He owes that to his sons, daughter and America’s youth, who look up to him. 

For the rest of us who have somehow fallen asleep on basic standards of human decency and civility and have accepted violence as the norm, we need the most help. I’ve watched us slide down this slippery slope since Trump became the president and was openly cruel, mean and vile to people with his words–which allowed his followers to act in kind. This is where we are now. 

Will made a good point that we should have boundaries about what we take in as people—bullying is never OK. But this is not how you defend your wife. This is how you ruin a very good career and a life that has been otherwise pretty well lived.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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