As a Black man, I understand Will Smith’s reaction, but that wasn’t the way

OPINION: The best way for Black men to protect Black women is for us to heal purely so we can be attentive, present and available.

Will Smith accepts the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for "King Richard" onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Wow. If I’m honest—and I’m gonna be—I’m just now starting to feel like myself. After watching Sunday night’s Oscars and the EVENT everyone’s been talking about, my equilibrium has been off. 

Sunday night after the awards, I couldn’t sleep, and Monday morning, I woke up in a fog, hoping that what transpired was a vivid hallucination or dream. However, when I picked up my phone and scrolled through social media, I realized it was true. Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars, and it was very real.

Whether you’re Team Will or Team Chris or Team Indifferent, we can all agree that the culture was shifted Sunday night. When culturally defining moments happen, there is an anticipated onslaught of opinions, thinkpieces, memes and, of course, Black Twitter to balance the scales, collectively creating its own defining moment. However, what happened is very serious and needs to be unpacked, discussed and examined. 

Will Smith, icon, superstar, Oscar winner, and all-around good guy, snapped. On the surface, he was defending his wife’s honor after Chris Rock made a poor joke that didn’t land. In my opinion, defending Jada was the low-hanging fruit. I know he loves his wife and family fiercely, but if I look at this critically, something deeper has been brewing, and I would dare say has been haunting Will. 

I don’t want to take the August AlsinaRed Table Talk route. I want to dive a little bit deeper into Will. In interviews Will has done for King Richard, he has been on a wave of “protecting Black women,” which is admirable. After reading his excellent autobiography Will, Sunday night’s event was a full-circle moment for him. In the book, Will recounts growing up in a turbulent home and witnessing abuse at the hands of his father. In one incident, he recalls seeing his father hit his mother and her fall to the ground. Will froze. In that moment, he created the narrative that he was a coward because he couldn’t protect his mother. As a result, he stuffed his emotions away and developed and created a new persona, the one we’ve come to know and love for decades. 

Why is this important? In my over a decade’s worth of work with men, particularly Black men, many men have done what Will did. They’ve tucked away their emotions to avoid dealing with their pain and fragility just to survive. I’ll be brave and say I’ve been one of them. For most of my life, I believed I wasn’t enough or man enough. My moment came via a bully who humiliated me. Consequentially, I suppressed who I was just to make it through the day. Suppressing emotions is never good, and having a high bandwidth to suppress your emotions can be deadly. 

94th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith attend the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

I know that unprocessed emotions and trauma don’t die; like energy, they just transform and tend to show up at the most inopportune time. In my opinion, for Will, that was Sunday night. For me, it was being escorted out of a building after cussing out everyone at my first job in New York City. 

Looking back, I deeply regret that moment. Nevertheless, when I was in that moment, I felt empowered and vindicated. I was no longer the coward or not man enough—albeit temporarily. As Will walked back to his seat, I believe for a moment Will felt vindication for the 9-year-old Will, who he felt was a coward; he got to protect a Black woman.  

Will and so many men—myself included—have been screaming at a frequency that only they can hear. I know Will’s is more complex because he has celebrity, wealth, power and access, but he’s still a man, a Black man. We see it daily with the alarming suicide rates in Black men and rising mental health issues. We are in a fragile place. I know it’s easy to dismiss Will because he’s famous. Let us not be fooled; success and achievement can be a trauma response. Success doesn’t mean you’re whole or healed.  

However, trauma informs, but it doesn’t excuse. Regardless of what happens to us in life, we are responsible for how we show up in life. Moreover, we are responsible for our mental health and well-being. Like anyone who wants to heal and flourish, we must be accountable and understand that healing isn’t linear but is continual. In short, we heal for the rest of our lives. The one beautiful thing I can say that’s come from this is I believe that this is the beginning of Will embarking on a self-discovery journey that is going to lead him to ultimate liberation: knowing who he authentically is.

Yes, I wish Will would’ve self-regulated and taken a pause. Yes, I wish he would’ve apologized to Chris sooner because Chris was also humiliated. There’s a ton that I wish were different, but it is what it is. The biggest thing I wish for is for Will to know he was never a coward. Listen, he made a terrible choice. If you or I made that choice, we’d definitely have different consequences, which is a deep dive into privilege. Jada deserved to be protected and honored. Violence wasn’t the way to do it, though. The best way for Black men to protect Black women is for us to heal purely so we can be attentive, present and available. We’ve got work to do. May we all heal and be amazing.

Pervis Taylor III is an award-winning celebrity life coach, mental health advocate, lecturer and author of Surthrival Mode and Heal Forward, (both books on Black men’s mental health). He has his master’s degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

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