The day after the Oscars, a Facebook friend of my wife’s posted, “Sure glad Will Smith isn’t white.” A jumble of thoughts went through my head when my wife read that comment to me:
- I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant
- I couldn’t believe he posted it
- I wondered who does have the moral authority to comment after a famous Black man, thinking he was protecting his famous wife (who is perfectly capable of protecting herself), slaps another famous Black man following a misguided attempt at humor that overlooked the medical condition of the famous woman.
Let’s unpack this.
I have two theories what “Sure glad Will Smith isn’t white” might have meant. Maybe it was “Will Smith will get a pass because he’s Black,” which, of course, didn’t happen. My wife’s Facebook friend is a passionate right winger and an “aggrieved white,” which means part of his creed is that Black people enjoy advantages white people don’t have. (Don’t ask me to explain the twisted theory of Black privilege, I’m simply the reporter.)
Or maybe he meant, “Imagine what might have happened if a white man slapped a Black man at the Oscars.” Apparently, something like that did almost happen in Oscar history; I’ve heard that John Wayne had to be restrained from assaulting Sacheen Littlefeather when she accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973. If this is indeed what my wife’s Facebook friend meant, I have to wonder why he is making the incident racial. (Or maybe it meant something else altogether. I’m happy to be enlightened.)
Regardless of what “Sure glad Will Smith isn’t white” meant, it was a bizarre thing to put out into a public forum. By making it racial, his comment is yet another entry in the endless log of “Stupid Things White People Say.” You know, like when someone said to me, “Barack Obama has done more to set race relations back than any President in history.” Or this, said recently by Ted Cruz: “Do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids that babies are racist?” Or me, every time I ask an African American person a sentence that begins, “Do all Black people . . . ?”
Moving away from clueless white people and their deluded ideas about our country’s current and historical racist behavior, I wonder who does have the moral authority to speak when someone misbehaves in public, especially if the misbehaving person is a member of a marginalized community?
It is terrain fraught with potholes.
Yet it isn’t only clueless white people who have introduced race in their responses. The comedian Tiffany Haddish tweeted praise about seeing a Black man stand up for his wife and called Will Smith’s slap “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
That kicked up a storm of responses. Among those who felt obligated to correct her was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has transformed himself from a goggle-wearing NBA star to an elder statesman. Among the points Kareem made was that “The Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith.” Soon there were calls from others in the Black community criticizing Abdul-Jabbar, calling his opinion outdated and reflecting a fruitless “responsibility politics” intended to satisfy the white gaze and win over racists.
I was heartened to learn that moments after the slap, Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry prayed with Smith. (You may have heard Smith reference that in his Oscar acceptance speech.) I liked what Denzel said later, “I don’t want to say what we talked about, but for the grace of God go any of us. Who are we to condemn? I don’t know all the ins and outs of the situation, but I know the only solution was prayer, the way I see it.”
Might Denzel be telling us this was about morality, about sin and forgiveness, and those who brought race into the equation were needlessly complicating it? Or am I simply another oblivious white guy unable to see what’s plainly in front of me?
I had a different reaction when I saw that Kareem had opined on Will Smith. I am a sports fan with a long memory. I remember Kareem sucker-punching Kent Benson in Benson’s first NBA game. Benson had been the center on Indiana’s 1976 NCAA championship team, the last Division I men’s team to go undefeated. He’d certainly learned how to mix it up on a basketball court—Bobby Knight was his coach at Indiana.
Now in the NBA, Don Nelson, Benson’s new coach, most likely had told Benson he had to play physical to contain Kareem, who wound up being the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Benson threw a few elbows, including one that staggered Abdul-Jabbar. As you can see in this video, Kareem gathered himself and then leveled Benson. Kareem broke his hand and was fined $5000, but was not suspended and did not face criminal charges.
I noticed Kareem did not mention this event in his article criticizing Will Smith. I wonder if that act, exceedingly more violent than what Will Smith did, precludes Kareem from staking the moral high ground?
By the way, when I looked up “Kareem punching Kent Benson” on YouTube, the algorithm also showed me Don Rickles roasting Ronald Reagan (I am an unrepentant fan of those old Dean Martin celebrity roasts). Seeing the name “Don Rickles” made me think of how unafraid he was to say racial things out loud. Would he even be allowed to perform today? If he were still around, I wonder what he might have to say to Chris Rock and Will Smith. (After all, Rickles dealt with hecklers who were in the mafia.) I always found him funny, but I’m a white male unthreatened by his biting humor. Rickles represented a different era, an era that was overtly racist and uglier, yet also an era where we were much more able to laugh at ourselves.
I wish Will Smith had laughed at Chris Rock, or maybe said, “Not funny, Chris.” I’m sure Will Smith wishes that too. Unfortunately, he didn’t, and, once again, our huge racial dysfunctions and inability to engage in meaningful dialogue with each other is revealed.
Lord, have mercy on us.