We Need to Ask Deeper Questions (on Will Smith and Chris Rock):

Black Trauma, Economics, and Healing

by Romal Tune

There are several layers to what happened at the Oscars during “the slap that echoed across the world” (quoting the reference to Sidney Poitier’s character slapping a plantation owner in a 1967 episode of The Heat of the Night).

Violence took on many forms last night at the Oscars.

There was verbal violence in the form of a joke by Chris Rock. Referring to Jada’s shaved head, he said, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it, all right?” Then there was the physical violence in response by Will Smith when he walked onto the stage and slapped Rock before returning to his seat. There is the history of conditioning in this country that taught us as a people to be violent. And perhaps there was the violence within Will’s personal narrative that has him engaging in an inner war with himself, playing out for all to see.

Many will laugh at what happened, but laughing is a lazy approach to addressing the physical and verbal violence of the moment. Laughing allows us to not take it as seriously as it was. It removes personal, social, and culturally responsibility to look deeper and ask questions that equip us to heal ourselves and our people.

Some will talk about what they would have done if slapped. Again, that’s a cheap approach to solving a deeper problem as it relates to the stories that have shaped how we think we would have reacted. If you would have reciprocated physical violence, why is that? Who taught you to respond in that way? Who would benefit from your violence? Who loses something? Are there alternatives?

Here’s a list we need to unpack as a people:

  1. The implications for deeper internal narratives of trauma, including Will’s personal story which he talks about in his most recent book, as well as the story of trauma experienced by Black people over hundreds of years in this country. How might these narratives factor into what happened?
  2. The economics of the slap. Which companies benefited from the slap.
  3. Ideas of what it means to protect Black women. Is violence the only option?
  4. Various forms of violence. Are were viewing the situation through both the verbal violence of words used to harm and the physical violence?
  5. The global narrative of how Black men are perceived to be violent and unable to control their emotions. But who gets to determine what control looks like for a person who has experienced systemic racial violence in its many forms?
  6. Ideas of restraint and hiding inner pain to protect one’s ability to economically benefit from capitalism. Simply put, how often do we go through life wearing masks to be seen as a safe and acceptable Black person?

There are those who believe Will Smith did the right thing.

Does that mean the only way to protect the Black woman is to inflict physical violence on verbal perpetrators of violence? Who taught us that protecting the Black woman from harm requires violence as the only option? Who taught you that the only way to garner respect is through inflicting pain?

In this country, the Black man has historically been kept from defending Black women. He has been, and continues to be, killed for doing so—especially if he is protecting her from White violence. This raises another question:

Would things have played out differently if a White man made the joke?

Yes, they would have. Will may not have walked up there and slapped a White man. Why? Because that’s not permissible violence. But he can slap a Black man. That’s permissible violence and, for many, not even a crime. It’s expected behavior. How do we shift that narrative and demand equity in dignity humanity, and respect?

And what about the companies that benefit from the slap?

Companies that make movies and sell advertising. Netflix, Apple, and Disney, for instance, but even the Oscars and movie studios. Companies that buy and sell advertising like The Trade Desk, Magnite, and PubMatic too. Studios and media outlets will capitalize on the moment for rating and economic gain. Will Smith made rich people more money last night. Investors are forward thinking. They understand the future economic gain of a given moment. So while the situation might not immediately convert to cash, it will definitely generate money next year. Media moments move markets. They will lean into unhealthy conversations to make it easy for us to overlook the deeper issues and engage in intellectually lazy conversations. Wealthy people could not care less about the cultural implications of Black trauma. They are looking at how the situation makes money.

We must ask bigger questions and have deeper conversations.

This moment is an opportunity to shift the conversations so that they land somewhere productive for our people to help move us in a healthier direction. What did our culture lose, gain, and perpetuate that does not serve us well? What’s the inner work that each of us needs to do in order to heal and overcome ideas of identity that do not serve us well? What does our culture need to heal? Do we even have the right in this country to heal from our trauma? Do we give each other permission to heal from our inner pain? America has always monetized our bodies through violence, and in some cases, we have been rewarded for harming our own people to the economic gain of people who don’t look like us.

What about Jada in this situation?

What harm was done to her in addition to the verbal violence by Chris Rock? What did she expect from her husband? Is this even what she wanted from him, or did he assert his idea of what she needed that may have really just made him feel good about himself as a protector? What kind of protection, emotional protection included, did she need years before the Oscars? Do we even create space in our relationships to ask each other what we need to feel safe and protected? We don’t know. Some of us don’t even know what we need to feel protected and safe. Male or female. We often only know what we have been taught and conditioned to expect. We concede our agency and right for healthy relationships to inherited narratives from family and society that are not healthy and don’t serve anyone well.

Clearly from my litany of questions, I don’t have the answers. Perhaps the answers are that we think more deeply. Look inward and begin to find those things within ourselves that need healing in order to stop harming ourselves and others, and self-sabotaging our journey. So much harm has been done to us as a people, and there is a lot for us to heal. Healing begins with awareness. That’s step one. A genuine desire to heal is step two. Then there’s the willingness to do something about it, to create action to actually heal.

I’m not sure how to best close out this piece. Maybe it doesn’t need a conclusion because, just like what we witnessed at the Oscars, there is no clean and easy way to move on. It’s not that simple. The story isn’t over and there is a lot more work to be done—on ourselves, in our communities, within our culture, and the broader society.

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Romal cultivates purpose and passion that equips people to heal the wounds of their past, bravely offering his own journey as a case study of raw transparency and refreshing honesty. As a full-time speaker and author, he guides audiences through the process of identifying and embracing their unique destinies. Committed to living into the six-word sentence that defines his life – “he helps people heal their stories” – Romal’s platform and cross-sector relationships have positioned him as a global leader who equips individuals, organizations and companies to recover from setbacks and achieve success by honoring their unique stories.

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