I always appreciate hearing a timely quote during a speech. In my talks with men and young men, I sometimes share these words from Yung Pueblo: “The pause before we act is the space where we reclaim our power.” These days, it feels like we can expect to instantly hear everyone’s spontaneous thoughts or reactions regarding a headline or situation. Sometimes we will instantly weigh in because it’s an issue directly impacting us, while for others it’s about wanting to jump in on a topic, maybe hoping to get those sweet clicks, likes, shares or retweets. In an age of quick takes and reactions flooding our social media feeds or everyday conversations, I think more of us can model taking a moment to pause and let things sink in before we act or react. Speaking of quotes, in 1962 Malcolm X infamously said: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman…” 60 years later, Black women are still waiting for us to stand up, and the world witnessed two examples of how not to do that on a Sunday night.
Since I was a kid I’ve watched the Oscars, mostly for three reasons. The first was how it felt like getting invited to join a group of friends celebrating with one another. The second reason I watched was for the acceptance speeches. I love hearing what actors decided to share in the most unique of moments. Tearful I’ll-try-to-keep-this-short stories and quotes from their parents or role models, all in hopes to inspire the world with a 55-second elevator pitch for never giving up on your dreams. During his acceptance speech Will Smith quoted something Denzel Washington had just told him half an hour earlier, but that’s not the 55 seconds which will be remembered about the 2022 Oscars.
The third reason I loved watching was the opening monologue and the witty or playful jokes the host delivered throughout the show. In recent years the jokes during awards ceremonies – like many things across society today – have become more cruel, mean spirited, snarky, and more brutal than brutally honest. Like many nuanced things all around us, sometimes a joke will go over your head if you don’t have a grasp on context. Jokes sometimes help us name or cope through a tense situation. They can also create the situation.
Our world today is full of tensions, as we try to navigate ways forward in our third year of collectively surviving a pandemic. With people cautiously gathering together again, those surfacing tensions are clashing. For example: here is recent footage of a man pulling a gun in the middle of a stand up comedy set, challenging an unfazed Mike Tyson (causally sitting up front) to a fight for status. Tensions have filled the air all around us. In a sign of the times – just like we watch daily footage of truly horrific violence from other parts of the world on social media – many of us watched uncensored footage online from either Japan or Australia of a moment of violence in America that got the world reacting.
Many people worldwide have now seen and reacted to the 55-second moment culminating with Will Smith slapping Chris Rock after a joke towards Jada Pinkett Smith on the stage of stages. In Chris Rock’s ongoing history (more on that in a bit) which led up to the joke and Will Smith’s jarring response, we saw two displays of harmful ideas of manhood that overshadowed many poignant and beautiful moments. Oh, that familiar feeling of a beautiful and important night out ruined for everyone by two men and their behaviour.
The slap didn’t feel to me like a response to just the joke itself, but more like a ‘last straw’ reaction. In his brilliant book ‘Mad Blood Stirring’ Daemon Fairless says: ‘Violence is too complex, too multifaceted and protean, to have a single cause.’ Those 55 seconds were a crashing convergence of layers upon layers of issues, all in less than one minute. Whoever said your life can change in a minute was not joking. What also can change in a minute is your reaction if you pause before you act.
A pause is an opportunity within any given moment to reclaim and refine your reaction to the moment.
In seeing Will Smith feel the need or right to respond right away, what also became evident is that many of us also felt the need and right to respond immediately in reaction to a reaction. I took a few weeks to write this: sitting with it and reflecting, as well as reading people’s thoughts before sharing my own. I’d like to also share with you examples of both solid and disappointing reactions which I came across among the hurricane of online responses. For starters, Joél Leon said so eloquently in these tweets:
Many instantly responded saying: ‘Why can’t Will take a joke?’ Some might remember Will responding with a less aggressive slap when a red-carpet prankster posing as a reporter tried to kiss him at a movie premiere. Will took a joke in the trailer for his new show featuring 16 comedians but it was about him, and not about his wife. Men wrestle with our ideas of Love, partially due to our varying degrees of emotional literacy. Love is protective, but the harm starts in part when men feel they are defined and measured by being a ‘protector’.
In talking about ‘True Love’, the late Thich Nhat Hanh said: “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love… For even if your intention is to love this person, your love might make him or her suffer.” Before his joke directed at her, Chris prepared her with a: ”Jada, I love ya…” Both Will and Chris displayed harmful ways of ‘loving’ and standing up for Black women.
I’ve seen many hours of Chris Rock’s stand up, and I’ve also been disappointed and puzzled by his curious positions including his standing up in defense of straight white male comics saying the N-word, and history of not standing up for Black women. In reviewing episodes of Rock’s TV show which ran from 1997 to 2000, David Dennis Jr. notes ‘his antagonistic and belittling relationship with Black women. When Jada Pinkett Smith is on the show, their conversation revolves around the Million Woman March, an event Rock never quite seemed to understand, and is a butt of his jokes throughout the second season: “What was the Million Woman March about? Because Black women are all right!” Pinkett has to explain that, surprise, Black women experience oppression as well.’
Fast forward to 2022, after a harrowing week for Black women witnessing highly qualified US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson navigate a unique barrage of questioning, you would think Rock would choose another target for his quick set of jokes before presenting an award. On a stage that Black women rarely stand on to accept an award. In front of a world where few stand up for Black women.
It is said that Chris was (and therefore also his writers) unaware of Jada’s battle with Alopecia, which is honestly hard to believe. He should know better when it comes to the conversation of hair loss being a sensitive one for many women, but an entirely unique one for Black women.
Rock created a documentary on Black hair that as Dennis Jr. said “paternalistically ridiculed Black women for wearing weaves and wigs, an approach panned by many Black women.” Rock has gone after Jada on the Oscar stage before (the first time being in 2016 as he hosted during the height of the #OscarsSoWhite discourse). This last time being targeting for a misogynoir and ableist joke was perhaps the last straw. Will said: “I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse… In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that‘s OK.” Harm caused us is too often met with more harm. Will’s desire to defend Jada is one thing, the action he chose to rock Rock’s shit is another.
Roxane Gay brilliantly wrote about all these many layers, saying: “…Mr. Smith most likely saw his wife’s pain, and it’s possible he was himself experiencing a moment of fragility, of thin skin. In his memoir, “Will,” the actor writes about the guilt he felt because, as a child, he could not protect his mother from his father’s abuse. Mr. Rock’s gibe was not in any way the same thing as domestic violence, but I can see how Mr. Smith might not have been able to take that joke, at his wife’s expense, given the layers of context and public and private histories leading into that evening.
I am trying to hold space for all of those layers — Ms. Pinkett Smith’s exhaustion with being a target of humor, Mr. Smith’s series of bad decisions and Mr. Rock’s trying to maintain his composure in the immediate aftermath of being a target of violence. Unfortunately, the incident has become something of a Rorschach test onto which people project their backgrounds, opinions and affinities. And what gets lost in the discourse is that, however disappointing the incident was, it was also a rare moment when a Black woman was publicly defended.“
For a number of Black women, they were torn between a longing for someone to finally and publicly stand up for them, but not in this manner. Women everywhere want men to have their backs the way that women and gender-diverse people have had theirs.
An extreme example of a man centering himself in wanting to protect his “wife’s honour, MY honour” is a classic episode of The Sopranos. ‘The Weight’ centers around a crude joke made towards the wife of New York Mafioso Johnny Sack. His love for his wife is touching and displayed throughout the series, but his demand for blood was clearly more about him:
Movies and TV shows are full of depictions of violence, sometimes to prove a point, and sometimes the violence is the point. As men, harmful ideas of manhood make us actors: performing with displays and actions aimed to ‘prove’ or ‘protect’ or ‘defend honour’. If it truly was about ‘your’ women, you’d do something that didn’t cause her further harm.
Elements of society cheer and glorify violence until we see it up close. Again, choosing physical harm isn’t the way to respond to verbal harm, but simply declaring that ‘violence isn’t the way’ isn’t helpful without naming or modelling alternate responses beside resorting to harm. Violence can quickly be summoned by even the most non-violent of us in a unique moment. We can develop our emotional muscle memory so we act and react in ways we won’t regret.
Strength as a man means equipping ourselves with a spectrum of helpful and healthy responses. I think it is key for us as men to explore and discuss examples of ways forward in situations similar to this. Most of us think we know how we’d act in the moment. That kind of distinct, ultra spotlight is a rare situation to relate to, and folks did step up after the incident, but no one intervened in the moment. Here are some tips for defusing a violent situation, or keeping your own anger in check.
Many men can relate to a public or private moment where we felt a call or pressure to act, to ‘man up’ and resolve an issue, or an act of disrespect toward someone. We can start by not pretending this is easy, or that it is simple to always ‘do the right thing’ in any given moment. The point is Will could have taken a pause, a second within those 55 seconds.
Maybe Will felt he wouldn’t get a chance to respond in an acceptance speech, unsure if he would win. Maybe respond while talking to the press, or on his social media. Maybe reach over and talk to his wife in that moment. For ways to stay present in the face of strong feelings, a tool like ‘Living Nonviolent Communication’ by Marshall Rosenberg can be helpful. The truth is there is no one way a Black woman, man or person could have responded that wouldn’t have been met with criticism or judgment. What matters is choosing a path of least hurt and harm, specifically for those we intend to support.
Violence as an act of love is romanticized too often in our collective culture, so too is the weight we put on ourselves as men to be the defender and protector. Sometimes our genuine concern and desire to help can override our situational awareness like:
In his speech, WIll said: “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world… to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people… I look like the crazy father… But love will make you do crazy things… Being able to love and care for my mother, my family, my wife.” Will later said in an Instagram post: “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally… I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. “
For some, Will and Jada represent the smug, entitled ‘I do what I want’ arrogance that many people hate about celebrities and powerful people. What can also be true is that Will’s intention was freedom for his wife, as part of an inner self-narrative and burden he puts on his shoulders to protect. Filmmaker and speaker Byron Hurt said in a Facebook post: ‘Will and Jada – the telegenic Hollywood power couple that they are, and their non-traditional, sexually fluid, heterosexual, open relationship (not to mention their nonbinary children) – make a lot of Black people feel very uncomfortable. Both Will and Jada have become punching bags for the public, and punch lines for comedians, because they’ve been quite open about their complicated but loving relationship, and their family dynamics.’
I cannot imagine the distinct pressure on a couple who sit right up in front of the Oscars audience, and are in front of the world constantly. Again, with all the desire to protect, when we don’t know how to love, we risk hurting those we love. Whatever our intention, we need to focus more on the impact that our actions and reactions will leave on others.
There is a reaction to every reaction. A number of people were quick to fire off their opinions online that night. Rebecca Solnit recently said: “Not knowing is one of the hardest things for people to master, it often seems, in an era when people like to jump to conclusions in the opposite of a leap of faith. We fill in not-knowing with all kinds of assumptions, assertions, projections, because not knowing is about confronting the essentially mysterious nature of life and consciousness, about the fact that we have to navigate by guesswork, prepare to be wrong, and at best be open to discovery.”
For those who understand there is always more to every story, it was a great reminder of the layers of loaded and activating feelings and issues in any given moment. These days it can be hard to believe your own eyes sometimes, but what can be just as shocking are the immediate reactions online. What has become expected now is for many of us to witness the same incident – in person or online – and have radically different perspectives on what we just saw. Think of the takes online regarding the viral footage of Omaha elder Nathan Phillips continuing to drum and sing as Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann and his fellow Kentucky students stare and jeer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Witnessing the 55-seconds surrounding ‘The Slap’ activated varying feelings, emotions and reactions in all of us:
- How familiar or unfamiliar a moment of spontaneous violence from a loved one is, or a man who is unable to regulate his emotions.
- How familiar it is to laugh and people-please as a survival mechanism or defense.
- How many white men, and men in general today, double down on defending hurtful impact.
A number of men of all races – but specifically white men – reacted all across various social media platforms by crying out against ‘cancel culture’, and defending the right to freely speak their mind. There were white men with – I believe – good intentions and valid points, but aggressively demanded they get to be heard and take their rightful place in the short-attention-cycle for clicks. An example would be psychologist and writer Adam Grant and his disappointing insistence on being heard in the moment. In most cases, it is a knee-jerk reaction of feeling they are being ‘erased’ or ‘silenced’, so they double-down on wanting freedom of speech. What they mean actually want is freedom from facing the impact or consequences of those very words. One of the strongest spaces for this kind of pushback was the obnoxious collective of mediocre white male wannabe rock-star ‘comics’.
Joe Rogan – Spotify’s favourite anti-intellectual and platformer of white supremacist talking heads – fresh off his apology for saying the N-Word more times than Richard Pryor, joined many white comics in aggressively defending their right to make aggressively cruel jokes. Defending the ‘genius’ and ‘bravery’ of this modern version of Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, who are now making more mediocre and stonehearted jokes against targets more of their liking. I love this brilliant parody-critique of these ‘edgy’ ‘brave lil’ cis-boy’ conservative comics by James Acaster:
In her piece about the demand that others have ‘thick skin’, Roxane Gay said: “Done well, comedy can offer witty, biting observations about human frailties. It can force us to look in the mirror and get honest with ourselves, to laugh and move forward. Done less well, it leaves its targets feeling raw, exposed and wounded — not mortally, but wounded…” When it comes to a call for comedy that can be sharp but thoughtful, comedian Katt Williams once said: “Growth is part of being an adult… If these are the confines that keep you from doing the craft… this job probably ain’t for you.”
Children and survivors of violence were activated by witnessing that moment suddenly and unexpectedly. I grew up in a home of domestic violence, and witnessed my father‘s displays of rage. From those formative moments of childhood, I’ve always had an finely-tuned antenna for anger rising within a person or situation. A survival mechanism kicks in, informed by what is familiar. So I can relate to, although not directly understand, what it’s like to experience spontaneous violent rage. A number of white women and non-Black women who are sadly familiar with surviving harm, also pointed out violence isn’t a way to express love. In talking about what ‘The Slap’ activated for white women however, there is also needed conversation about what else was activated and projected into this situation.
Many were quick to suggest Chris should charge Will, an example of the internalized quickness to dispose Black bodies into a system that historically doesn’t hand out equal ‘justice’. We can call on Will to step up and truly embrace this as a lesson for himself and other men to be a true protector by modeling a healthier response.
How white people viewed this issue was different more often than not from Black people as they weren’t able to see what is ‘invisible’ to them: the impact race has and how it factors in. Many white people were quick to comment and make statements. Jannelle Sanchez spoke to this in a thoughtful piece, saying: “There are times in life when all of our voices need to be heard… But there are also moments when some of us need to acknowledge that, just maybe, we should wait a beat before joining the online conversation. Instead of quickly stepping up to the podium to express anger or judgment, we should step back and let others, who have had similar experiences and pressures, take the stage.” Sanchez pointed out Glennon Doyle’s example of having an immediate Twitter response, and then an update on Instagram to acknowledge Black women inviting her to “sit this out and listen…”
A powerful example for white folks of taking a moment, listening and reflecting, are the thoughts shared by Tim Wise: “...the history of America is one in which Black men, in particular, have been consistently disempowered when it comes to defending themselves or their families. It happened when they were split from them, their children and wives sold away. It happened when their ability to provide financially was circumscribed by economic marginalization and discrimination. It’s still happening with a justice system that has long focused disproportionately on their misdeeds rather than those of others. Whether on the streets or the Oscar stage, the drama unleashed is more than the sum of an individual’s choices. It is the cumulative result of having long been stripped of efficacy, of experiencing hopelessness in a nation whose principal product is the peddling of dreams. And even a man making over $20 million per film cannot easily outrun a cycle of intergenerational trauma — or his own, for that matter.
This is why we as white folks must come to understand the Black experience and what white supremacy did and still does to call into question Black masculinity, the legitimacy of Black families, the permanence of Black love. It’s why we need to be in authentic relationships with Black people. All the books and trainings on these subjects will never substitute for meaningful human connection.”
This isn’t about diluting or dismissing the core issue of the need to reject ‘violence as a expression of love’, but these conversations don’t need to be handled with quick knee-jerks responses either. What Will does moving forward, in reaction to his reaction, can be what defines him. We can call for a restoration of humanity, and invite someone back into their own humanity by modeling it ourselves. We can appreciate Will wanting to protect his wife from hurt, and still denounce his choice of action in a room full of people who awkwardly laughed at a Black woman being the continued target. In a world full of people who continue to look away, not take action, or not do enough.
As men, we can discuss the wrong action, recognize an action was needed, and explore helpful ways to act in moments like that. There are ways we can respond in the moment, or take a moment and respond how and when it’s most effective. We can restore humanity in any moment when we take a pause and determine a good way forward.
I think these following Tweets from Black women offer an invitation to tune our inner compass…
Doing better is easier said than done, but we need to keep trying to walk the narrow paths because they only offer true ways forward. Let’s truly take a moment to pause and reflect on a way forward within any given moment, that moves us closer to healing, and love.
Let’s give the last word to this Black woman, Jada Pinkett-Smith herself:
about jeff perera
Since 2008 jeff perera has spoken to tens of thousands of people of all genders across North America about healthy versus harmful ideas of manhood, striving to be allies, and how we as men can be the lesson in action.