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Black men, often discouraged from sharing emotions, see Smith's slap as misplaced rage

“He wasn’t just slapping Chris Rock," said one licensed counselor. "I feel like it was a slap at his critics all across the world.” 
94th Academy Awards - Show
Will Smith confronted Chris Rock onstage minutes before accepting the best actor award at the Academy Awards on Sunday.Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When Shedrick Garrett first saw a clip of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on Sunday at the Academy Awards, it conjured up a memory. 

Garrett, a Black comedian in Dallas, recalled his family members forcing him to bottle up his emotions during his mother’s funeral in 2008. 

“I had to be strong, which I get, but what about the man that is hurting?” said Garrett, 47, who performs as “Shed G.” “I was broke up inside.” 

While Garrett does not condone Smith hitting Rock over a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, he knows all too well how societal expectations to display strength by hiding emotions took a toll on his mental health.

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“It comes a time when you just get to your breaking point,” he said.

Like Garrett, some men of color who saw the slap said it highlighted the gaps in their own lives in receiving support for their emotional and mental health, while navigating racism and societal pressures. The viral moment occurred minutes before Smith accepted the best actor Oscar for his performance in “King Richard.”

Rock had made a “G.I. Jane 2” joke about Pinkett Smith’s shaved hair leading up to the encounter. Pinkett Smith opened up about experiencing hair loss due to alopecia, an autoimmune disease, in 2018. 

The joke seemed to have set off Smith, which mental health experts say was most likely a reaction from pent-up rage. 

“They’ve been the subject of memes, people making fun of them on social media, in the news, and so I think he was kind of reacting in that moment,” said David Staten, a licensed counselor in South Carolina. “He wasn’t just slapping Chris Rock — I feel like it was a slap at his critics all across the world.” 

Two years ago, the couple made headlines after Jada revealed on her Facebook Watch show “Red Table Talk” that she had been romantically involved with the singer August Alsina while she was separated from Smith.

Donald E. Grant Jr., a clinical psychologist and the executive director of Mindful Training Solutions, agreed that Smith’s lashing out may have been a manifestation of this. 

“Chris Rock was an easy object for him to aggress towards,” he said. He added, “I think his problem is with Jada and the fact that, in many ways, he has become the poster boy and meme for an emasculated man, and I think that’s the challenge that he has to manage and deal with.”

'Can't cry' 

Earlier this year, Smith and author Mark Manson published the self-help book and memoir “Will,” in which he recalls watching his father physically abuse his mother as a child. In the book, Smith noted that he still experiences guilt about not protecting his mother, according to The Associated Press. 

Grant said that from a young age, society expects boys to repress their emotions. 

“All men have been taught not to express feelings, not to pay attention to emotions very early on,” he said. “When it comes to Black men or … men of color expressing emotion, I feel like there is an added context whereby many of us are kind of forced to wear a shield of toxic masculinity in order to combat the racism and discrimination that we experience.” 

In his Oscar acceptance speech, Smith referred to his actions as being an expression of protectiveness for his family. Grant said, though, that a physical response is not protecting Black women, but instead an expression of unresolved emotions. 

“We try to teach boys who go in and out of schools every day, when somebody makes a joke about their mother, that they can’t physically respond to that,” Grant said. “Yet, we’re looking at this saying this is protection. I don’t want my son fighting the kid in school because he made a mama joke. That’s not the model we want to set.” 

He added: “It happens with millions of men. They’re just not at the Oscars to show their misplaced rage.” 

Furthermore, Grant stressed that class also plays a role in the public’s perception of the encounter, adding that men of color facing similar issues often get the police called on them. Rock declined to file a police report following the incident. Smith has also since publicly apologized for his actions and to Rock. 

“Black men without resources would never get away with this,” he said. “If this was something that happened on a video camera in a McDonald’s in Compton, know that man would be in jail, there would be no question about it.”

'A heavy burden' 

The incident has also highlighted years of racist stereotypes targeting men of color, including that they are more aggressive or threatening than white men. Tanika Ray, the host of the podcast Mamaste with Tanika Ray, criticized Rock for making the joke but also says people of color are expected to stay silent. 

“To make fun of a Black woman on a public stage and have the world laugh at her when she has a medical condition is in poor taste,” she said. “Black women are not protected, they are not respected.” 

Ray added, “When people are barking at us and throwing daggers at us and making fun of us, we have to take it with grace and a smile. That’s a heavy burden.”

CJ Starr, a comic in Dallas, who has been married for 20 years, said the slap revealed that Smith is vulnerable like everyone else. 

“What would you want someone to do if you looked over and the person that you loved was hurt?” Starr said. “As a comedian, we don’t have to joke all the time. Everything doesn’t have to be funny.” 

Starr added that if Smith did not respond to the joke, he would still face criticism for not defending his wife.

Grant said the incident indicates a much larger issue in society, in which men are not allowed to have a full range of emotions. 

“We need to begin moving towards a world where men find comfort and safety in the ability to express their feelings openly and honestly,” Grant said. “Pain, regret, suffering — men, in general, are not allowed to do that, and we have to fix that.”

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