What Will Smith and Joe Biden Have in Common
What Will Smith and Joe Biden Have in Common
President Biden’s gaffe about Vladimir Putin and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony were demonstrations of a single phenomenon.
Let me explain.
Saturday, in Warsaw, addressing Putin’s war in Ukraine, Biden departed from his prepared remarks with this coda: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” He was roundly and justifiably criticized for implying that the United States is seeking the ouster of Russia’s president. Biden has since explained that he was merely expressing “moral outrage,” insisting that it’s “ridiculous” to think he was articulating a policy of regime change.
The problem is that expressions of this kind of personal sentiment are the province of casual speech. Biden’s speech was supposed to be a formal statement to a world audience, in which certain phraseologies carry specific meanings. For example, in his case for war, Putin warned that “consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history”; it was read to imply that Russia might use nuclear weapons to deter any third-party country from interfering with its invasion.
Biden elided the line between the formal and the casual, because the off-the-cuff and even clumsy remark is his wont, from comparing La Guardia Airport to a “third-world country” to dropping an f-bomb when Obamacare was signed into law. In contrast, and despite the relatively conversational tone of his fireside chats, Franklin D. Roosevelt never seemed to go off message. We know about the colorful, even profane things Lyndon B. Johnson said behind closed doors, but he wasn’t known for saying them before the cameras.
One might be inclined to let Biden’s more unbuttoned approach pass as a personality quirk, especially today, when the line between the formal and the informal in public language has become so much hazier. The president’s oratorical messiness could be seen as consonant with the eclipse of the fedora and dancing according to plotted steps — but not this time. When the topic is war, the old ways are the only proper ones: Biden’s feelings weren’t supposed to edge out the objectivity of officialese, and his contorted effort to explain away his remark is one of his more obtuse moments.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Smith and anything to do with Biden may seem thin. But my take on what Smith did at the Oscars is that in a moment of umbrage, he, too, lost sight of the line — choosing a vernacular, of sorts, while in a regimented setting. To slap Rock was, of course, utterly unpardonable — and to an extent so stark that it gets one surmising about the psychology behind it.
I cannot know precisely what was going on in Smith’s head, but I suspect that a part of him was doing something that he thought the Black community, broadly speaking, would read differently than many other observers. And if so, he may not have been entirely wrong.
The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill wrote that after the slap, she received an avalanche of texts, mostly from Black folks, and that “a lot of them, both men and women, said they at least understood Will Smith’s reaction to Rock’s mockery of his wife, even if they disagreed with how and where Smith showed it.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Elizabeth Wellington wrote that “Smith strolled onstage and slapped the taste out of Rock’s mouth,” not exactly a disapproving description, even though she went on to clarify: “Should Smith have hit Rock? No. But I get why he did.” The actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish said “when I saw a Black man stand up for his wife” that “meant so much to me,” calling it “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” After the slap, Smith’s son Jaden tweeted “And That’s How We Do It.”
With that sense, that Smith was doing something “we,” it’s hard not to see a parallel in, for example, the “beef” culture in the rap world focused on duel-style retributions (often, but not always, confined to lyrics) for perceived slights, and a similar trope among gangs on the streets, as documented even by Black and other sympathetic observers.
We now mostly think of him as an actor, and throughout his chart-topping music career, Smith’s image was that of a clean rapper with crossover appeal, but at the Oscars, he dipped into a culture that elevates beefs and demands comebacks to slights. In the ’90s, the sociologist Elijah Anderson documented that “street culture has evolved what may be called a code of the streets, which amounts to a set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, including violence,” such that “people become very sensitive to advances and slights, which could well serve as warnings of imminent physical confrontation.”
This idea that slights can’t be left unaddressed might alternately be chalked up to Black people’s frustration with a racist culture. Writing about the Smith slap for Zora, Maia Niguel Hoskin argues: “I am not suggesting that people should greet their grievances with balled-up fists or open-palmed slaps. But I think there is space for empathy and to discuss the system and the cultural norms and expectations that have created frustration in Smith and many other people of color which can sometimes present in this way.”
Another proposal presents something of a paradox: In “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” no less a figure than Thomas Sowell suggests that working-class Black men modeled this kind of response on a similar one among the white working-class culture “from a bygone era,” particularly in the South.
Whatever its source, the beef culture thing is, as often as not, as much about performance as outcome. Smith is a professional performer, of course, and it might be relevant that he slapped rather than punched Rock, with the intention, seemingly, of shock (and awe, even) rather than physical injury. We can even see this performance aspect in facets of Black popular culture, including comedy. To wit: In one episode of the classic ’90s sitcom “Martin,” Tisha Campbell’s Gina pulls a jar of Vaseline out of her bag in preparation for a threatened — but never realized — physical altercation with another female character, a reference to a pre-scrap precaution many Black people would have been familiar with, where a woman protects her face against potential scratching. Funny this was, but I don’t think a similar scene would have been likely on “Saved by the Bell” or even “Roseanne.”
In this vein I suspect that Smith was, on a certain level, performing for Black America, supposing that many of his Black fans would see him as going to a perhaps unideal extreme, but one that might be warranted when a man decides to “stand up” for his woman. Smith seems to have been trying for something vernacular, as it were, not unlike Biden letting go with his unfiltered personal take on Putin. But the Oscars incident was a smack seen around the world, where so many saw not “how we do it,” but violence, period.
There are times when only the established norm will do the job, regardless of one’s feelings. It reminds me that a few years after Anita Hill’s mistreatment during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, the scholar Karla F.C. Holloway, in her book “Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character,” asked whether Hill would have been better off “turning it out” in those hearings. If, in other words, she had directly excoriated the white male senators giving her grief by using a Black American cadence and phraseology. If she had “read them for filth,” in today’s parlance. For a Black woman, Holloway wrote, that meant “handing over to our adversary our version of the stereotype that motivates their disrespect to us — just to prove to them that they could no better handle the stereotype than they can determine and control our character.”
But as riveting as this might have been, it would not have served the case of Hill or anyone else. What might have been a satisfying riposte in the eyes of many, and not only Black people, would have read as uncontrolled and inarticulate to a wider public. Hill was wise in sticking to faceless mainstream standards of communication.
It’s the same with Smith. He was correct to apologize, however awkwardly and self-servingly. Hitting somebody at the Oscars — or at all — cannot qualify as a valiant refusal to put aside what are widely thought of by people of all races as accepted norms. Anyone who harbors the idea that Smith’s actions are understandable should reconsider. There is no lens, including one that reckons racially, through which we ought to process assault as a kind of permissible vigilantism.
We live in times when we are taught that authenticity, however defined, is the enlightened default. There’s something to that — at times. But both Biden and Smith would have been better off allowing that sometimes uptight is just right.
The New York Times