Was the Will Smith slap the 'whitest thing' ever?

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

The Washington Post Magazine published an opinion piece today in which the author says the Will Smith slap is the whitest thing he’s ever seen. Author Damon Young, who is black, first sets up the concept by describing the second whitest thing he’s ever seen.

The second Whitest thing I’ve ever seen happened the third month of my first semester at Canisius College. It snowed several inches overnight, because the school is in Buffalo, and that’s just what happens there. It was one of those wet and nasty storms, though. Not the pure white you see in snow globes and Lexus commercials, but the frigid, dirty grime that coats the Earth in sloshy gray. As I was staring out the window of my dorm, I saw two guys skiing in the parking lot slush, wearing nothing but jockstraps and hockey masks. (I’m still curious if they planned their outfits or if the coordination was serendipitous. I pray for the latter.)

It sounds funny to me, something only college-aged males would come up with. But for Young it’s an example of people who live in a world without fear of consequences. He doesn’t say what the consequences should be for people skiing in jock straps and hockey masks in a parking lot, but whatever they are these guys weren’t worried about them. He goes on to argue that Will Smith, by virtue of his wealth and fame, came close to being part of that consequenceless white world.

Until March 27. When Will Smith left his seat, calmly walked to the stage, assaulted a Black man in front of millions of people, sat back down, cussed out the man he’d just hit, won an award on that very stage less than an hour later, and devoted his speech to explaining the rationale for the slap — a culmination of activity White enough to win 200 electoral votes…

There are some people who believe that a Black person with enough power, status and privilege can dissolve their way into Whiteness. I disagree. Vehemently. But I will concede that there are levels. And someone as rich and famous and universally adored as Will Smith is closer to social Whiteness than I am.

Young goes on to imagine a scenario in which he somehow got tickets to the Oscars and walked on stage to slap Chris Rock. He suggests he’d have immediately been shot by security or tackled by someone before he reached the stage.

And this is where his argument lost me completely. I was willing to engage in a different perspective but only to the point where the person was being somewhat realistic about it. Of course no one stopped Will Smith on his way to the stage. It’s not just that he’s wealthy and famous, though that’s part of it. It’s not even that he was nominated for an Oscar that evening and was seated so close to the stage that there wasn’t much time for anyone to stop him. The other reason no one tried to stop Will Smith is that he’s a comedian as well as an actor. He got his start on a sitcom. He’s made a number of comedic action movies over the years including Men in Black, Hancock, Aladdin, Independence Day.

I saw the slap happen live and even after I saw it I was sure it must be a joke, maybe something he and Chris Rock had planned in advance. It was only later when I saw the full clip including Smith shouting at Rock from his seat that I knew he was serious. Look at the other faces in the crowd that night and you’ll see that all of them were equally surprised.

Had Smith started shouting the way he did before walking to the stage I think someone would have tried to stop him. But I’d bet everyone in the room that night thought he was going to grab the mic and make a joke aimed at Rock, not slap him. That’s why he got to the stage, because people genuinely didn’t think he would do something so out of character.

After telling us the slap was the whitest thing he’s ever seen, meaning an action taken without any fear of consequences, Young then does a backflip and says people, especially white people, overreacted, i.e. demanded too many consequences simply because Smith wasn’t white.

I’ll admit that what Will Smith did was jarring…But the way some (mostly White) people reacted, you’d think he shot him.

And I can’t help but wonder how much of that reaction was partially due to some subconscious — or, maybe, a very conscious — response to Will Smith’s apparent descent into a sphere of consequencelessness exclusive to men who are rich and famous and beloved, like he is, but not visibly Black. Would there have been as much (White) outrage if he’d been “punished” immediately? It took him doing the Whitest thing I’ve ever seen for (White) people to loudly remind us that he’s Black (as if we ever forgot).

Young’s entire argument, if you can even call it that, is nonsense. There is no zone of consequenceless behavior for anyone in a high-profile professional setting like this. Anyone who’d done what Smith did was going to have a lot of career problems going forward. There were five people, all of them famous and wealthy, nominated for best actor that night. Are you telling me that if Benedict Cumberbatch or Andrew Garfield had walked up and slapped Chris Rock and shouted at him in the same way it would have been shrugged off? On the contrary, white actor slaps black comedian would have been the subtext if not the text of all of the coverage and no one would have had any doubt this was not just an angry, unhinged man but a racist one as well. And any speech made after the fact defending that action would have been labeled white supremacy (probably by Damon Young himself). It’s not hard to imagine the think pieces that would have followed: Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t like what he heard from one of America’s leading black comedian and decided to put him in his place with his bare hands like it was 1850 in Alabama and not 2022 on a stage in California.

What Smith did was rude and classless, but fortunately for him it couldn’t immediately be labeled racist.

As for the idea that people were reminding Will Smith he’s black, that’s also nonsense. They were reminding him that he’s a very successful and privileged adult appearing at his industry’s leading annual function to celebrate excellence in the field, not a 15-year-old responding to a slight at a school dance.

Did Young miss that Smith himself eventually apologized for his awful behavior? Does that mean one of the white people reminding Will Smith that he’s black is…Will Smith? Or does it just mean that Smith made an ass of himself in front of tens of millions of people worldwide and he was wrong to ever imagine what he did was noble or even defensible.