They say you should never write a column when you are very angry. “They” are right.
It’s why it has taken me almost a full year to write one word about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. But then again, “they” are wrong.
Because I’m still angry now that I am finally writing about it.
Yes, we are closing in on one year since Smith (one of America’s preeminent Black actors) violently slapped Rock (one of America’s renowned Black comedians) across the face during the Academy Awards after Rock directed a joke toward Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (one of America’s best-known Black actresses).
How Will Smith also slapped Black professionals like me
Since the slap on March 27, Smith has made sporadic attempts to apologize, directly to Rock, of course – but also, in a generalized, amorphous way, to others he said he may have let down with his behavior that night.
Smith’s apologies sure haven’t struck me as convincing.
And they sure haven’t soothed the anger that still courses through me – and still hungers for an answer that Smith’s half-hearted admissions have yet to provide:
Where is our apology?
When will Smith apologize to us?
When will Smith directly apologize to those of us who have the privilege of holding positions where Black professionals have long been or still remain underrepresented – yet who also carry the weight of knowing the acute scrutiny that accompanies our roles never affords us the luxury to abandon our sense of discipline, composure and grace in the manner Smith disgracefully did nearly a year ago?
Because make no mistake about this:
While we did not feel the flush force of Smith’s slap the way Rock did, the impact of his thoughtless act continues to sting and burn our faces all the same.
So where is our apology?
Yes, there is a trigger for how angry I still feel.
What we can learn from this:As a Black man, I hate to see what happened with Will Smith and Chris Rock. But it can be a teachable moment.
We heard the joke. We saw the slap:But Jada Pinkett Smith is the voice that matters most
Weighing the consequences
Whenever I think of Smith’s slap, I remember a moment from my time as a sports columnist in Cleveland, a city that – for all of its charms as my beloved hometown – is notorious for being less than receptive to Black sports journalists. And particularly less than receptive to unapologetically opinionated Black sport journalists with healthy amounts of attitude and edge.
Um, yes, like me.
But hey, that was the environment – and here was one byproduct of it: During the seven years I wrote my sports column, not a single week passed when I didn’t receive at least a handful of racist voice messages and email from assorted people.
For them, it didn’t matter how many great scoops were in my column.
For them, it didn’t matter how highly popular my column had become.
For them, all that mattered was their utter inability to quell the visceral rage they felt at having to see my Black face smirking at them four times a week from Page 2 of their Sports section.
White House history is Black history:This is some of that story
Black history is American history:We must face facts, face fears and face forward
Now, without fail, I would just delete the racist voice messages and email.
Without fail, I would just brush them off.
Except for the one time when I didn’t.
One day, I got an anonymous email. And here’s what it said:
“Hey, Brown: How many qualified white people didn’t get a chance to write your column because the paper had to fill a quota with a dumb, stupid (N-word) like you???”
Maybe I was in my feelings that day.
Maybe it was how the words looked on my screen, spare and harsh.
To this day, I don’t know what it was.
All I know is that on that day, there was something about that email that stirred me to hit “REPLY” – and to start typing out an enraged response.
I told the person the answer to their question was “zero” – which matched their IQ. I mocked how they had misspelled the racial slur they’d hurled at me. And I wrote some other things that weren’t profane but were definitely pretty rude.
I took a deep breath.
And I prepared myself to press “SEND.”
But then I took another deep breath.
And it hit me that four things would happen once I touched that key:
- My racial abuser would grab the cloak of victimhood and fire off an “I’m telling on you” email to my boss.
- Our exchange would be reported on by the weekly free tabloid that was infamous for targeting local Black journalists for hatchet-job articles.
- The whole focus of what occurred would gradually change from how I was racially insulted to how I had angrily responded to being provoked.
- I would instantly make the road for the next Black sports journalist aspiring to be in my position much more difficult – if not irreparably so.
No, I didn’t like potential outcomes 1, 2 or 3 at all. But here is what I swear to you: It was the prospect of No. 4 that suddenly touched the deepest chord within me.
So I took a third deep breath. I pressed “BACKSPACE” to clear my reply off my screen.
I printed out a copy of the email. And then I tapped “DELETE.”
The email disappeared – and, funny enough, so did my rage.
Smith missed a tremendous opportunity:My wife has alopecia. I’ve dried her tears, affirmed her beauty and used only my words to support her
Before the slap:Maybe the Smiths can blame Regina Hall’s skit for irking them in the first place
I’m not alone
No, that’s not the only moment in my career when I’ve weighed the consequences of what I do beyond what it simply means for me.
But what’s more important is that I’m hardly alone.
Each day, countless other Black professionals in innumerable fields take on their obligation to conduct themselves in ways that don’t provide grist for those who need little prompting to question not merely our qualifications – but also our very legitimacy to use our perspectives and talents to exert the influence we have rightfully earned to make a difference.
And that insidious effort is relentless.
Please, don’t be fooled. And, please, don’t be naïve:
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis diminishes the importance of Black history, he’s not doing it to make it easier to enable those who want to ignore the reality of Black experiences from the past. DeSantis is doing it to make it easier to empower those who want to devalue the power and validity of Black voices today and tomorrow alike.
DeSantis’ decision hurts all students:Black history is American history. DeSantis is stealing our students’ freedom to learn it.
Multiverse plot twist:‘Everything Everywhere’ isn’t the best picture of 2022. But I’ll always love it anyway.
It’s a devastating cudgel – and it’s one Will Smith, during a moment full of selfishness and bereft of self-awareness, wielded along with his open hand against another accomplished Black man’s face.
That’s why nearly one year later there is still only one thing I want to know:
Where is Will Smith’s apology to us?
Roger Brown is the Opinion editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where this column originally ran. Follow him on Twitter: @RBrown_HTOpin