Slapgate and “respectability politics”: should role models behave especially well?

April 8, 2022 • 9:30 am

You’ve surely seen this video of comedian Chris Rock being smacked onstage at the Oscars by Will Smith, who won a Best Actor award later in the show for his performance in “King Richard”.  Smith not only assaulted Rock, but cursed him out from the table after the incident. The reason: Rock made a joke about the alopecia (baldness) of Smith’s wife Jada.

Lots of people have weighed in on this, with most of them criticizing Smith for his unprofessional behavior. One of the most quoted detractors was former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote a piece on his Substack site called “Will Smith did a Bad, Bad Thing“. (Jabbar is black.) Jabbar called out Smith for many things, deeming the slap “a blow to men, women, the entertainment industry, and the Black community.” But the part that got the most attention was Abdul-Jabbar’s assertion that the slap played into stereotypes about black violence and emotionality:

The Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith. One of the main talking points from those supporting the systemic racism in America is characterizing Blacks as more prone to violence and less able to control their emotions. Smith just gave comfort to the enemy by providing them with the perfect optics they were dreaming of. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro wasted no time going full-metal jacket racist by declaring the Oscars are “not the hood.” What would she have said if Brad Pitt slapped Ricky Gervais? This isn’t Rodeo Drive? Many will be reinvigorated to continue their campaign to marginalize African Americans and others through voter suppression campaign.

Comfort to the enemy? That already implies that the audience was predisposed to fit this violence into a racist narrative. True, black-on-black violence is much in the news, but anyone who fits the narrative of two show-business stars into a “hood” scenario is already predisposed to think badly of black people.  Here’s what Martin Luther King’s daughter said in a pair of tweets:

The trope that Smith’s assault reinforced stereotypes is taken up in this article from yahoo! Life, which also criticizes the idea that individual actions should reflect on their community or group. Click on the screenshot to read:

A quote from the article:

 “When I think of respectability politics, what I imagine is this idea that people, but Black people specifically, are only deserving of respect and should only be valued if they behave in a certain way and adhere to certain guidelines,” anti-racism educator and diversity & inclusion consultant Janice Gassam Asare tells Yahoo Life.

The idea that an individual’s actions can represent an entire group furthers the notion that people in marginalized communities can “behave” and “respect” their way out of oppression.

The article criticizes “respectability politics”—not just as instantiated by Smith’s slap, but also by other blacks who have called for better behavior from their community to raise the image of African-Americans:

Another recent pop-culture moment that focused on this idea came in 2021. That’s when comedian and actress Mo’Nique was accused of upholding respectability politics in an Instagram video in which she critiqued young Black women for dressing down in public, namely by wearing bonnets outside of their homes.

“Our young sisters in head bonnets, scarves, slippers, pajamas, blankets wrapped around them and this is how they showed up to the airport,” she said. The Precious star argued that the trend didn’t align with her vision for young Black women.

“When did we lose our pride in representing ourselves? When did we slip away from ‘let me make sure I’m presentable when I leave my home’?” she asked.

Bill Cosby is also famous for chastising some blacks for both behavior and clothing that, he said, tarnishes the image of the race.

Finally, the “white gaze” noted in Bernice King’s tweet above refers to “what white people think,” something King deplores because it plays into “respectability politics”. The article mentions white celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis and Bette Midler, who re-tweeted Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism with approbation. An example:

And there’s other criticism for the approbation by white people of Abdul-Jabbar’s conclusion:

The white gaze can be referred to as the general assumption that the intended audience for anything is white, and that all behaviors are to be adjusted for the perception and comfort of white people.

In this case, Abdul-Jabbar’s critique of Smith drew further complaint after his post was shared by prominent white celebrities, including actresses Bette Midler and Jamie Lee Curtis. Both women drew backlash for appearing to support Abdul-Jabbar’s piece and the implication that Smith “perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”

Those celebrities don’t understand “the layers and the nuance of our experiences,” says Gassam Asare. “But hearing that from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was off-putting to me, because it’s a classic example of ‘you can’t do certain things in front of white people.'”

The point is not to excuse Smith’s behavior, she notes, but instead to decenter whiteness in regard to morality.

“Very few people are saying violence is OK,” she says, “but I think it’s problematic when someone as notable and with as big of a platform as Abdul-Jabbar plays into this respectability idea.”

In general I agree with the article’s theme on the grounds that no one person’s actions should be taken or seen as a reason to denigrate a group. But let me qualify this a bit, for there are some group behaviors that I see as worthy of criticism. When I see a Middle Eastern man in comfortable clothes, followed several steps behind by a woman loaded with babies and dressed in a burqa, I can’t help but see that man as participating in a form of misogyny promoted by some forms of Islam. Every culture has some behaviors that can be seen as not conducive to societal well-being. Not every person in such cultures adheres to the bad behaviors, but nobody can deny that there are such differences. If you want to consider America, our callousness about universal health care is widespread, and a politician who denigrates it could be seen as “acting American.”

But there is no way that one should see Will Smith’s actions as somehow characteristic of black men. It was simply a human being reacting in the wrong way to a slight on his wife. (Smith does have a reputation for a bit of a temper.) And of course Chris Rock reacted with the utmost decorum, not by starting a brawl. Doesn’t that counteract Smith’s behavior, even for bigots? When I saw the slap, I didn’t even think about the race of the Smith. The notion that the violence was it was a “black thing” arose only when I read this article.

Yet I do want to bring up one thing that struck me (pardon the expression). In the past, and even today, black people who make it big are often encouraged by fellow blacks to behave in a certain way because they are “role models”. When Jackie Robinson became the first black major-league baseball player, he was told by his manager, Branch Rickey, to behave very politely, and not react to the inevitable racial slurs he encountered on the field.  In the movie I just watched coming back from Chile, “King Richard,” Smith himself plays Richard Williams, and is seen encouraging his daughters to dress well and behave properly, because, he said, they can be role models for millions of little black girls who aspire to playing tennis. And, in the last scene, this view is vindicated.

Of course, if someone has no interest in being a role model for their group—and they don’t have to have such interest—then this whole point is moot.

My question is whether “respectability politics involves hypocrisy when it comes to “role models”? Are you supposed to behave better than others so you can be a “role model” for a group—if that’s something you want to be? Why can’t you just excel in tennis and forget about trying to look or behave better than anyone else?

And that goes for all other role models as well. Yet we know that even playing into that “role model” behavior reflects a form of bigotry that does exist. Racism isn’t gone, and there ARE those who will take advantage of an ill-timed slap to denigrate a group. The question is whether it’s worth emphasizing this as a form of behavior modification, as Abdul-Jabbar did in his article.

Or perhaps all this musing about the behavior of “role models” is simply misguided. A “role model” could simply be someone like Venus Williams whose success demonstrates to other members of their ethnic group (or gender, or whatever) that they, too, can achieve—that bigotry is no longer enough to hold people back from success. Perhaps Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager who signed Jackie Robinson, was wrong in telling Robinson not to react to racial slurs on the field, thinking that any backtalk would just make racism more entrenched. Even if it did, then maybe Robinson didn’t feel like toeing the line to placate bigots. And perhaps, since racism is still with us, Abdul-Jabbar is just continuing the tradition of Branch Rickey, reminding people like Smith that, like it or not, they are seen as representatives of the black community and their actions can either lessen or entrench racism.

In the end, I guess I would want to say, “Nobody should have to be other than who they are to avoid fulfilling the hopes and expectations of bigots.” Yes, we should all try to behave civilly, but not tweak our behaviors because we have a certain gender or ethnicity. Yes, both individuals and groups differ in behaviors, but bigotry is imputing negative traits to an individual based solely on membership in a group. And that cannot be condoned.

But in the end, there’s still that nagging Branch-Rickeyish doubt in my mind, one that I quell by convincing myself that bigotry is not lessened when a black man wears a suit and behaves politely.  (I suspect that John McWhorter might disagree.) And even if it were, is everyone supposed to be a representative of their group?

44 thoughts on “Slapgate and “respectability politics”: should role models behave especially well?

  1. I am ignoring the racial aspects of this, because I don’t think it should be a racial issue. I don’t think it is a case that role models should behave well, as it is that we shouldn’t have role models who behave badly, and that we shouldn’t excuse it when they do. If one has a role model who was a successful football player, but then kills his wife and her lover, one should drop them as a role model.

    1. Tricky, though, where do you draw the line. If a well-known footballer is convicted of drunk driving, or something of that order, should they lose their entire career?** Isn’t the law there to apply appropriate punishment and anything more than that is “cruel and unusual” punishment?

      **If that’s an easy one for you, increase or decrease the severity of the misdeed, as appropriate, and ask again. And how well-known does the footballer have to be for this rule to apply?

      1. I didn’t read DrBrydon’s comment as calling for cancellation, just stopping regarding someone as a role model when their behaviour no longer merits being treated as one?

    2. I have found that we venerate celebrity as almost a cult like following and we expect them to be perfect human being so that we can enjoy their Falls in a very perverse case of schadenfreude

      1. Chris Rock became 10 feet tall, for me. What an amazing sense of self-assurance, dignity, empathy and class. He was repeatedly asked if he wanted the police to arrest Will Smith and he kept saying No. I read that he did not know that Jada was suffering from alopecia.

        I’ve just read at the CBC that Will is now banned from the Oscars for 10 years.

        I don’t see this incident as a race thing, but a human nature thing. What I am guessing at is that Will had some repressed anger and reacted the way a man feeling emasculated would. Notice that at first he was laughing when Chris told his joke, while Jada was rolling her eyes. He must have suddenly realized that he was out of line too and instinctively tried to ‘be the man’. That’s when the wheels fell off the cart.

        I understand that the Smiths had a non-traditional Open Marriage and Jada had a 4-year relationship with a singer, August Alsina. In an interview about their marriage, he referred to her ‘transgressions’ while she did not see them as trangressions. So he seems a bit out of step with his wife on the philosophy behind Open Marriages, and some might think he is or was not ‘man enough’ for her. He certainly must be struggling with something inside to behave the way he did, for all the world to see. That night I saw a lot of Will’s suppressed anger, hurt and immaturity, and it wasn’t really about Chris’s joke. Will might have liked to plant one on August and cuss him like he did Chris Rock. (signing out from my armchair now.)

        1. Your comments are particularly insightful. I think Smith’s slightly delayed physical action displayed a deep rooted insecurity possibly based on an underdeveloped sense of self.

    1. True, but he also told the tasteless joke in the first place.

      No question that he handled himself well after being hit though, that at least is admirable.

      1. The joke was positively mild as these things go. It wasn’t remotely out of line. I don’t think Chris Rock did anything wrong before or after the slap.

        1. Did Jada Pinkett-Smith over-react, show little “class,” by rolling her eyes? Should she have rather had a beneficent, congenial smile on her face (as if to say, “Keep going, I can’t get enough of that!”) so as not to be accused of “holding grudges” in response to “slights”?

          It is unfortunate for Rock that he has won the genetic hair lottery. Did he himself otherwise experience alopecia or baldness he could no less regale us with self-deprecatory humor.

          1. You’re right. On 2nd thought I think Rock should have been shot. Even better if poor Jada did it herself rather than Will.

  2. As a woman, I am very aware that I am often judged as more stupid or apt not to understand technical things than men. So I am very careful to over prepare, make sure I really know my stuff. It may not be fair, but it is the situation. I had a mentor that once said “you are going to have to work at least twice as hard, it’s just how it is”. She was/is right.

          1. You live long enough, guys, you get the chance to read. listen, and watch enough to occasionally make a decent recommendation.

            It all boils down to longevity. 🙂

          2. Ok Mr. Modest…I think you’re forgetting good taste. And here’s to KK longevity!

    1. I had a mentor that once said “you are going to have to work at least twice as hard …”

      It was long a trope in the black community, as well, for parents to tell their children they would need to be “twice as good” to succeed.

      Judging from the Birtherism Barack Obama had to face to the insulting questioning of Ketanji Brown Jackson by some Republican members of the senate judiciary committee, there’s still some truth to that trope.

      1. Well, re K.B. Jackson :
        twice x twice = four (times as hard),
        according to the latest calculations..

  3. On the whole “role model” thing, perhaps it’s fair to regard someone as such if, and only if, they have made public pronouncements advocating on behalf of the group that they are being held up as a role model for?

    “The article criticizes “respectability politics”—not just as instantiated by Smith’s slap, but also by other blacks who have called for better behavior from their community to raise the image of African-Americans” – As I mentioned below the line elsewhere recently, Chris Rock’s (in)famous “Niggas Vs. Black People” routine back in 1996, which Barack Obama referenced in a Father’s Day message in 2008, made such a call, though branding it as “respectability politics” would be unfair IMHO. Rock’s routine is well worth a listen; even he would probably struggle to get away with saying that stuff in the present climate:

    It’s worth noting that Rock drew his own inspiration for the routine from Ice Cube’s rap “Us” (on the latter’s 1991 album Death Certificate) which made similar points in a very different manner.

      1. Sad, but inevitable. I should have thought twice before linking to it, but luckily there aren’t likely to be any around here to take that misbegotten approach to it.

        1. I still listen to it from from time to time, Jez.

          Not gonna let some racists’ misinterpretation spoil my enjoyment.

  4. I gotta go with Kareem to the extent he’s sampling Chris Isaak (though if anyone were going to take a slap at Ricky Gervais, it would probably be Sean Penn, not Brad Pitt).

    OTOH, while there was a time when older black folk would admonish their children not to “act the fool in front of white folk,” that kinda stuff is now as anachronistic as Hattie McDaniel’s thanking the Academy for her best supporting actress Oscar for GWtW by “sincerely hoping I will always be a credit to my race.”

  5. I am not a fan of identity roles, and hold the above responses as another mess that our Western caste system creates. On one hand, certain people are demanding more representation of x in y so that x children can aspire to become y. On the other hand, those same people argue that we shouldn’t hold x people in y as representatives of x when things go south. Sounds like a lot of simultaneous having and eating to me.

    Keep in mind x is not exclusive to race.

  6. “bigotry is not lessened when a black man wears a suit and behaves politely.” 

    The practice of having a defendant, black or white, wear a suit and behave politely in the court room represents a microcosm of society’s view on the matter. It may be superficial and even hypocritical, but it can in fact affect perceptions and, possibly, outcomes.

  7. What you say is logical, but the reality is that, if you belong to a non-majority group, there IS that “we are on stage most of the time” mentality that, rightly or wrongly, there.
    There is what “should” be and what “is.”

  8. Comfort to the enemy? That already implies that the audience was predisposed to fit this violence into a racist narrative.

    I don’t think so. I took Abdul-Jabbar’s comment to imply that there are some (but by no means the entire audience!) white supremacists out there, and that this is going to give them ammo to go out and recruit/convince other right-wingers who are close to them to their cause. I fully agree with him that someone like Will Smith doing this plays into their hands.

    I don’t really think his argument is implying Blacks need to show extra respectability. Had Smith yelled insults at Rock, nobody would’ve thought much of it. Heckling a comedian is a bit rude but it’s within the realm of normal acceptable behavior. It probably wouldn’t even have made the news. So in my mind, arguing that the slap plays into supremacist hands is not to argue that extra respectability is required. There is a middle path: black role models can act like any other non-black irate husband might act when their wife is insulted in public…which does not include assault, but certainly could include a rude verbal response.

    And whether an adult chooses to heckle the comedian for his rude joke or not, chooses to respond later, or chooses the high ground and says little about it (which seems to be the way Jada Pinkett-Smith handled earlier insults), it shouldn’t be about “white gaze.” It should be about your kids and your spousal relationship. Are you giving your spouse the support they want and need, and would you be happy if your kids acted the way you did?

  9. When I heard about Smith’s slap I didn’t consider it an action representative of blacks, I considered it an action representative of self-important, immature celebrities.

    1. Exactly my thought, Taz, and in addition The Oscars love the slap, no matter how much they condemn it, because any publicity is better than none.

  10. One of the major role models that are absent are fathers being involved with their children for all races. It does seem to be disproportionately prominent in the black community. I always shudder when I hear the term the baby mumma or baby daddy used so loosely and carelessly. Call me old fashioned but I think men have a vital role in bringing up children. Hats off to the single mums as I could never have coped

    1. “…I think men have a vital role in bringing up children.”

      Except, perhaps, for those type of men who would abandon their children?

  11. Regarding role models. I have a Jewish friend who would never act in a cheap way lest it reflect stereotypes of Jews.

    1. I think many Jews are sensitive to such stereotyping, understandably so, which is why many cringed at Bernie Madoff. It’s also why some — misinterpreting the material — mistakenly accused Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud (and, on occasion, even Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer) of harboring a certain self-loathing.

  12. In the clip of “the slap” Will Smith laughs at the joke. It was a light quip. Smith thought it was funny. It was only after Jada gave Will the stink eye that he felt the need (or whatever) to lose his cool. Chris Rock laughed nervously and many in the audience thought it was a “bit.” However, I think Will Smith made a cringeworthy situation worse by shouting at Rock from his seat.

    What I find unusual about “the slap” is that Ricky Gervais has been far more critical, sharp and downright wicked (in a good way) when he hosted the Golden Globes. Yet, he was asked back year after year.

    The silver lining is that we have a new catchphrase, thanks to comedian Jimmy Kimmel, “Where’s Will Smith when we need him?”

    1. There is a difference between freedom of expression and physical violence. Will and Ricky make frequent use of the “f” word, and our Oscar winner could have left it at that. Although usually the audience is not invited to utter one-liners when the anchorperson is on the scene.

  13. To the many out there justifying Smith’s slap, I say:

    Isn’t your logic the very same of those who lynched Emmett Till? Years later, we learned from the woman involved that whatever happened, it was minor. But those who believed it was right and proper to “defend a woman’s honor” appointed themselves judge, jury and executioners, literally.

    Till may have done nothing wrong at all. But even if he had said something offensive, the notion that it’s “honorable” — a la Smith’s defenders — to punish the real or imagined sleight physically is obscene.

    The severity of the act was different. But the principle was the same.

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