“The Slap” at the Oscars has been so much discussed that it seems as if there’s nothing left to say or to write about it. But so many of the columns and comments about Will Smith defending Jada Pinkett Smith’s honor against comedian Chris Rock’s ableist misogyny are also hot takes. For Black folk famous and ordinary, this is a double-dose of deadly, especially in public settings. The white gaze is forever present, especially now with smartphone cameras and recorders everywhere. Black people end up caught between their own fallible humanity and their training to be as respectable as possible during these big moments, precisely because white folks are watching. The result is usually a tangled mess. The vultures will keep circling for meat, fresh and rotten. Such are the ways of a capitalistic, narcissistic, and racist society.
My own story isn’t quite as dramatic as Will, Jada, and Chris’, but it does reflect how narcissism, green-eyed jealousy, hypermasculinity, and other ills can get anyone caught up. A quarter-century ago, I completed my history PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. A few weeks before my two graduation ceremonies, I made the decision to fly my mom in from New York to celebrate with me. She hadn’t been able to attend my bachelor’s or master’s degree ceremonies because my four younger siblings were too young to be left at home. Now, they were all teenagers.
I had no idea the hell I had set myself up for. That same graduation week was also the same week as my mom’s associate’s degree graduation in White Plains. I flew home to New York to be there for her. Afterward, my mom said, “You know, you were in school so long, you could’ve had another high school diploma.” Then she forced a laugh. “It’s a joke,” she said. What was the joke? My degree, or the amount of time and energy I spent in earning it? “I don’t have to tell you that I’m proud of you. I tell other folks, just not you,” she said the next day.
It was a figurative slap to the face I can still feel 25 years later. From the moment we left for LaGuardia that Friday to the moment I left her at Pittsburgh International Airport that Sunday afternoon, my event was all about her. That Sunday, she refused to be in a photo with my partner, my partner’s mom, a high school friend, and several other friends. She skipped out on the second ceremony, the one where my department chair and my PhD advisor would speak about my accomplishments, where I would also have time to publicly speak about my experiences and celebrate. I abruptly left the ceremony with my degree in hand.
Then, while waiting outside for the airport bus, my mom gave me a look. She seemed confused and lost, as if she would need help getting to her flight. Unthinkingly, I agreed to help her get to the airport, and ended up missing the second ceremony. With each passing moment on our way to the airport, I grew madder and madder. At the gate, I went off on my mom. “You have ruined every good moment in my adult life!,” I yelled.
I should have gone to my graduation ceremonies without her. But I wanted my mom’s approval. I wanted her to make her proud. I wanted her to see me as a full-grown man. My mom took advantage of my yearning for the kind of relationship we never had. Transparent, honest, loving, affectionate. None of those were her.
Her comments all week were signs of her jealousy over my doctorate. I just refused to see it, because she’s my mom. Her actions that weekend were of a narcissist. I didn’t know any mom could be that way. Her statements and actions were as much about questioning my manhood as they were about anything else. Ten years of undergraduate and graduate education instead of working jobs to help her with “the kids”? Using my unconscious reflex to get me to take her to the airport instead of doing it on her own? My mom’s sense of patriarchy and what men ought to do was a big part of my ruined moment, too. My relationship with her has never fully recovered.
This is what the proverbial they miss in everyday public human moments. Jealousy and vanity, like the other five Deadly Sins, are normal human emotions. But living in a hypermasculine, patriarchal, and narcissistic nation allows people to weaponize such emotions, just as Pinkett Smith did at the Oscars, just as she did on Red Table Talk with her husband two years earlier. And Smith took the bait despite knowing there was a possibility that his Oscar win would be the culminating moment of his career. His manhood and his image of his relationship with his partner was on the line. So was his hypermasculine pride. Especially with a comedian like Chris Rock, who has operated in sexism and misogynoir for years, especially toward Pinkett Smith, even with Good Hair to his documentarian credit. The white gaze is withering, and will likely warp the way people see Oscars 2022 for years to come.
I had far fewer white eyeballs on me on my PhD day. But the anger and despair I showed that day stayed with me for years afterward. I have been professor or Dr. for nearly half my life, but I never had my moment to enjoy that moment. For Smith, for his sons and daughter, for the Williams sisters, for everyone who worked on King Richard, that moment was cut far too short, ruined by the societal ills that corrupt us all.