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.