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Esther J. Cepeda: Forget the slap and salute the sisters
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Esther J. Cepeda: Forget the slap and salute the sisters

From the Cepeda columns series
Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda 

The wallop that connected actor Will Smith’s hand to comedian Chris Rock’s mug last week at the Academy Awards overshadowed all the important stuff that actually happened.

The decadeslong struggle for representation at the Academy Awards (and by proxy, representation of people of color in all visual art and media) has been an exercise in proving to white, mainstream audiences that actors, directors and screenwriters of color are every bit as hardworking, talented and special as their white counterparts. And that they “belong.”

Venus Williams

Venus Williams 

Here’s some real life for you: People of color have to constantly be as good or better than everyone else at everything just to prove our legitimacy in this country. I could spend the next 700 words on statistics about how Harvard-educated people of color can’t land jobs and how changing your resume name to a whiter version impacts hiring callbacks, and wealth disparities and etc., etc., etc., to prove it.

It’s no different for the celebrities in Hollywood.

I keep coming back to the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams: Will they ever get the recognition they deserve without some stupid race-tinged slur or issue to overshadow their moment?

Serena Williams

S. Williams 

The Williams sisters are the poster women for Black excellence that gets forgotten, explained away or is otherwise overshadowed by the people and events that unfold around them. It should have been their night to bask in the glory of winning an award that validated their presence at the awards. Instead they are associated with yet another viral, race-related media circus.

I took the temperature out there and here’s a little of what I heard from two camps — “white men,” and “black men and women” talking on two random talk shows I’d never listened to before.

One podcast I found on Spotify, “National Crawford Roundtable,” billed itself as Christian and took a relatively respectful tone with the matter. Still, the three white Christian men from across the country talked about: How husbands who respond to their wives’ unspoken pressure to act “like a man” are “whipped;” how liberals give certain celebrities a pass on violence; and a discussion about how cancel culture would not devour Smith because “they,” meaning liberals, love Hollywood stars too much.

At one point, the three guys put the sociological phenomenon of non-Blacks overestimating the level of violent tendencies of people of color on its head. They pondered whether Smith was weak because he didn’t slap or hit Rock hard enough. And then they heavily implied that the incident was to be expected all these years after the emergence of the #oscarssowhite movement got more black people into the Oscars ceremony.

Over on the “Pause with Tim Black“ podcast, also on Spotify, I heard observations that: Many people thought the incident was staged and done for PR; that Smith intended to disrespect — not hurt — Rock, so let’s not make this about “black-on-black violence;” that no one is talking about how Rock acted maturely by not escalating the situation and that other top-flight actors of color supported and calmed both performers to diffuse the situation; Lastly: A lot of black people don’t give a hoot about what two multimillionaires do in tuxes on the TV.

Honestly, the two separate conversations included a lot of overlap. The views of “white people” and “black people” always contain a multitude of very diverse views and opinions on everything, especially a cultural incident such as this.

I return, though, to what we’ve lost. The best analysis comes from Pulitzer-nominated political cartoonist Lalo Alzaraz who tweeted, “The slap heard ‘round the world was so loud it muffled even the slow and incremental progress the Academy Awards is making in diversity and representation.”

His stunning comic on the matter illustrated that we should be talking about Ariana DeBose, the first openly queer, Afro-Latina to win in an acting category for “West Side Story;” how Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar for “CODA;” how the Latino-themed movie “Encanto” won for best animated film — and we’ve made it so far that I can’t possibly fit in all the winners of color here.

Go ahead and ignore the grievance that’s been going on between two super-rich celebrities for decades, per reports. I think we’d all do well to watch some Oscar-winning movies this weekend and start (like most everyone else will) to forget all about the unfortunate incident.

Cepeda, of Madison, can be reached at and @estherjcepeda.

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