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The sound of laughter almost never fills me with cold, debilitating anger. But the screeches of overconfident amusement bellowing from my peers as we processed Will Smith confronting Chris Rock’s insensitive joke at the Academy Awards did just that. Instead of yelling, I shook my head, desperately trying to dispel what my voice longed to say: Please stop and have some empathy.
I am sorry for writing this piece. I cannot imagine millions of people mischaracterizing and dehumanizing my name — my life — all without my knowledge or permission. For contributing to this toxic culture, I am guilty. But to me this is ultimately about more than Will Smith and Chris Rock. It’s about how people of color are expected to stay dignified, regardless of the personal slights hurled their way; the moment they decide to express the anger that is rightfully theirs, they are vilified, disregarded, and laughed at. And I am so sick of it.
This sickness stems from my youth, when I promised myself I would break unjust rules and incite social change. My naive heart broke when my dad followed my declarations with what I now recognize as wise advice. Pick your battles. Yelling at the racist man at the diner who slams a door in your face won’t make a difference. But it can ruin your reputation, and somewhere down the line, you’re going to need it for something that can make a difference.
It’s why schools all too often teach us about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but not Malcolm X. In the vital fight for justice, only ideas reframed as palatable are revered in the mainstream.
I can’t and won’t speak for all people of color. I speak only from my experiences as a mixed, brown girl, who took her dad’s words to heart. Since that day, my reputation has been my primary concern, keeping me from breaking even the smallest of norms.
When I listened to Smith’s carefully chosen words, I saw a man who was tired. Tired of constantly having to smile and laugh. Someone who has painted himself as a respectable artist, starring in innocent comedies like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or “Men in Black.” And who has dedicated himself for over two decades to using his untainted reputation to share the stories of inspiring Black men like Muhammad Ali, Chris Gardner, and most recently, Richard Williams, in a performance that earned him his first Academy Award.
But the Academy Awards have historically not been receptive of Black artists, regardless of their talent. For Smith, this was a battle he saw worth fighting. In 2016, Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith both boycotted the Academy Awards in protest of the lack of diversity in the acting nominees.
We witnessed powerful stories in film this year. Those of us who watched with an open heart and active ear could not have missed the limited but significant presence of Black artists. As I did my best to drown out the uproar pouring out from my peers as they scrambled to rewatch the clip, I took in Questlove’s acceptance speech for his documentary “Summer of Soul” and gratefully teared up at his words of its cultural importance. While the wails of laughter increased when Smith finally got his moment on stage, my respect for him only soared.
I saw a Black man who had to fight — possibly by not fighting — in order to get to where he is today. A man who believes so much in his work. A man who values his family. A man who expressed in his speech how disturbing it is to be in the public eye. He does not deserve an audience that will only remember him for picking a battle they deemed inappropriate, refusing to acknowledge the depth of his career and life.
People of color are exhausted for so many reasons. And if Oscars-night showed me anything, it’s that we have reason to be. We could live our entire lives with the best of intentions, gain the respect of the entire world, and finally win the award we deserve — not to mention an award symbolizing the impact of the story we truly longed to tell. And in an instant, we may become a laughing stock simply because of a choice to express a perfectly natural human response: anger. We’re not allowed to say we’ve had enough. We’re not permitted a breaking point.
I still believe in the words my father told me, and have abandoned all hope of changing the world. I have no harsh feelings towards those I shared Oscars night with. They struck me as perfectly well-intentioned, kind people whom I would never even think to call bigoted, and I am honored to know a few of them. But I hope, if nothing else, that those who chose to laugh at Smith in his most vulnerable moment will recognize that they were unintentionally laughing at every person of color who ever dared to be human.
Emily N. Dial ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Thayer Hall.
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