Our 17-year-old son has no interest in the Oscars, but he rushed into the room where I was watching the awards show to confirm the reports that had taken over his social media feed.
"Did Will Smith really punch Chris Rock?" he asked.
It was more like a slap, I said -- an awful response to a bad joke.
I was still trying to process what millions of us had just witnessed on the live telecast. Rock was about to present the award for best documentary when he said to Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, that he couldn't wait to see her in "G.I. Jane 2."
He was referring to her shaved head. Pinkett Smith has publicly spoken about her struggle with alopecia, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss. She rolled her eyes at the remark. At first, Will Smith laughed. But a moment later, he rushed the stage, slapped Rock and returned to his seat, yelling for Rock to "keep my wife's name out of your f
Like most confused viewers, I wasn't sure if this was a staged bit. Once it sunk in that Smith had responded to an ugly comment about his wife by hitting someone, I immediately thought of the consequences -- not for Smith, who received a standing ovation from his peers later in the evening while accepting the award for Best Actor. But the consequences for every young person watching.
Smith sent a message with that slap: not just to Rock, a grown adult and professional comedian, but to every young person who will see it. He told them that it's an act of "love" to respond to an insult with your hands.
It most certainly is not. It's an act of violence.
We teach toddlers to "use their words" when they feel big emotions like anger, frustration and hurt. Parents of Black and brown boys in this country know that lesson is even more urgent for our sons.
Those who lack the protections of superstar fame and wealth don't get standing ovations after they hit someone. They get suspended from school. Or they get sent to jail. Or in places like Missouri, where anyone could be carrying a gun at any time, they get shot.
While the Oscars program continued seamlessly after this fracas, I thought about a scuffle that happened last summer at a St. Louis-area mall: 21-year-old Jason Hill fatally shot 20-year-old Malachi Maclin on July 3. A grand jury found that Hill had acted in self-defense after Maclin made a threatening comment and punched him in the face.
The young men did not know one another. It might have been a case of mistaken identity.
I've thought about those young men a lot since that incident. A young man's life lost -- for what?
Those who are part of my generation likely remember the fights that would break out over insults, perceived and real, when we were growing up. More often than not, a few punches were thrown and it was over.
That's not the world our children live in. They shop and work and study in places where slapping someone carries the risk of getting shot.
Clearly, that's not Will Smith's reality.
Was he justified in getting angry about Rock's barb at his wife? Of course he was. He could have called him out a dozen different ways. He could have used his acceptance speech to clearly say why his reaction was wrong instead of rationalizing it and framing it in the language of love.
Young girls who internalize the belief that protection and love look like violence can have that very idea used against them by abusers. Young men who see a star they admire applauded for hitting a man over an insult internalize that approval.
As adults, we know that we cannot walk up to and slap a colleague who insults us. But in the heat of the moment, young people act impulsively -- and outside the rarefied world of Hollywood, there are life-altering consequences for that kind of behavior.
If Smith wants to be a vessel of love for his community, he needs to talk honestly with Black and brown children about the risks of that kind of escalation.
That's what love looks like.