The Whitest thing I’ve ever seen

(Monique Wray for The Washington Post)
5 min

The second Whitest thing I’ve ever seen happened the third month of my first semester at Canisius College. It snowed several inches overnight, because the school is in Buffalo, and that’s just what happens there. It was one of those wet and nasty storms, though. Not the pure white you see in snow globes and Lexus commercials, but the frigid, dirty grime that coats the Earth in sloshy gray. As I was staring out the window of my dorm, I saw two guys skiing in the parking lot slush, wearing nothing but jockstraps and hockey masks. (I’m still curious if they planned their outfits or if the coordination was serendipitous. I pray for the latter.)

Sometimes when we (Black people) share a story like this, where no race is explicitly articulated, we’ll cap it by saying “And yeah, they were.” Which means exactly what you think it means. And for 24 years, that was the most “And yeah, they were"-ass thing I’d ever witnessed. Something so quintessentially White that a qualifier was redundant. Time-consuming.

Until March 27. When Will Smith left his seat, calmly walked to the stage, assaulted a Black man in front of millions of people, sat back down, cussed out the man he’d just hit, won an award on that very stage less than an hour later, and devoted his speech to explaining the rationale for the slap — a culmination of activity White enough to win 200 electoral votes.

Will Smith, of course, is Black. Which maybe makes this choice of the Whitest thing I’ve ever seen a curious one. (It’s also maybe curious why I’m choosing to write about this now, more than a month after the Oscars. I regret to inform you that this story has no expiration date. There will be slap-related podcasts, books, oral histories, anniversaries, limited series, baseball cards and theme park rides. Be happy I’m devoting less than 1,000 words to it.)

But Whiteness is a violently arbitrary social construct that’s less about skin and more about status. You can earn, blend, bleed and breed your way into Whiteness, as Irish and Italian immigrants to America did. (And as many lighter-skinned Cubans and Mexicans currently are doing.) The main qualification — well, the only static qualification — is that you’re not visibly Black. Otherwise, to quote Earnest from FX’s “Atlanta,” Whiteness “is where you are. It’s when you are.”

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There are some people who believe that a Black person with enough power, status and privilege can dissolve their way into Whiteness. I disagree. Vehemently. But I will concede that there are levels. And someone as rich and famous and universally adored as Will Smith is closer to social Whiteness than I am. If I, for instance, happened to win a contest for two Oscar tickets, and I happened to attend the Academy Awards with my wife, and Chris Rock happened to dig at her hair during a bit and I happened to slap him, I wouldn’t have even made it back to my seat before getting tackled — shot? — by security. And I wouldn’t be able to write this, because my arms would likely still be broke, and also because I’m sure there’s no Internet access at Guantánamo Bay. In fact, this hypothetical is an impossibility in the physical universe we currently occupy because I wouldn’t have even been able to get close enough to the stage before somebody (Security? An usher? Judd Apatow?) stopped me.

What happened after the show, though, is a reminder of the distance between proximity to Whiteness and occupancy of it.

What happened after the show, though, is a reminder of the distance between proximity to Whiteness and occupancy of it. I’ll admit that what Will Smith did was jarring. I’m one of maybe 17 people on Earth who happened to catch the slap, the Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, the Malice at the Palace and “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” each live when they happened. None were as shocking as the slap, and it’s natural to be upset. But the way some (mostly White) people reacted, you’d think he shot him.

And I can’t help but wonder how much of that reaction was partially due to some subconscious — or, maybe, a very conscious — response to Will Smith’s apparent descent into a sphere of consequencelessness exclusive to men who are rich and famous and beloved, like he is, but not visibly Black. Would there have been as much (White) outrage if he’d been “punished” immediately? It took him doing the Whitest thing I’ve ever seen for (White) people to loudly remind us that he’s Black (as if we ever forgot). That he can be as rich and as famous as he wants to be, but he’ll never be White like them boys in Buffalo with those masks and jockstraps. Skiing through the slush with no cares and no worries except the desire to fabricate danger to feel more alive.

Because “And yeah, they were" doesn’t just mean they were White. It also means they were safe. It also means they were fine.