What If Will Smith Knew What I Just Learned About Chris Rock?

Be mindful. Be empathic. Be responsible.

About empathy and patience, and the lack thereof, which perpetuates violence, microaggressions, bullying, and burnout in our homes, schools, and workplaces.

What if Will Smith knew that Chris had opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about his struggles with a diagnosis of non-verbal learning disability (NVLD) in his adulthood. What if he had remembered this public revelation before he walked up on that stage?

I was getting ready for bed last night when my wife brought up Chris Rock and Will Smith. She was catching up on news and videos that I too had found out late on Monday, about the eventful night of the 2022 Oscars. As Sophia Bush astutely puts it, Chris Rock made a cruel and awful joke, a deliberate swing at Jada’s illness — her personal loss with alopecia, which she had shared widely in public. To her credit, my wife also shared another old news about Chris Rock, which I had not known, a pertinent context that may be missing from discussions about the night.

So, I spent a little time to find the old news and pondered the meaning thereof. I realized that what happened between Chris Rock and Will Smith may mean more than just a mismatched action-and-reaction between two grown-up men on national television. It might mean more to people like me, perhaps to Will Smith and Chris Rock, and anyone who wondered what happened with these two iconic gentlemen whom countless children look up to for inspiration on safety, respect, and the love of profession. With this new context, I wondered how the night and its aftermath could turn under the following scenarios.

What if, in planning his jokes, Chris Rock had known and remembered that Jada Smith had publicly revealed her painful journey with alopecia, which led her to cut her hair — before he made the insensitive swipe at her? What if, somehow, Chris Rock had also noticed the look that Jada directed at him after the sour moment; the same look that probably got Will Smith to walk up-stage to reveal his flawed reaction to an already crappy situation?

What if Will Smith had known or presumed that the ill-informed joke that Chris directed at Jada could have been a manifestation of the social struggles that he revealed about his journey with NVLD in 2020. Will could never have gone wrong with dialogue, regardless.

What if Smith even realized that a person with NVLD may not fully register emotional and non-verbal cues — like the unwelcome look in Jada’s eye and even the non-verbal aggressive courage, the angry strides, and the abusive stance that he [Will Smith] mustered on that stage to communicate his disdain for the hurtful, sour joke about Jada?

What if he realized, too, that Chris did not even register the depth of warning that he may have intended with his physical and non-verbal assault? Chris Rock took the assault literally and with surprise: “Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of my face”. Chris possibly also took Will’s words literally: “I will do that” (i.e. get Jada’s “name” out of his comedic “mouth”). Chris Rock had these and several avenues to acknowledge that his joke went out of bounds, but he unfortunately did not register the emotional and aggressive cues. He did not realize that he may have hurt Jada and Will Smith, so he did not apologize to them in real time despite these cues. As is true with some features of NVLD, affected people may have strong verbal capabilities but they may not be able to register or interpret social and non-verbal cues like those presented to Chris Rock here.

To be clear here, I do not intend to blame or excuse Chris Rock’s behavior that night — certainly not the violence that Will Smith responded with. Neither do I intend to bring undue attention to his personal health issues and experiences with a learning disorder. I cannot even imagine how the horrible moments of the 2022 Oscars will sit with Chris Rock hereafter, as he continues to process and heal from the night.

How I see it: my empathic plea and prayer for healing

Both men were wrong. Chris Rock made an awful joke that hurt Will Smith’s wife, Jada. Worst, Chris missed several social, non-verbal cues that I believe should have prompted a sincere apology from him. Will Smith, on the other hand, made a bad situation violently worse for himself and for fans like me. Here, I see a televised scenario of deeper problems that confront people who suffer learning and behavioral deficits — children who are abused daily by peers who cannot relate with them for many reasons, including social and non-verbal discordance. I see how violence becomes the pervasive default response in our homes, schools, and workplaces — maladaptive actions and reactions that contribute to bullying, microagressions, burnout, and psychological harm in these spaces.

Like Chris, I was diagnosed with a learning disorder in my adulthood during a difficult time in medical school. I am only now realizing how much the disorder affected me then and now, in my personal and professional relationships, including my self-esteem. So, I share this perspective with empathy, recognizing the complexity that my wife pointed out to me last night. And I thank her for that moment of clarity, and for being my rock through the challenges that I bring into our home with this disorder.

This reflection may be the first time that I share this experience in public. However, it may not be the last time or the last thing that I will have to share about the social, interpersonal, and professional impact that people like Chris Rock, myself, and others endure with learning disabilities like NVLD and its overlapping ADHD features.12

In the end, I share these thoughts for my own healing, as a black man who escaped many of the childhood manifestations of this complex spectrum of illness; an illness that disrupts learning for many children and adults within the norms of society as we know it now. I am healing, and I am learning to even accept this identity and navigate its intersections with my other identities, as a privileged black man, a husband and father, and a first-generation immigrant, physician, and entrepreneur.

Not everyone operates under the level of clarity that you operate with or expect of them — be it social, moral, cognitive, or intellectual. So, be patient and invest in knowing where people are coming from.

I share here because, like Chris Rock and Will Smith, I, too, may falter in my learning disorder and my reaction to others’ disabilities, as I have many times. In those moments, I hope that I might give myself permission to heal and take responsibility for my actions, my inaction, and eventual healing.

Be mindful. Be empathic. Be responsible.

Originally published at https://thediamondsconcept.substack.com on April 1, 2022.

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A first-gen immigrant who escaped into privilege as a college grad, now a medical doctor. A father, soldier, career coach, and entrepreneur.

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