Will Smith’s slap in the face after Chris Rock joke topped the Oscars. But how does inherited racial trauma fit into the story?


As the world still deals with the sting of Will Smith’s slap in the face, a curious explanation has emerged that it was all about race.

That a black man punching another black man who had made an offensive joke about a black woman cannot be separated from a country where race and racism run deep.

In this story, the actor was “primed” for this moment of madness. This Smith was not just responding to an offensive joke about his wife, but playing out generations of racist trauma.

Long before the Oscars, Smith had written and spoken about his own experience of childhood abuse, seeing his father beat his mother.

There are suggestions that Chris Rock’s offensive joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, triggered childhood trauma and feelings of helplessness. And he knocked.

Was Will Smith acting out generations of racist trauma?(PA: Chris Pizzello)

But it’s more than childhood trauma; according to some, it is intergenerational.

Violence is unacceptable anywhere, anytime. Those who believe that violence breeds violence overlook the lesson of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr who led a civil rights movement in the United States inspired by the idea of ​​nonviolence.

In the face of violence, Dr King urged his supporters to turn the other cheek. Dr. King believed that a cycle of violence could be broken.

Was Smith going against a history of racism?

But the Oscars slap reignited a vigorous conversation — particularly among black Americans and here in Australia, among Indigenous peoples too — that Smith was striking against a history of racism and brutalization of black people, especially women.

That Rock is so black only complicates matters: the comedian is said to have internalized the racism that makes it possible to mock the appearance of black women.

Martin Luther King delivers his I Have a Dream speech in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963 was part of a civil rights movement based on nonviolence.(Wikimedia)

In this story, the story put Rock and Smith on this stage.

It’s clear that Smith and Rock are fabulously rich, privileged, and famous black people, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be racially tainted.

The argument is that both men are shaped by trauma. That they are linked to the story. History lives in the oppressed and it has a deadly grip.

Can trauma be genetically inherited?

Science has a role to play here. Studies of the offspring of prisoners of war, or those who lived through starvation or imprisonment, colonized and slaves, claim to reveal a higher likelihood of fatal diseases like cancer or a greater prevalence of mental illnesses.

Simply: history kills.

According to this theory, the ancestral trauma still lives in us. It is transmitted in breast milk. It becomes written in our genes.

There is a scientific name for this: transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Studies on rats seem to support the idea. But similar studies in humans are too premature to be convincing.

Many geneticists say the claims of hereditary trauma are implausible. Genetics and neurology professor Kevin Mitchell, quoted in The New York Times, says these “extraordinary claims…are advanced on less than ordinary evidence.”

So, is intergenerational trauma real?

Trauma is a widely used word today. But it’s also misunderstood, and some psychiatrists claim just as widely misdiagnosed.

Trauma is a modern invention. What we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder first emerged in the 1980s. It grew out of a study of survivors of war, specifically the Vietnam War.

War-related trauma was evident in the “shell shock” of World War I veterans.

In his book, The End of Trauma, psychologist George Bonanno states, “The concept of psychological trauma seems like a surprisingly modern idea.

Bonanno turns to literature, pointing out that Homer’s gory tales of the Trojan Wars make no allusion to trauma. Grief yes, he says, but not trauma.

We are resilient

The first medical use of the term, says Bonanno, appears at the end of the 19th century.

While our modern age may seem overwhelmed by trauma, Bonanno’s studies reveal that we are actually more resilient than traumatized.

He says that people with resilience “tend not to seek meaning after potential trauma, but rather to focus on problem solving.”

But there is what he calls a “resilience paradox”: we can know the characteristics of resilience, but we cannot predict resilient outcomes with much accuracy.

Profile photo of WA nominee for Australian of the Year, Dr Tracy Westerman
Psychologist Dr. Tracy Westerman has conducted compelling research on hereditary trauma.(Supplied: AOTY)

Bonanno also points out that demographics play a big role. Resilience is more common among older people and those with more resources and wealth.

Again, this raises questions about oppressed communities, those who have inherited their trauma.

Although the science of epigenetics is disputed, it cannot be entirely dismissed. In Australia, psychologist and Nyamal woman Dr. Tracy Westerman has done compelling studies on First Nations trauma and its influence on high rates of suicide.

Dr. Westerman says trauma is political. And denial of trauma, political powerlessness and silence from the past contribute to traumatic outcomes.

As she wrote, “Epigenetics tells us that racism impacts Indigenous people in the same way a traumatic event does.

I have a personal story

Allow me a personal observation. A few years ago I was diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after many years of covering war and suffering around the world.

I’m not alone – it’s common for journalists facing extraordinary levels of stress. Yet I also felt that my struggles were deeply connected to my family’s history as an Aboriginal people in Australia.

Covering the war triggered memories and also resonated with the stories passed down in my family of pain, hardship and violence.

The story is told. The stories we tell ourselves can often define us. I did not personally experience the suffering of my ancestors but in a very real sense I felt it.

A map from Newcastle University showing the massacres of Aboriginal people from 1788 to 1930.
A map showing the location of 300 sites of the massacre of indigenous peoples before 1930.(Provided: University of Newcastle)

We call this “collective memory”. But that too is an invention, first invented by the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. According to him, individual memories were understood in the context of a group.

History is linked to memory. But the memory is unreliable. And history is selective. As the French historian and philosopher Michel de Certeau said, we organize the artifacts of our past like ornaments in a shop window, arranged to tell a story of ourselves.

The collective memory can be modified. We can re-tell our past. And we don’t inherit the past in a similar or equal way.

My children are aboriginal, but their experience of the world is different from mine, just as mine is different from that of my parents. I shudder to think that they are chained to their history, not to mention genetically determined by it.

We need truth and justice

The great Irish writer James Joyce said the story is a nightmare we are trying to wake up from. Nevertheless, we can wake up from it.

But this requires truth and justice.

None of this excuses the violence of Will Smith. He should be accused of assault, not celebrated.

However, the slap heard around the world sparked important discussions. The science of hereditary trauma continues to be debated. Collective memory, while powerful, need not be fate.

Yet the past week and our reactions to it remind us that much of how we see the world is in the narrative.

Will Smith’s slap is a Rorschach test; we see different things there. Racism and history? There are those who would see it as fantasy, but for others it is very real.

It reminds me of the words of James Baldwin: “I have been to a place that the western world claims never happened.”

Stan Grant is ABC’s international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.


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