Jesse Williams may be best known as Dr. Jackson on Grey’s Anatomy to many fans, or maybe Holden in The Cabin in The Woods or Reverend James Lawson in The Butler.
I first saw Jesse Williams as Holden and never paid much attention to his career until I was completing my Master’s. I decided that I wanted to do my major research paper on whitewashing in Hollywood, although I had yet to narrow down a specific topic. A classmate sent me this video of Jesse Williams discussing racism in America, as well as discriminatory casting in Hollywood.
From that point on, I followed his social media more ravenously than his fangirls. Williams embraced humour on his feed, but he isn’t afraid to tackle issues of race and racism, which are now taboo topics in this era of supposed colour-blindness. People will use the excuse of colour-blindness to defend everything from whitewashing, to hate crimes to police brutality that disproportionately affects minorities. To them, racism is dead. Therefore, higher rates of poverty, unemployment etc. can all be blamed on minority laziness. Of course, some minorities are lazy, just like some white people are. To say that this laziness explains all discrepancies in success is a grave oversimplification that ignores the impact that racist institutions have on minorities.
Williams is a former teacher and one of his initial aspirations was to be a civil rights lawyer. He says he may still write the bar exam someday and he is still heavily involved in activism. I heard about the speech he gave at the BET Awards, after receiving the humanitarian award, but didn’t get around to seeing it until yesterday. The speech was short, but poetic and powerful.
The full Jesse Williams speech:
Thank you Debra, thank you BET. Thank you Nate Parker and Debbie Allen for participating in that. Before we get into it, I just want to say, you know, I brought my parents out. I just want to thank them for being here, for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career — they made sure I learned what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also I thank my amazing wife for changing my life.
Now — this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics.
The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.
Now, this is also in particular for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can, and will, do better for you.
Now: What we’ve been doing is looking at the data. And we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s gonna happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our country, or we will restructure their function, and ours.
Now I got more, y’all. Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice‘s 14th birthday. So I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.
The thing is, though. All of us in here getting money? That alone isn’t gonna stop this. Dedicating our lives — dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back, for someone’s brand on our body. When we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies. And now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.
There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There’s no tax they haven’t levied against us. And we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You’re free, they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so … free.
Freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But you know what, though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.
And let’s get a couple of things straight, just a little side note: The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right? Stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance — for our resistance — then you’d better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest … If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. And we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment, like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.
The thing is though, the thing is, that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.
Of course, it is already being criticized all over the internet for being racist, race-baiting etc.
It is exhausting watching people get defensive when these issues are brought up: Resorting to arguments that are meant to derail the conversation instead of truly engaging in it. In order to get this off my chest, I wanted to attack the main arguments that have arisen since William’s speech. These arguments are not isolated to William’s speech either, so this gives me a chance to attack all the arguments that I’ve seen on my Youtube videos, newspaper articles and so on.
1) Williams is saying all white people are racist.
This argument is probably the best example of a straw man argument; where an opponent exaggerates or simplifies an argument in order to make it easier to ridicule. There are plenty of statistics demonstrating blacks are more likely to go to jail (as opposed to getting fines, probation etc.) for non-violent offences, and are more likely to get longer jail terms. There is also plenty of research on lingering and housing discrimination. If you are too lazy or unwilling to research this, start off with the two sources below. If you want more, let me know.
Wegman, Jesse. (2014). The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/opinion/high-time-the-injustice-of-marijuana-arrests.html?_r=0
Brown, M.K, M. Canroy, E. Curry, D.B. Oppenheimer and T. Duster, M.M. Shultz and D. Wellman. (2003). Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color Blind Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Anyway, all of this research never tries to say all white people are racist. What it does say is that a legacy of racism still impacts institutions. An institution can be racist, or have racist policies even if everyone in it is not racist. For example, the fact that blacks are more likely to go to jail for non-violent offences does not imply every judge or juror is racist. It only means that the system as a whole supports racist practices. For an even simpler example, if a store manager tells his employees to monitor blacks as they shop, it does not mean every employee is racist. However, there is undoubtedly a racist system at work.
Acknowledging that there are racists systems and institutions does not the same thing as saying that you are a racist. Discussion of racism is not a personal attack. Too many people have this misconception and get defensive when the issue of race is brought up. This knee-jerk reaction is a fundamental part of what makes it so difficult to have a productive discussion on race.
- Williams is half-white so how can he talk about racism?
This one actually baffles me a bit, but it is somewhat tied to the previous argument. If people think talking about racism = saying that all white people are racist, then it must be pretty confusing to see a mixed man discussing it.
White scholars and activists will fight against employment discrimination that leads to resumes with white names getting more callbacks, even if the skills are identical as resumes with more ethnic names like Jamal. Don’t worry insecure people, affirmative action apparently doesn’t mean black C students are getting jobs over white A students.
Their involvement does not mean they think all white people are racist. They only recognize that they benefit from the system, but they have the fortitude to accept that and fight against the white privilege that lingers in American society.
- With organizations like Black Lives Matter, BET and the NAACP, how will we ever get past racism?
This argument ties directly into colour-blind racism. The key assumption here:
- Racism is dead, there is no need to acknowledge or discuss it
Organizations like BET and the NAACP were created to counteract historical (and ongoing) discrimination. BET was purchased by Viacom in 2003 so its programming has been far more commercial since. However, it originally helped to showcase films with mostly black actors that have a much harder time getting mainstream exposure. To this day, directors will still deliberately pick white actors to play characters that aren’t white, because white is “more marketable”. Many supposed colour-blind people acknowledge that this happens, but also believe racism is dead. Maybe if Hollywood and most television networks didn’t still believe that whiteness is more marketable (Stoddard, 2006), we wouldn’t need BET.
In many cases, the NAACP is one of the few organizations openly challenging racism in today’s society. It would be great if we didn’t need the NAACP or BET, but that isn’t the world we live in.
This is the same reason we have Black Lives Matter. The world already cares about white lives. Everyone knows white lives matter. However, black death is often treated with retorts that we just need to learn how to behave ourselves. People donated nearly $500,000 to Darren Wilson after he killed Mike Brown, before the trial begin. There was the assumption that Brown was guilty, and this assumption is pervasive in cases of cops killing unarmed minorities.
Williams’s speech can either be a great opening for a debate or another speech that gets ridiculed for its racism, its “whining”, its “race-baiting”. It looks like this is another case where the majority of people pick the latter. There is praise for Williams, but it is more concentrated on outlets such as the Atlanta Black Star. Other outlets, like the LA Times are overrun by people who think Williams is only making racism in America worse. He’s the problem here according to them. How dare he speak out? How dare he try to ruin the mirage of an equal and colour-blind society?
Stoddard, J.D. (2006). The Burden of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom and ‘Educational’ Hollywood Film. Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, 36 (1), 26-35.