BET Awards: Jesse Williams Speech

The BET Humanitarian Award is an award that is given to someone who has shown dedication to social change.  The 2016 award recipient was actor Jesse Williams.  He started his speech first giving praise to his parents, and the camera zoomed in on his black father and white mother.  He also mentioned how black women nourish everyone else but themselves, and said the award was for them as well.  He used a lot of black empowerment rhetoric, such as “Just because we are magic doesn’t mean we are not real.”  He referenced several people who have been unjustly killed by the police, like Sandra Bland and Michael Brown.  Jesse Williams was able to tap into the emotions and pain that black people have been feeling.  He verbalized what countless others have been verbalizing decades before.  While his speech may be seen as inspiring, it was nothing new, enlightening, or anything we haven’t heard before.

When I heard the Jesse Williams speech I thought it was a good speech.  His content was provoking and spoke some truth. However, when listening to speeches it’s important to note the person giving it.  When I see a Jesse Williams, giving a speech to speak for black people, it becomes not so relatable.  We must first think about who and what he is, which is mixed race, with a white mother.  This award is supposed to show “steadfast commitment to social change.”  However, a part of our social structure has been to white wash and erase the contributions of black people while celebrating white people or those who favor a European aesthetic.  Apart of our social structure is to praise people who fit more into white standards.  We celebrate white mediocrity while questioning and challenging black excellence.  If we want real social change, why not give the award to a black man, like the Michel Brown that he is so called fighting for?  Better yet, why not give the award to the three black women who started the Black Lives Matter movement that Jesse Williams is apparently contributing to.  In the same speech that Jesse Williams mentioned the nourishment that black women provide and tried to uplift us, he denied black women the opportunity to have their voices heard and to be recognized for their hard work for our people.  He did not even say their names, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, or Opal Tometi, the deserving black women who started the very movement that he is receiving accolades for participating in.

Many black people will claim that Jesse Williams is black too because of the racist one drop rule that we still subscribe to no matter how much we claim to hate racism. However, when Jesse Williams is walking down the street he is not seen or treated as a black man.  When Jesse Williams was growing up, he did not grow up with a black experience.   All of the people he named in his speech, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, are undeniably black, African-American people.  The simple fact that none of the people he named are of mixed race like him, speaks volumes.  This shows how yet again, someone who does not look like us or truly relate to us or have our struggles are able to come into our communities and win awards simply for speaking and doing what we have always been saying and doing.  When we see people like Jesse Williams receiving awards for his dedication to the black community, struggle, and fight, we have to question his mixed privilege that even allows him to get the platform that he has.  Jesse Williams, a racially ambiguous man, is able to tap into his blackness, switch it off, and be another race, when it benefits him.  A true black man, cannot stop being black when it’s convenient.  Black people look black when we go into stores and get followed.  We look black when the police harass us.  Cops and the rest of society aren’t saying, “wait is this person black?”  They know simply by our appearance, and we are treated as such.  Racially ambiguous and black are simply not the same thing.   A true black man can never come out of a white vagina.

Most will say that it doesn’t matter if he is mixed or if he doesn’t look black because he is still doing good for the black community.  However, we need to acknowledge that there are countless black men and women who experience life as black people and who are more deserving of this award.  It’s also imperative to note that proper representation does matter.  I think that Jesse Williams winning an award for his participation in the Black Lives Matter Movement is not only a product of white supremacy, but also of patriarchy.  Here we are, yet again, with both blackness and the contributions of black women being removed (whitewashed or erased) and their hard work being over looked to favor a man who is clearly of a different race.  How is it that Jesse Williams, a European looking biracial man, is able to win the humanitarian award based of the work he’s done with the Black Lives Matter Movement, but the black women who started the movement haven’t won?   This reeks of the white savior complex as well as the erasure of the contributions of black women to society.


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