Civil rights advocate and actor, Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), set the internet and Twitter aflame when he stepped onstage at the 2016 BET Awards to accept his Humanitarian Award. The socially conscious philanthropist commenced to issue a speech that was both awe-inspiring and liberating. While revered by most for the uplifting and sincere address that it was, some were enraged by the speech, decrying Williams a bigot, of all things. It seems that in 2016, the overly sensitive racist mind will equate any display of an awareness of racial inequality or oppression to…racism.
Some racists can be tolerant of Black celebrities when they are keeping their blackness to themselves and their mouths shut about social injustice. Failure to do so will, of course, immediately result in racist tweets in which [insert the name of any conscious Black celebrity here] is referred to as both a racist and the n-word. In lieu of white robes and hoods, today’s racists are cloaked in avatars and anonymity, enabling them to spout racial slurs while denying the existence of racism and the need for diversity and equality.
Let’s go back to Pharrell’s performance of Happy at the 2015 Grammys, which was described by some commentators as “depressing” and “inappropriate” for paying homage to Trayvon Martin and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Or when LeBron James and other members of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warm-ups, causing an eruption of complaints about athletes not being paid to voice their opinions. I won’t even bother to go into the unwarranted hate and vitriol that followed Beyonce’s performance of Formation at Super Bowl 50.
How did this year’s BET Awards, an annual celebration of the creativity and accomplishments of entertainers of color, manage to infuriate so many? There’s the Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, the Video Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the Country Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, the Grammys, etc. All of the aforementioned award ceremonies celebrate the achievements of predominately white celebrities, and it wasn’t until recent years that the Academy Awards was called out on an obvious refusion of inclusion when it comes to Academy Award nominees. That said, I don’t see the problem with having the BET Awards, and there is certainly no evidence of the program being a “hatefest.”
Williams’ speech in no way implied that Blacks are superior to Whites, so why is he being vilified for his speech? What I took from his words was his resolve to continue the prolonged fight to end police brutality, his devotion to exposing racial inequality, and his love for humanity. He gave a speech that was without hate, but filled with pride and encouragement. “Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes…” Ask yourselves how many times you’ve seen Black fashion, or have heard slang, used by and/or misattributed to those with no concept of its origin. Does “Kim Kardashian’s Boxer Braids” ring a bell?
I already had mad respect for Jesse Williams due to his work as an activist, but seeing him put his career on the line to voice the truth took my respect for him to a whole new level. My hope is that more celebrities will use their platforms to provoke change, and that this time of Black awareness and pride won’t be fleeting. Being conscious of what it means to be Black, and Black in America, should never be a trend.