Jesse Williams – Justin Timberlake – & Cultural Appropriation

So in case you haven’t heard, Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams won Humanitarian of the Year at the BET Awards. But what has really got the media talking is the fiery speech he gave in acceptance, and all the controversy that followed.

Jesse Unleashed

Jesse’s speech isn’t one we haven’t heard before. But like other celebrities before him, he used his moment in the spotlight to draw attention to bigger issues of police brutality and social inequality.

While I didn’t agree with everything he said, I understood his positive intentions, which nonetheless began by tackling some uncomfortable issues most of us would much prefer to sweep under the rug.

In spite of his good intentions though, one part of his speech effected a raised eyebrow from me.

We know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill White people every day. 

The Truth about Police Brutality and Race

But is that really the truth? Contrary to propaganda from the Black Lives Matter campaign, police kill more Whites than any other race, each year. This makes sense, since Whites do make up the majority of the population. Anything less would not make mathematical sense.

The imbalance comes in, however, when we consider that there are five times as many Whites as Blacks in America, but Whites are killed at “only” twice the rates of Black Americans.

According to the New York Times, when studies adjusted for the percentage of the population which Blacks and Whites occupied, Black men between the ages of 15 to 19 were 21 times more likely to be killed than Whites. And even when unarmed, they were still seven times more likely to have a fatal interaction with officers of the law.

A Selfless Approach to Social Equality

What  appalls me though is that any race thinks they should be killed less often than the other.

While I do agree that police brutality is a serious issue in America, and that the percentage of African-Americans killed by police officers is a great deal higher than it should be, I think people become so blinded by self-interests these days that we only care when it affects us, or ‘our people’.

There have been countless incidents of unarmed Whites and Hispanics killed unnecessarily as well, yet these never arouse as much uproar and cause for concern.

Have we resolved that since Hispanics and Whites make up the bulk of the American population, it’s okay if we lose a few – no matter how unlawful?

If we are truly asking for social equality, then as a society, we should place equal weight on all our social ills. Why are we not addressing the larger issue of police brutality, as much as the specific cases of police brutality towards Blacks?

Jesse says that “a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do”. But it can, if we’re only standing to serve our own self-interests. Social equality requires all hands on deck, as does our gripes with police brutality.

The Division in the Black Community

The fact that we don’t even have our own hands on deck was obvious with a simple glance at Twitter, where Black followers debated about whether or not Jesse Williams – with his freckled skin, and grey-blue eyes – was ‘Black enough’ to give such a speech and really make a stand.

It seemed as though, because he was of Mixed-race, many Black Americans believed he wasn’t qualified to join the movement. So basically, the very people Jesse Williams worked to uplift and respect and speak out for, didn’t even want him on their team.

Amazing, isn’t it?

The White Casualty

But Black Twitter didn’t stop there. When Justin Timberlake then tweeted his support of Jesse Williams’ speech, Twitter tore him to bits and pieces next.

Many accused him of being a part of the very system that Jesse Williams was speaking against. They viewed Justin Timberlake as a thief who had made a fortune off culturally appropriating African-American culture and music.

Cultural What Now?

Every time I hear about this cultural appropriation thing I can’t help but laugh.

We have a problem with White people wearing dreads and cornrows, but then buy four-feet long blonde weave to put in our hair.

We have an issue with White people, like Justin Timberlake, borrowing our sound and look. But then we too have Black and Mixed-Race stars singing country, pop, rock, and making dubstep beats without a problem.

We can’t be mad at Justin Timberlake for once looking like this:

When even Beyoncé still looks like this, after her own venture into Black Empowerment:×800/landscape_nrm_1430565303-beyonce_at_the_brit_awards.jpg

Or what about the fact that one of our biggest cultural icons voluntarily went from this…

to this…?

The Black Patent

The real question everyone should be asking is who patented Black and African-American culture? I want to see the paperwork. Until then, it’s time we all learn to work together to achieve actual social equality – or just shut up.

We all profit from borrowing each other’s looks and sounds. It’s what helps artists to meet in the middle and appeal to a broader audience. And sometimes, as in the case of Jesse Williams, we have no choice. We are our parents’ making. He didn’t choose his European features.

But since we’re all so adamant to draw the line, let’s do it right. I’ll bring the fire and brimstone to roast Justin Timberlake, right after Nicki Minaj stops dressing like Barbie, and Beyoncé gives up her straw-coloured weave…

With all Due Respect.


Featured Image Photo Credit: @iJesseWilliams


63 thoughts on “Jesse Williams – Justin Timberlake – & Cultural Appropriation

    1. sorry I tapped reply before I was finished. All I’m saying is it’s time for us to stand back and let others (not just black people – but other marginalised minorities) share their perspective and let them work out their own voices. And it’s our time to listen.

      I’ll still share my opinion, but when I’m in a discussion with someone who is a part of that group, I’ll do it from a place of learning rather than teaching.

      1. True and admirable, but a one way street of communication doesn’t really get us anywhere. At least, I don’t think so. Things have changed, for both sides. And in order to move forward, both sides must have some real understanding of the other, outside of what the media puts forward as true.

  1. Being an outside observer does give some insights. That you’re a black outside observer (I’m a white outside observer – being in Australia, not America – where the race dynamics are different – we do have blacks but they are usually either First Peoples – our indigenous population – or migrants direct from Africa) also gives you that perspective that I would miss and the boldness and authority to speak on the black culture that I wouldn’t have. I have plenty of opinions on white American culture, though…

    1. You should speak your mind on White American culture then, though to be fair, I’ve heard my fair share of bad reports about White Australian culture and how the First Peoples are treated.

      I do think it’s sad that Whites are in a place where they can’t comment on Black culture without backlash. You’re basically having to censor yourself. It’s a sad place for anyone to be in their own country.

      1. When it comes to issues about race, white folks have already monopolised the stage too long. And even though we’re starting to learn how to share, we are still represented far more in the media, in politics, in places of leadership. That’s part of the problem. I still think we have things to say, to other white people, but when it comes to the historically marginalised voices, it’s about

  2. I know the first thing I thought when I saw the Youtube clip was how he was crouching to speak in the microphone and I thought, “Can’t he adjust the microphone to his height?” It was a good speech, though.

  3. I’ve often wondered about the social appropriation thing. On one hand I understand it: The best it’s been explained to me was that when it is part of black culture, it was denigrated and used to show how black people were “unkempt” but then when a white person wears it, it’s praised as “edgy” and “trendy”. However I think that a lot of people, people who never criticised when black people wear it, who genuinely like the look, and who would stand alongside and support diversity, and also wears dreads shouldn’t be assumed racist.

    It’s in the history of Rock and Roll, too.

    It’s also different because black people first went to America as slaves against their will and were forced into a culture not of their choosing and made to wear white people clothes and learn white people manners. That their descendants have adopted white fashion and may have false ideas of their worth next to a white person (even subconciously) is a result of an injustice done to them. When white folks adopt black culture it’s from a place of entitlement.

    In that sense I can understand the frustration.

    Having said that it’s an inevitable mixing when two cultures have been living side by side for so long, and not all white folk are to be blamed for the injustices of their ancestors. I have a sense that black people should stand up for their intellectual property and their rights to a voice, but accept that culture and ideas are not exclusive. And that when teir voice is heard and if it’s attractive, they’re going influence and inspire others.

    There’s also a sense that if a white person supports black culture, like JT did, they are just “not getting it” and only doing it for brownie points, trying to take the credit for what black people are saying. But when we sit back and not get involved we’re not doing enough and inadverently supporting an oppressive system by being a part of it.

    But you know what, I’m gonna stand up for the rights of minorities anyway when I think they’re being treates unfairly and if they can speak for themselves better than I can, I’ll let them take the stage. And I’m gonna try and listen and learn and understand other people as best I can and if they think I’m bad because of my attempts, I’m gonna do it anyway. And I’m going to do it trying to understand my responsibility (in my own country) as a beneficiary of a country that my ancestors stole, towards those they stole it from (the Australian aborigines). And I’m going to do all that without being ashamed about my genetic makeup.

    1. You make great points, my favourite of which is when two cultures are side by side mixing is inevitable.

      Black people are the ones who criticise Black people for looking unkempt and such when we embrace our own heritage, though. After all, if White people thought it was so bad, why would it be edgy when they wore it? Of course it might not be accepted at work, but I’m sure corporate wouldn’t hire JT to run a bank with corn rows either. Just like you wouldn’t see a bank manager rocking a Mohawk.

      African-Americans do not currently have a unified voice. They have a goal in mind, but can’t seem to figure out the road to get there. They want to keep their culture to themselves but at the same time want other people to understand, accept, and embrace it. It makes no sense.

      Hopefully they figure it out. I’m just watching and waiting. I have an interesting vantage point as a West Indian woman who is treated like an African-American (I am Mixed-Black and in America after all), but our culture and history are way different from theirs. And to top it all off, I’m married to a White man. The vantage point doesn’t get more unique than that for observing…

  4. Great piece. I did see part of his speech and the chewing out of Justin Timberlake that were so wildly out of hand after he was tweeting support for Jesse’s words. It’s like a double edged sword – many (not enough, but many) white people want to listen and learn and be better and more educated and informed yet if one opens their mouth to support or ask questions there are so many ready to shoot down instead of be part of the solution.

    It’s a crappy situation on so many levels of what is going on in our country from so many perspectives, and as a people we’ve got to give everyone the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst and that there’s only one “right” way to work together.

    It reminded me of our political climate in a lot of ways, in that if you’re not 100% supportive of one side, you’re 100% against them, instead of seeing the complexity involved in these situations.

    Thank you, as always, for your brilliant articulation of a topic that deserves more intelligent, open discussion. BTW have you ever read Nikole Hannah-Jones in the NY Times Magazine or her work before that with ProPublica? She’s a former neighbor of mine and her writing style reminds me of yours in many ways.

    Kudos, again.

    1. Justin Timberlake said nothing out of the way. And yes, it is ironic that he would support Jesse’s speech since it does throw heat his way, but I don’t see it as intentionally malicious.

      I do believe that Black people need to chill sometimes and explain and accept and embrace a little more, rather than hide behind the facade of a might fortress. It’s ridiculous.

      It’s also the same reality my kids will be faced with. They’ll be another Jesse with big opinions on social equality, being told they’re not Black enough to have them.

      I haven’t heard of this Nikole Hannah but I’m always interested in seeing anyone with a similar writing style to myself, since I know so few. I didn’t model myself off anyone when I started, so I’ve basically found other like writers as I go along. If you have a link to any favourite pieces from her, please share!

      1. Hey there! Thanks for checking in 🙂 Everything is fine here – just been rather busy at work – few things have fallen to the wayside as a result. Corny as it sounds, your concern is touching – thanks again! Hope all is well with you!

      2. Ah, I know how work gets. I’m behind on my usual blogging schedule as a result of that and Warped Tour, which I’ll write about soon when I get the chance.

        Glad to know all is well with you. 🙂

  5. I did not see the BET awards show (because I refuse to pay for cable). I saw a replay of it on Twitter. I liked and appreciated some of things he mentioned in the speech. For example, the part where he dedicated his award to struggling parents and teachers. That part I appreciated and could relate to. When he started discussing blacks being killed by police more than any other race and how the country is being divided, all I could do is shake my head. This country is divided because of the finger pointing that black Americans are falling into. All this talk about standing up for only one race is crazy. All people matter. There’s more than just African Americans being treated unfairly. You can’t stand for something and then shut other races and ethnicities out of the picture or the cause and expect them to understand you.

    Justin Timberlake comments were not disrespectful. He simply choose to express himself as a human being. What was disrespectful were the comments flying across black social media.

    And since when do we all have to follow particular guidelines to be considered in the black community. The other day I heard this guy on radio saying that all black women need to wear their hair natural to honor and respect their culture. We are all individuals who should be able to choose the way we dress and wear our hair. I was so upset about that comment that I posted a story on my blog about it.

    The other thing that I wanted to point out was the fact that most of us are not 100 of any ethnicity or color anymore.

    Thanks for posting this Alex.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Wanda. I get so much support from these from around the world, but affirmation from a fellow Black woman in America is always so much more satisfying, because your daily reality more closely reflects mine.

      I don’t think Justin Timberlake’s comments were inappropriate either. Even him saying we are all one, was not even a general statement. It was in response to a follower who got on him about his alleged hypocrisy with cultural appropriation. Some people also felt that his support of Jesse Williams was meant to be sarcastic. Are we really so sensitive and insensitive at the same time though? Black Twitter is so embarrassing lol.

      I didn’t watch the show either by the way. It was Twitter that let the bomb loose.

      Drop a link of that article of yours and I’ll be sure to check it out.

  6. I wonder what MLK would think today. When will we gethe point of caring about character instead of color? We don’t choose our skin color any more than our eye color.

    1. You’re right. I wonder what he would say. He spoke for not just equality but unification. All these new campaigns want equality and leave separation out in the open. We might as well go back to Jim Crow but with ‘equal’ terms

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