It’s official: Jesse Williams made sure everyone knew he was woke as hell and he won’t be stopped. The 34-year-old actor accepted the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards last night, when he unleashed a powerful—and critical—speech about racism in America and police brutality against unarmed black citizens.
“Yesterday would’ve been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, so I don’t want to hear anymore 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 then going home to make a sandwich,” Williams said to a crowd who had already given him a standing ovation, not even halfway through his speech.
Stay woke, listen and watch Jesse Williams greatness https://t.co/mf23ja6tQl— Sarah (@mz_sarahh) June 27, 2016
Williams’ speech was also a comment on cultural appropriation, the lack of freedom for black people, and the chilling parallel between slave branding and black celebrity branding, bringing attendees like Jamie Foxx to tears. But the most pivotal and strategic part of William's’ speech was his shout out to black women. It may have seemed small, but his nod to black women’s sacrifices and suffering lingered well after he moved on to other topics. “Now this is...for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves,” he said. “We can and will do better for you.”
Williams’ wasn’t trying to assure black women that black men will do better—it was an apology, and he’s letting black men know they don’t have a choice.
Black feminists and scholars have frequently called out black men for mistreating black women. In scholar bell hooks’ book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, she argues that black men have abandoned black women because they refuse to conform to the gender norms made by white society, making black men feel emasculated. As a result, some black men have tried to dominate, abuse, ridicule, or refuse to marry black women, leaving us to carry major burdens. “Most black women have been more than willing to surrender control over their hard-earned resources to the men in their lives: father, brothers, lovers, and husbands,” hooks says in her book. We’re are also in constant competition with white women and Eurocentric perceptions of beauty. Where white women are seen as fair and feminine, black women’s features and bodies are considered undesirable — unless those qualities are on white women like Iggy Azalea, Kim Kardashian, or Kylie Jenner.
Last night, Williams let it be known that it’s time for black men to stop making excuses and stop seeing strong and resilient black women as undesirable. It's time for black men to acknowledge that it was this very strength that allowed them to thrive socially and financially—on the backs of black women.
Black women also founded the Black Lives Matter movement and kept it afloat, but the focus has mainly been on the deaths of unarmed black men with little mention of the trans folks and black women who have also been killed. Williams doesn’t forget this, either. “Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712,” he says. “Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.”
Unlike you Jesse Williams doesn't need a goddamn sticker on his forehead for rallying for the protection and prioritization of Black women.— Rowan Pope (@Liberienne) June 27, 2016
The boilerplate excuses given when black women are killed or physically assaulted by police are the same: that they’re angry, verbally and physically abusive or confrontational, which in many cases, have been claimed and not true. The right to question why you’re being detained or roughed up by an officer seems to extend to everyone except black women, who are blamed for speaking up. Williams’ also touched on that: “But freedom is somehow always conditional here, ‘You’re free,’ they keep telling us, ‘But she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so…free.’”
There’s nothing that Williams said that a black actress couldn’t, but he strategically used his privilege, both as a biracial American citizen and as a male actor, to make a political and racially-charged speech without experiencing the same kind of backlash.
For black actresses and artists to speak up in an industry that already has so few roles for them, talking about racism can make them appear hostile, angry, and difficult to work with. While older, more established black actresses like Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson have spoken out about racism in the industry, many younger stars may be afraid or haven’t reached that kind of security yet. Davis, in her 2015 Emmy speech (which received backlash), told the audience, "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there." Williams didn’t speak for black actresses and women; he spoke on their behalf because he knew they rarely receive the same platform to speak up, and we have more to lose.
And lastly, as if Williams didn’t just bring an entire room to their feet, he ended by paying homage to the #BlackGirlMagic movement: "Just because we're magic doesn't mean we're not real."
While Williams shouldn’t be thanked for including black women in his speech, we rarely hear about their sacrifices and contributions—especially from men. Williams fearlessly delivered one of the most powerful comments on racism in contemporary America, and he addressed the very real problem that while we move forward to stop racism in America, we also need to see what we’ve left behind.