“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, 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 and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.” -Jesse Williams
This is a beautiful and powerful statement from Jesse Williams’ inspiring and passionate acceptance speech during the 2016 BET Awards, where he won the Humanitarian Award. Unfortunately, I don’t understand what it means and, as a white guy, I need your help.
I understand that the general posture of his speech was a stand against racism. I applaud Mr. Williams for using his platform to speak out against something as abhorrent as racism. Every freedom-loving American, every Christian should oppose racism in all its forms. And yet I still don’t understand what Mr. Williams’ words actually mean. Maybe there’s a cultural disconnect, but I’d like to gain a better understanding of where he’s coming from.
“We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us…”
I take this to mean black Americans are sick of being mistreated by white Americans. I certainly can’t argue with the assertion that some white Americans mistreat some black Americans. It’s a sad fact. On the second reading of his statement I find that a couple of words he chose are throwing me for a loop, specifically the words “invention” and “whiteness”. Maybe I’m being too literal and Mr. Williams’ intent was to use metaphorical devices for emotional impact, rather than make a literal statement. But even if this was intended as a sort of poetry, words still have meaning. As a guy who grew up white, married a white woman, and who is related to lots of white people, I have no idea what he means by “whiteness”. (Maybe I don’t get it because I’m white?)
At first, I thought maybe he was trying to put the blame on a general concept of whiteness, rather than actual people of Caucasian descent, and therefore framing his comments in the context of culture rather than race. That would make sense to me. Because if he’s saying that all white people use and abuse black people, that would not only be empirically incorrect, it would be a terribly racist thing to say. So maybe rather than blaming all white people he’s blaming a group of (mostly white) people who have invented or created a system of beliefs he has labeled “whiteness”. But if that were the case, it begs the question of why he chose to label it “whiteness”, rather than something more generic and behavior-based, such as “greed” or “corruption”. Why didn’t he choose to say, “We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called greed uses and abuses us…” That’s just as powerful!
I believe the reason is that the entire premise of his speech turns on the issue of race. So even if he’d chosen to use a word like “greed” rather than “whiteness”, he still has other propositions to contend with, such as:
“…burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment…”
Here I assume he’s saying that the people who practice this thing he calls “whiteness” are dismissing black people as invaluable and unworthy, while at the same taking things from them. My guess, since this was a BET event and he is an actor, is that his comments are aimed at the entertainment industry, specifically white people within that industry who make money immorally off of black culture.
While I’m sure there is some corruption and even some racism in the entertainment industry, this brings up a bigger question that has bugged me for a while. What is “black culture”? When Mr. Williams says “our culture”, does he mean there is just one black culture? Is it the culture black rap artists rap about? Is it limited to black athletes and celebrities? Or does it also include black teachers and cops and mechanics? How about lawyers, authors and worship leaders who are black? How about Black Republicans? Are Ray Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, and Drake all part of the same black culture Mr. Williams is referring to? I would guess not, but I don’t know for sure and I don’t want to assume, so I’m asking the question.
I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that Mr. Williams has something against white people. And hatred or intolerance of another race is the dictionary definition of racism. He seems like an awfully intelligent guy, so I’m sure he’s smart enough to realize that an entire race of people can’t be painted with one broad brush stroke. Every race has its racists, and its champions, it’s lazy bums and it’s selfless heroes, it’s achievers and dreamers, it’s ne’r-do-wells and rapscallions. In America, during the Civil War, there were 300,000 white Americans who gave their lives fighting to keep black men in chains. And there were 364,000 white Americans who gave their lives because they believed black men should be free. Which group was practicing “whiteness”?
I’m a white guy so I admit I might not understand the full context of Mr. Williams comments. That’s why I’m asking my black friends to please show me what I’m missing. By promoting an “us against them” mentality, rather than putting the focus on unity and equality, statements like Mr. Williams made on BET seem to me to foment racism, rather than help resolve it.
I believe that every human being, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, creed, nationality or sexual orientation, is of equal value in the eyes of God and should be loved. However, not every idea is equal, and not every behavior is equal. Murder is wrong no matter what race the perpetrator and victim are. Same with abuse, violence, hatred, racism, and the like. Racism is real, and it should be called out and fought against. On that Mr. Williams and I agree. In fact, that’s why I was prompted to write this blog. When I heard Mr. Williams’ comments I felt like I was a victim of racism, like he was accusing me of things I’ve never done just because I’m white.
I’d like to respectfully suggest that, rather than focusing on division and racial differences, we should all spend more time living lives and speaking words of love, forgiveness, unity, and equality. In other words, we should all be the change we want to see in the world.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
What a beautiful and powerful vision!
I wonder what Mr. Williams thinks of Dr. King’s dream. Are the motivations behind Mr. Williams’ words and actions aimed at helping to build a world in which he would be willing to sit together in unity with a former slave owner? Or a white cop?
I hope so.