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9 times Jesse Williams eviscerated racism — from cultural appropriation to white fragility

Actor Jesse Williams.
Actor Jesse Williams.
Bryan Steffy via Getty Images

Jesse Williams broke out on television playing the beloved Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, but in recent years he has also become one of the most visible and outspoken supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander," Williams said Sunday during his impassioned acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award at this year’s BET Awards ceremony. "If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down."

In 2014, following the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Williams protested and worked with local organizers to help bring Brown’s story to light. He has been similarly outspoken on Twitter and Tumblr around the extrajudicial police killings of John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Rekia Boyd. Last month on BET, he premiered his documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement, chronicling the birth of the black millennial social justice movement.

While Williams adamantly credits on-the-ground organizers and activists, here are a few quotes that highlight times when the actor put his hat in the ring in the fight for racial justice.

On questioning black people’s expertise on racism

1) While the country waited for a verdict for Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old who fatally shot 17-year-old unarmed teenager Jordan Davis for playing loud music at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, Williams explained in an HLN interview in February 2014 why it was absurd to question whether race had anything to do with Dunn shooting Davis:

This idea of having to explain why it’s racial, while we’re standing in our own blood is silly. It’s racial because it doesn't happen to white people.

2) In August 2014, after 22-year-old John Crawford was callously gunned down by police for playing with a toy gun in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart, Williams penned an essay letting people know that beliefs about racism don’t override the experience of it:

The existence of your neighbor's pain is not dependent upon your belief in it. And we cannot improve a situation that we don't acknowledge. Learning from patterns is both basic and critical to the progress of human "civilization."

3) More importantly, he pointed out that questioning black people’s knowledge of racism is merely a ploy to distract people from actually addressing America’s racism issues:

We must stop reflexively dismissing our nation's shortcomings by telling oppressed people what America does and does not stand for. I assure you, they are well aware.

On white fragility

4) After Brown’s death in Ferguson, Williams spoke out against "white fragility," or the idea that black people fighting for their equal rights is an attack on white people:

When you get everything that you want, at all times, you complain when you don’t get it. If you’re rich and you fly first class for the first twelve years of your life and suddenly you ain’t rich no more and you gotta fly coach, you’re going to bitch about that. That’s going to be uncomfortable. Something was taken from you. The thing is that we’re not taking anything from anybody.

5) White fragility isn’t just about the ideas white people have about black people. As Williams said regarding Davis’s death, these false ideas can prove fatal:

This is a tradition in this country, where people are able to go ahead and kill black people because they got sassed because we were inconvenienced. And we become the victims of a fantasy. This fantasy of what the black body does and can do has become more important than the reality. And we pay for it with our lives.

On cultural appropriation

6) In October 2014, Williams made plain how people who wear tasteless racist costumes — including dressing up like slain 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — crudely exploit black pain for sport:

What about black pain is so fun to you? From where is that joy derived? What Halloween comes around, how exactly does dressing up as Trayvon and other illustrations of black pain, make you feel? Please be specific.

We don’t reflexively celebrate random or routine white death, make memes of your bleeding corpses, etc. Tell us about this unique obsession.

Millions of you smile in awe of our music, comedy, inventions, athletics, fashion, etc., but when we’re not entertaining you, you hate us? How does that work exactly?

7) Williams also didn’t mince words on cultural appropriation at the 2016 BET Awards:

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 then stealing them. Gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

On racist media coverage

8) Last year, after the Baltimore Uprising, Williams was quick to call out mainstream media’s racist double standards in coverage of riots:

The reaction to oppression has always been spun and marketed as validation for the status quo.

On how racism is everyone’s problem

9) In his HLN interview, he also noted that racism is everyone’s problem:

[Racism] is not a black problem. This is a white problem. This is an American problem. This is a societal problem. People should be outraged that a man is able to instigate an interaction with kids and then shoot them when it doesn’t go well. It should be an outrage for everybody.

Like black actor-activists before him — such as Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Danny Glover — Williams is clear: Hollywood can wait. Black liberation, on the other hand, cannot.

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