TV

Jesse Williams, John Cena, And Why Talking About Racism Isn’t Racist

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BET/Getty

The growing racial tensions in the nation and the media coverage surrounding those tensions over the past few years has given birth to a new era of social activism and new faces that represent it. One of those belongs to Jesse Williams, who’s portrayed Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy since 2009.

What many viewers of the hospital drama probably don’t know is that Williams comes from a background that is deeply rooted in African-American history and public service – he taught the subject in Philadelphia public schools for years before turning to acting.

Williams is often quoted speaking about the experience of being black in the America that we currently live in. There’s actually been little resistance to the notion that he has the potential to be this generation’s Harry Belafonte, a singer and actor who was once and still is an activist that uses his celebrity status to open doors that others may not even be allowed to stand in front of.

At this year’s BET Awards, Williams was the recipient of the Humanitarian Award, which honors celebrities who’ve worked diligently to make the world a better place. As part of a show that opened with Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar practically walking on water and all of the amazing Prince tributes we probably didn’t deserve, yet loved, it was the peak of the evening.

Williams touched on the imbalance of rights that is still felt by people of color and the disenfranchised, the often forgotten black women who play an integral role in social activism, and the disproportionate amount of black people being shot by police across the country. Something that we were all reminded of once again on Tuesday night and on Wednesday night.

“There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of,” said Williams to a theater full of applause. “There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t levied against us – and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here.”

The reaction to his speech was powerful and instant, thanks to social media. Many people applauded Williams for using his opportunity to hold many figures accountable who otherwise wouldn’t be. But, to no surprise, the opposition raised their own concerns.

Viacom, the company that owns BET, simultaneously streamed the entire awards show on all of its other channels, including VH1, MTV, Spike and even Nickelodeon. Imagine the surprise on the faces of people as they looked to tune into Lip Sync Battle or, ironically enough, Cops, and caught an earful of what they likely felt was an attack on their way of life.

This isn’t an assumption; it’s fact. As evidence, there’s currently a petition to boycott Grey’s Anatomy and pressure ABC to fire Williams with more than 19,000 signatures, with a goal of 25,000, as of this writing. The words “racist” or “racism” appear eight times in Erin Smith’s nearly 700-word petition. And who knows how much it shows up in the comment section.

“Jesse Williams released a cascade of inappropriate, unprofessional and racist commentary against police officers and Caucasians,” said Smith. “Had any one of his offensive words been said by any other race other than an African-American, they would’ve been publicly shamed, fired from whatever job they had, lost endorsements, advertisers, etc.”

Shonda Rhimes has already come out publicly to dismiss the possibility, and Williams is asking for people to stop promoting “empty people and their tantrums.” But this is getting far out of hand and, while the situation needs to be handled delicately, it also needs to be examined from the proper perspective.

The idea that Williams’ speech about racism was somehow racist itself is the result of a deeply flawed way of thinking – “colorblindness.” Not in the literal sense, but in the more metaphorical one that implies some people “don’t see race.” That idea is, best case, delusional and, worst case, problematic.

Firstly, there’s no way that you can live in a country that was literally built on racial disparity and suddenly turn around and go, “We’re all the same!” Nah. It doesn’t work like that. History is a thing.

But, more importantly, choosing to ignore race has the complete opposite effect of its initially good intentions. It’s nothing more than an attempt to ignore something that makes you uncomfortable and hope it goes away on its own. Which isn’t happening anytime soon.

Instead of focusing on what we all supposedly have in common, we should not only accept, but embrace what makes us different and find ways to co-exist.

Smith leans on the defense of “if a white person said that, they’d get dragged through the mud!” Well, let’s unpack that a bit and look at examples of white people speaking on race, with a variety of intentions.

Immediately after Williams’ speech, Justin Timberlake became the target of backlash for a now-deleted tweet that read, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” Timberlake basically had a pass by a majority of the black community since the day NSYNC released “Gone.” But even that didn’t excuse him for repeating what’s basically the mantra of the “colorblind” population.

We aren’t all the same. And that’s okay. Our families settled in America through different channels, some of which have a darker history than others, and that impacts who we are today. The fault lines of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and all the rest make us who we are as individuals. Electing to completely ignore one or more of those is unwise, to say the least.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Justine Sacco. Sacco was a communications director flying to Africa from London in 2013 when she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time she landed from her long flight, Sacco turned on her phone to find out she was pretty much without a job and loathed by the entirety of the Internet. Last we heard, Sacco was back on her feet after the major speed bump that was her reputation’s public execution. It was later revealed that her family in South Africa actually fights against racism  – and was extremely embarrassed – and that her joke was meant to be seen as so outlandish that no one would take it seriously, especially outside of her immediate followers. Unfortunately, that’s now how Twitter works.

Lastly, John Cena was recently featured in a video for We Are America, where he broke down and celebrated the diversity of a country that’s supposed to be founded on it. John Cena bleeds patriotism, eats a side of national pride with every meal and probably writes sonnets in honor of all things red, white and blue when he isn’t being Big Match John in the squared circle. And he gets it. He understands that tolerance is only half the battle. Acceptance and appreciation of diversity is the ultimate goal.

Having honest and open discussion about race isn’t racist. Neither is talking about the problems we face that are directly connected to it. Jesse Williams was only speaking on the concerns and fears of millions of people impacted by racism. If that intrudes on your safety blanket of “colorblindness,” it’s probably time for you to join the real world anyway. Or, you know, don’t.

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