By Sheryl Estrada
Jesse Williams gives an acceptance speech at the BET Awards in Los Angeles, June 26.
Social media is buzzing about actor and activist Jesse Williams and his profound acceptance speech at the annual BET Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday night. Williams, who plays Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” summarized in about five minutes the crux of the Black Lives Matter movement and issues including cultural appropriation and the struggles Black women face.
“If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression,” he said. “If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
Williams, 34, is member of Blackout for Human Rights, which hosted the #JusticeForFlint event in February. He joined protests in Ferguson, Mo. following the death of Michael Brown, has written extensively on BLM movement, and his documentary “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement” premiered on BET last month. For his ongoing activism, the TV network honored him with its Humanitarian Award.
The Chicago native, whose father is Black and his mother, white, graduated from Temple University with a double major in African American Studies and film and media arts. Before launching his acting career, he taught in Philadelphia public schools.
Williams took the public at-large to school Sunday night. Here are some key takeaways from his acceptance speech:
Relevance of Black Women
As a preface to his speech, Williams dedicated the award to the work of those on the front lines of social justice, specifically acknowledging the efforts of Black women.
“This award is also for the Black women in particular who have spent their lives nurturing everyone before themselves — we can and will do better for you,” he said.
#BlackLivesMatter was actually created in 2012 by three Black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. The hashtag was used on social media as a call to action after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death ofTrayvon Martin.
Garza, who is special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, wrote an opinion piece in February particularly focusing on Black women in the U.S. who provide care work. She explains that the history of Black women in the economy is “rooted in the legacy of slavery.”
“Black women who provide care work are the backbone of the American economy, and yet little attention is given to the conditions that Black women who care face,” Garza writes. “If Black futures are to matter in our economy, we must, at minimum, ensure that the Black women who care for us are cared for in return.”
Police-Related Deaths of Black People
“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day,” Williams said. “So what’s going to happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.
“Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear any more 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, and then going home to make a sandwich.
The Washington Post’s yearlong tracking project found that in 2015 police shot and killed 986 people. Blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites when adjusted for the populations where the shootings occurred. Black men made up nearly 40 percent of those who were killed while unarmed, although they represent about 6 percent of the U.S. population.
According to The Post, a new initiative federal officials have said will improve their collection of data on fatal police shootings will not be in place until 2017.
“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,” Williams said.
Cultural appropriation is a term used to describe when a marginalized culture’s creations are used, borrowed and imitated byaprivilegedculture, many times for profit, without a true understanding or respect for its history and traditions.
Actress Amandla Stenberg, 17, who was in the film “The Hunger Games,” posted a video on YouTube last year called, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” discussing natural hair and explainingcultural appropriation.
In his speech, Williams also reminded Black entertainers they shouldn’t be complacent in success:
“Now, the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right Now dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back. To put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies.”
Watch Jesse Williams’ complete BET Awards acceptance speech: