Updated: Wednesday, July 6, 2016, 9:18 AM
Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams gave an impassioned speech about modern-day racism at the BET awards as he accepted the Black Entertainment Television Humanitarian Award. He touched on the hot-button issues of police brutality and systemic poverty, but also highlighted the way racism manifests today through cultural appropriation. “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,” Williams said. “Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them. Gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes.”
His speech made headlines and sparked conversation across mainstream media outlets and social media. While his words were celebrated by many in the black community, a considerable number of people – from public figures to news anchors to online bloggers – were openly dismissive or critical of his claims.
One might expect commentators at conservative FOX News to be dismissive of the problems with cultural appropriation. They pointed out that many young white people admire rappers, noting that Williams “seems so upset” urging him to “focus on the positive.” But the more concerning responses were from white liberals who felt Williams’ remarks were too harsh and resorted to “All Lives Matter” responses in attempts to question the legitimacy of Williams’ speech. Chief among them was Justin Timberlake who, like Robin Thicke, built much of his career off of being the surprisingly soulful white singer in a historically black music genre. Timberlake responded to critics, saying, “The more you realize we are all the same, the more we can have a conversation.”
As a black woman who went to an elite private high school in New York City and an Ivy League university, I can acknowledge that I experience benefits every day from the same system that, in Williams’ words, “ghettoizes and demeans” other black people who attended overcrowded, underfunded public schools for example. I have to acknowledge that, if I want my ideas to be taken seriously by people who are actually experiencing generational poverty or people on the front lines of the racial justice movement.
It can be uncomfortable to begin to understand the extent of my privilege. My life can sometimes be used as a tool to further ghettoize other black people if I am framed as the “acceptable” type of black person. There is also a tendency by some people to deduce that society is not too unfair if people like me are upwardly mobile. Still, the discomfort I feel when someone compares my life to others doesn’t mean I don’t want the discrepancies to be pointed out. The idea that pointing out privileges does more to reinforce them than acting like they don’t exist is a notion consistent with the ‘colorblindness’ approach. Yet most thought leaders within the movement for racial justice don’t find this approach nearly as productive as the alternative.
There is nothing liberal about bringing up your personal commitment to colorblindness during discussions of systemic or cultural racism. It is only a diversion from the central topic and actively burdens black people by provoking them to re-explain themselves or address a different subject. Williams actually commented on this in the middle of his acceptance speech saying, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.”
Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who founded the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, addressed the idea of policing Black people’s responses to their own oppression saying, “Not only have they kicked the black but they also told him how to respond to the kick. With painful slowness he is now beginning to show that he realizes it is his right and duty to respond to the kick the way he sees fit.”
Critiquing the way that someone expresses himself instead of addressing the substance of his claim is an age-old tactic to stifle movements, which is ironically the legacy that white liberals are employing when they engage in this kind of response. The idea of respectable communication has always been defined by those in power for their best interests. Our understanding of respectable communication is highly political and tactfully constructed.
The best thing that any ally in the equal justice struggle can do is to acknowledge the privileges they have and leverage their assets to aid the cause. Influential people like Justin Timberlake could promote conversations that help people understand the difference between appreciating black culture and cultural appropriation. One of the best ways for white allies to take a burden off of black movement leaders is to engage other white people in dialogue. This idea is already taking form through things like the White Privilege Conference and student groups like White Privilege Project at the University of Cape Town.
As we move into a time period where our nation is increasingly polarized, we can’t afford further fragmentation within the struggle for racial justice. White liberals play an important role, which is why it is essential that their approach to promoting equality does not become an impediment to the people they claim to align themselves with. The way that racial discrimination operates today in its many forms is undoubtedly complex and can change over time, but it is not amorphous or unknowable. It’s a concrete reality that is possible to understand if we move beyond our discomfort level to take a seat at the table, even if we think we’re already there.
Taylor Hosking is a summer intern from the University of Pennsylvania with The Inquirer Editorial Board. firstname.lastname@example.org
Read full story: Liberals and white privilege