How Public Figures Reacted to Jesse Williams' BET Awards Speech

The actor addressed police killings and cultural appropriation

Actor Jesse Williams
Actor and activist Jesse Williams gave a rousing speech at the 2016 BET Awards. Applause2.0/Wikimedia Commons

Actor and activist Jesse Williams made a headline-grabbing speech at the 2016 BET Awards. While accepting the humanitarian award at the June ceremony, he tackled issues such as cultural appropriation, gentrification and police killings of young black men and women.

Given the gravity of the speech, a number of celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg and Samuel L. Jackson, weighed in on what the “Grey’s Anatomy” star had to say, which was, in a nutshell, that he wanted black lives to matter and justice for the marginalized.

“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo,” he said, “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, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

Williams also had harsh words for critics of the African Americans who are fighting to end injustice or, presumably, feel attacked when oppressed groups point out white privilege. He argued that victimized people do not have the responsibility of reassuring those who feel uncomfortable by their activism.

“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 — if you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”  

His rousing speech brought audience members to their feet, but not everyone was so moved. With this roundup, find out which public figures applauded Williams’ speech, which ones had mixed feelings and which ones absolutely opposed it.

Reminiscent of the Black Power Movement

Fellow BET Awards honoree Samuel L. Jackson (he won the Lifetime Achievement Award) witnessed Williams give his impassioned speech and said that he felt moved by it. Born in 1948, the acting legend came of age when the black power movement began to pick up steam and said that Williams’ speech reminded him of the words of its leaders.

“It was, like, overwhelmingly satisfying and chilling because, you know, those were speeches that we heard,” Jackson said to Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of ABC’s “The View”. “That made you [think], ‘Okay, I got to get up and go do something. I can’t just talk about this with somebody, and I can’t sit around and not do something.’ That’s like, ‘Get active. Get up and get on your feet and get doing it.’ He rocked that.”

A Different Take on Cultural Appropriation

Goldberg didn’t disagree with Jackson when he appeared on “The View” and praised Williams’ speech. However, during a discussion with guest co-host Sunny Hostin days before Jackson’s appearance, Goldberg expressed some concerns about Williams’ views on cultural appropriation, which he described as “gentrifying our genius.” According to Goldberg, all people are guilty of cultural appropriation.

“Everybody is appropriating,” she said. “Japanese are appropriating, black folks are appropriating, Spanish people are appropriating. We’re appropriating each other. It’s not just a black thing. This is happening all over the place. We do it all the time. We go and get botox we don’t need! Come on.”

Goldberg also accused black women of appropriating white women by getting blonde weaves. Unfortunately, the EGOT-winner appears to lack an understanding of what this phenomenon is, confusing the practice with cosmetic procedures that marginalized groups may use to assimilate rather than a dominant group “borrowing” (and profiting from) the customs of the less privileged.

Although Sunny Hostin tried to explain this to Goldberg (using a definition of cultural appropriation that sounded extremely similar to my own), the actress would not listen.

To be fair, Goldberg did say that she thought Williams gave a “great speech.” Unfortunately, rather than focusing on which aspects of it she liked, Goldberg chose to go on a misinformed rant.

Hostin, in contrast, captured the essence of what critics of cultural appropriation say about the practice. “It’s wonderful to love black culture, but when black people are being murdered on the street and when black people are being discriminated against, where are you?" she asked. "So, love the culture, but love the people, too.”

This was the gist of Williams’ message. But the actor also discussed police killings of blacks, even naming black women such as Rekia Boyd, who’ve been victims. He also told black women that they deserve more from society generally. These are aspects of his speech it would have been truly interesting to hear “The View” panel dissect, as the struggles of black women receive little air time in the mainstream media.

‘A Plantation Slave’

Although a number of celebrities applauded Williams for his fervent speech, actress Stacey Dash wasn’t one of them. The Fox News personality, who has criticized BET for even existing as well as cultural observances such as Black History Month, accused the actor of attacking white people. Williams, for the record, has a white mother and a black father.

“You’ve just seen the perfect example of a HOLLYWOOD plantation slave!” Dash wrote in a blog post riddled with grammatical errors. “Sorry, Mr Williams. But the fact that you were standing on that stage at THOSE awards tells people you really don’t know what your [sic] talking about. Just spewing hate and anger.

“Because you my man are just like everyone else hustling to get money. But your cognitive dissidents [sic] has you getting it from THAT BYSTANDER whom YOU DONT NEED. Yes. BLACK ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION is WHITE OWNED.

“GET over yourself and get on with it!”

Dash went on to suggest that Williams has created a “psychological prison” that makes him feel “ghetto-ized.” Despite piles of research that back up Williams’ statements about anti-black bias in the criminal justice system, Dash wrapped up her rant against the actor by brushing aside his concerns and suggesting that he needed to “know how to fly”—whatever that means.

Wrapping Up

Whether celebrities supported or opposed Jesse Williams’ speech, their willingness to comment on it focused more public attention on the pressing matters the actor raised. As a result, people unfamiliar with cultural appropriation, gentrification and the other terminology he used may become educated on these issues and take steps to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.