Jesse Williams Wasn't Talking to You

Jesse Williams shared an incredible speech at the BET Awards after receiving the Humanitarian Award for his work on the documentary, “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement”. With his acceptance speech, he gave voice to a group of people who are struggling in this country. People who are struggling to be taken seriously, to be considered beautiful, to be valued as individuals, and to have their culture not -as Williams aptly stated- worn as costumes. And it’s fine that white people didn’t relate to his speech, because it’s not about us.

Hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic don’t exist because one group is trying to force its way to supremacy. They exist because black women are constantly told they need to conform to a ridiculous standard of beauty. They are made to feel shame about the texture of their hair, the hue of their skin, their curves, their voices, their likes and dislikes; the list is exhausting and I’m not even held to it.

The line to remain “black enough” but not be “ghetto” is thin and full of unfavorable odds of success. Arguing the list is futile, because it’s 2016 and at New York Fashion Week just this February, a backstage picture of a model caused controversy. The slurs used against that woman just because of the shape of her lips were inexcusable. To use Williams’ words, “We can and will do better for [black women].”

Recently, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz thought it was a good idea to just simply write “Race Together” on Starbucks cups in order to have discussion about race in the US. While it may seem like a grand gesture, race equality is one issue that his company does little to actually address or change. Starbucks profits on the backs of people of color with a mere 8.5 percent of its coffee being fair trade and the bulk of it being grown in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The coffee industry is rife with unsafe working conditions, slavery, and child labor. The groups suffering from these injustices are not white people, they are black, Asian, and hispanic. Schultz’ company creates so many opportunities for systemic abuse outside of the US that It is insulting that he would even feel that his hollow words written on coffee cups would make any real progress.

On July 5th of this year, in Baton Rouge, yet another black man was killed by police officers State Representative Ted James called the shooting a murder. He added that the event, "has made me question what it really means to be land of the free and home of the brave."

The next day, a black man by the name of Philando Castile lost his life at a traffic stop without even getting out of his car.

In his speech, Williams’ cut to the heart of how little has really changed for black people,

Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better than it is to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian (sic) Hunt.

All of the names he mentioned were victims of police violence and lost their lives because of it. To reference Jesse Williams’ speech, police find ways to de-escalate resistance from white people all the time and yet black lives are lost near daily. If I mouth off to a police officer I can expect just for sure getting the ticket for the violation for which I was pulled over, not losing my life.  

Black people are less likely to hear back about jobs simply because of their names. Kids in school are more likely to be treated as problem students if they have “black” sounding names. The list of these real and systemic issues goes on and on.

When I once again brought up how angry and confused I was that black people are just told to “behave” if they want police to treat them with respect, my husband said something that was so truthful it hurt. He talked about how during the civil rights movement, people of color were pushing back against laws and ordinances. Keeping their heads down was a means of survival. Stay on your side of the street. Don’t look at that white girl. Live in your own neighborhoods.

But challenging that racist mindset- that if a white woman raises her voice to a cashier, she’s just angry, but if a black woman does she’s ghetto- that prejudice, is costing people their lives. If a white man claps back it’s because he’s frustrated, but if a black man does it’s because he’s violent. I use the word prejudice on purpose, these people have been pre-judged. An outcome has been projected on them and that is what so many of these police officers are trying to avoid - a scenario that’s been invented by bigotry, not reality.

One of my friends here in Kansas City has been pulled over because she and her husband own “too nice” of a car. Police thought they must have stolen it. They are black business owners, they do well for themselves, are responsible, attend church, she has a master’s degree, yet because they are black they have been made to exit their vehicle and be harassed.  

These are real things that non-white people face every day. Don’t get mad when people of color talk about the injustices they face. Don’t get mad because there are things in your life hurting you. This isn’t a contest. Black people have contributed to society in every way; science, math, art, politics, education. As Williams’ eloquently stated:

There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t leveed against us – and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here.

And it always comes back to- because of race. Maybe not exclusively in all situations, but the fact that it is even a contributing factor is terrifying. Freedom in the U.S. should never be conditional.

But the resistance to talking about race, the struggle it is to keep events of racism from being made into issues of class, education, or behavior --it isn’t fair. Saying that it shouldn’t be talked about because “other groups also have problems” is not fair. It isn’t about supremacy, it’s about equality.

I live with a mental illness that some don’t even believe is real. I fight for normalcy every day. I worry about whether or not I’ll lose my job. But the reason none of that came up in Jesse Williams’ speech was because his words weren’t for me. He wasn’t talking to me. I know that there are things in my white life with my white husband that I’ll never have to deal with. In the same way that I’m glad when people don’t understand my trauma because it means they haven’t lived through things like I did, people of color don’t want you to suffer. They want things to change.

As long as black women have to consider having their natural hair a major life choice, black parents have to worry about their kids getting shot or beaten, black men aren’t allowed to own firearms in the same way white men are, black students are treated as classroom liabilities, there is still going to be a need to talk about these issues. There is still going to be a need to ask people what you can do to help.

That’s how we “Race Together”, not writing meaningless words on a cup but asking our fellow human being what we can do to help.

Is it being a listening ear?
Calling out people for racism even if it scares you?
Is it not pretending you have all the answers?
Is it admitting your own biases?

You won’t know unless you ask. But remember, you can’t ask unless you’ve proven yourself worthy to be vulnerable with. These issues are tender and steeped in long histories of people digging into wounds for their own gain. The reflex of the person may be to get angry or push you away and that’s alright, they have a right to. Just be patient and gentle. No one owes you anything.

This isn’t like Savior Barbie would have you believe, you can’t just swoop in and dig a well and solve everything. It’s going to take real work, but first it’s going to take a lot of listening.