Justin Timberlake on Jesse Williams's BET speech wasn't woke, just white

On Sunday night, the Grey’s Anatomy actor and social justice activist Jesse Williams was honored with a humanitarian award at the BET awards. His acceptance speech, in which he addressed centuries of systemic racism, cultural appropriation and exploitation, was clear, critical and powerful. It excoriated the construction called whiteness, which has engaged in “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”.

— Uche Jombo Rodriguez (@uchejombo)
June 27, 2016

#jessewilliams

Best speech 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥https://t.co/3mJekMGp5I

Millions of black people tweeted in solidarity – moved by the sense of urgency, the lucid and remarkable truth of it. Justin Timberlake tweeted too. He was, he told his 55.6m followers, “inspired” by the speech. This didn’t go over well. The dragging began swiftly, from followers who asked about his own appropriations of black culture, and particularly his part in the 2004 Super Bowl show, in which Janet Jackson was hung out to dry after a stunt in which Timberlake exposed her breast – the famous “wardrobe malfunction”.

Ernest Owens, the black writer, was the first to call Timberlake out on Twitter. The singer and actor responded: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” (On Monday morning, Timberlake apologized, claiming his tweet was misinterpreted.)

— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake)
June 27, 2016

Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.

Bye. https://t.co/FeTmGLOKVc

Now that we are talking about “whiteness” as a real thing – an identity, a privilege, the American default – we are flush with examples of what it can look like, and how not to do it. There are, of course, the obvious and the banal – Trump supporters – but then there are those who think they are so down, so woke, that they can come along with “we are all one” after a brilliant black celebrity activist delivers a revolutionary speech at an award show for black excellence and achievement. We are not all one, Justin Timberlake, and if, as you tweeted following Jesse Williams’ radically spot-on speech about the centuries of whiteness using and abusing and stealing and co-opting blackness at the BET awards last night, you “really do feel we are all one”, then you should really stop feeling that way.

Perhaps even more offensive than such a tone-deaf remark from a white man whose fame has come from emulating black culture is the casual arrogance, the utterly striking condescension of his initial dismissal of Owens. Because it’s up to us, the black folks, to read the memo written by white people telling us that we are all equal so that we can show up for the meeting and take careful notes while you show us how to be black? The very point that Williams was making with such resounding clarity was: we are not here for your memos anymore. We are here for you to read our memos now.

“Freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but, you know what, though? The hereafter is a hustle. And let’s get a couple of things straight. Just a little side note: the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, stop with all that … 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.”

It doesn’t really get clearer than Williams’s words. Unless you are so deep inside the invention of your whiteness – the delusion of your grandeur, your Michael Jackson-influenced dance moves, your Jay Z collaborations, your D’Angelo inspired music – that you are unable to see how complicit you are, how backward and misguided and violent it is to suggest you are doing us a favor by saying “we are all one”. That delusion serves only you, and has been serving – and saving – you for years. When Williams said, “Now this is also in particular for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you,” he meant black women like Janet Jackson, whose talent and body Timberlake exploited when he tore off a piece of her costume to reveal her bare nipple.

The sad truth is that whiteness isn’t really all that much. When you take away the appropriation, the racism, the exploitation – what’s left? It’s been a long time coming, but we shall not be moved.

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