So Jesse Williams, of “Grey’s Anatomy,” was awarded the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards last week and gave a blistering speech about black people’s impatience with the slow tide of change in the racial landscape of America.
In a plain, tailored black shirt and pair of slacks, with none of the ostentatious jewelry that a rapper of his generation or pay grade might have worn, none of the extraneous entourage members in tow, and without the infantile antics that so many black entertainers display at award podiums, Williams took the stage and dropped the mic:
Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, [he said] so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on 12 year old playing alone in the park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. 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 Hunt.
His speech was so timely, so honest, unapologetic, and smart, that a transcript was posted on Time.com; it was written up on the New York Times website; and it was written up on the Fortune website.
Even mainstream media could not ignore its import.
However, on Twitter and several blogs and alternative news sites, black cultural commentators questioned whether Williams should be lauded by the black community for giving the speech or even considered a legitimate voice of the black community.
When I saw visual whispers of this backlash on my Facebook timeline, I initially decided to ignore them. I grew up brown-skinned in an all black suburb, so I know how “we” get.
We shade across shades, and it didn’t surprise me at all that people had a problem with this light-skinned, light-eyed actor being placed on a pedestal above more deserving and darker-skinned activists.
But I reasoned that the BET Awards are for entertainers–they are for entertainment.
It made sense to me that Williams would be classified, in the world of the awards, as a humanitarian, and his work within the community, against police brutality, would stand out in comparison to that of other less vocal and less active entertainers.
Then, I went onto one of my routine black websites–Clutch Magazine–and saw a headline that made me suck my teeth in disbelief and then irritation at this backlash that Williams is receiving.
“On Jesse Williams and Biracial Black People”–it read–“Are Biracial [sic] Even Black People?”
I just thought this was stupid and needlessly divisive.
So here’s what I have to say. It’s mainly aimed at non-biracial and darker-skinned black people. Like me.
Yes, biracial black and lighter-skinned black people are treated better than we are by white people.
Yes, it’s unfair.
Yes, some biracial and lighter-skinned black people milk this privilege. Some biracial black people even self-identify away from their black parentage or “side.” Some lighter-skinned black people place a high value on their physical similarities to white people.
But let’s be honest here.
So do we.
One of the main reasons that biracial and lighter-skinned black people enjoy such immense privilege inside and outside of the black community is because a lot of non-biracial and darker-skinned black people place a high value on these biracial and lighter-skinned people’s physical similarities to white people.
In 2016, our community is still rife with plantation issues.
We still use terms like “good hair” and “pretty eyes” to describe hair that is fine rather than curly or coarse in texture and eyes that are any color other than dark brown.
We still fetishize women that are a mix of black and any other race or ethnicity, particularly Latinx or Asian.
We do things like deifying Ayesha Curry for her beauty, gentility, and class while we ignore equally beautiful and elegant women like Savannah James.
We downgrade dark skin and diasporic features, whether we know it or can admit it or not.
Then, when decision makers in entertainment and media follow behind our wrongheaded actions and give us the imagery we seem to want, i.e. their job–put biracial black people like Williams or Amandla Stenberg in a spotlight–show us a reflection of our own predilections for light or lighter skin, we do a swift 180. We turn right around and get mad.
Tiffanie Drayton, in “On Jesse Williams,” explains the root of this anger–what impels darker-skinned blacks to point and/or wag their fingers at lighter-skinned blacks for ostensibly hogging the spotlight or displacing more deserving darker-skinned people when it comes to receiving certain forms of recognition or accolades:
Though Blackness is not a monolith, it is an experience, it is a circumstance. One shaped by facing harsh discrimination, a lack of access to basic necessities and constant psychological warfare. Those who have existed on the fringe of blackness (or were never even black at all in the first place) most certainly should not be used to represent others who are engulfed in it, and far too frequently, they are.
I don’t disagree with her, but, one, I think it’s unfair to declare that all biracial black people or light-or lighter-skinned black people are on the “fringe” of blackness when it comes to racist mistreatment.
This is an oversimplification that ignores class and other intersectional identities like gay or trans that mitigate light-skinned privilege.
Two, policing blackness on the back end of privileging light skin ourselves is disingenuous.
It ignores the consistent role that the black community plays in valorizing light skin and European ideals of beauty.
That’s right. I said it.
When we treat biracial and lighter-skinned blacks like they are horning in on “our” stuff, or they have put themselves above us on the totem pole, when we have put them above us, it is irresponsible and unfair to them.
We’re throwing the rock and hiding our collective hand.
Three, ignoring the attempt of a biracial black person to locate himself or herself within the black community and struggle–where we acknowledge they don’t necessarily have to be–and where we know they will suffer from not just racism at the hands of white people but also colorism at our hands–is petty and wrong.
It’s also wrong for non-biracial black people to force biracial black people to “qualify” as black with certain credentials, as Drayton posits.
She writes of Williams’ so-called “qualification status”:
A man from a working-class family of public high school teachers, a double major in African-American studies, teacher of African studies in Philadelphia . . . who sits on the board of the Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank and advocacy group and openly advocates for black women, it may actually be safe to consider that Williams has earned his place in the spotlight.
She is correct that all of this qualifies Williams as a humanitarian, but the implication that all of this is necessary to qualify him as black is ridiculous.
He is part-black because his father is black. He is black if he says he is black. He is black because he looks black, despite being light-skinned.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we know that blackness is rarely optional in America. White ethnicity is, but blackness is not. Blackness is denoted by skin color. It is in the eye of the beholder.
Many of those biracial black people that don’t self-identify as black still look black. They may be privileged in certain quarters, but there will always be those white people that see them as black and black only and treat them with contempt, hatred, and, in the worst cases, violence. That is just as much a part of the reality of race in America as those things encountered by non-biracial black people.
No, lighter-skinned blacks are not exempt from police brutality or other forms of discrimination, big and small. We know this.
Tamar Rice was light-skinned. Rekia Boyd was light-skinned. Jasmine Abdullah is lighter-skinned.
The list goes on.
Biracial black people are not biracial by choice, but they are activists by choice. They choose to involve themselves in black movements. They don’t deserve more recognition than non-biracial black people for their involvement in black culture and politics, but they don’t deserve to be derided because they are only half-black, either.
The same with light-skinned people.
I understand that darker-skinned black people feel badly about how we are sidelined in so many ways–even by our own people–but spreading our pain, anger, and resentment to others is not the way to fix the problem.
We can’t fix colorism by throwing it back on lighter-skinned black people.
Inverting a power structure doesn’t eradicate it.
If we allow it to remain in place in any iteration, we allow for reversals of reversals.
We allow for cycles of oppression that simply switch off rather than ending.
Yes–lighter-skinned people dominate entertainment for the most part. This is because white people run the mainstream entertainment world for the most part. Even BET is owned by white people, and I suspect that a white person or committee of white people greenlights, edits, and censors whatever appears on the network.
One way we can work around the saturation of light-skinned imagery in our community is to stop looking to white-run entertainment to make our art and pick our stars for us.
We need to make our own art and pick our own stars.
Look at Viola Davis and Idris Elba. Black people have thrown our support behind their projects consistently over the last five or so years, and we have made them into big names.
We can do this with other black celebrities if we want. We can change the cues we give white decision makers and gatekeepers, if we are going to continue looking to them to produce TV and films for us. And we might be able, in this way, to make representations of black people more integrated or diverse.
Black people also have to be real about how much work we are really doing on the whole to fight racism.
A lot of us are “woke,” but we’re lying in bed, figuratively, watching on TV as others fight the battle to change the racist paradigm.
Jesse Williams went to Ferguson during the thickest time of unrest and protest and rallied just like everyone else out there in those streets. Other celebrities had the money to fly out, and they didn’t. They had the fame to draw attention to Mike Brown’s murder, but they didn’t. They put up some tweets, posted a few pictures on the ‘Gram, and called it a day.
So all shade(s) aside, Williams did something to earn his humanitarian award. He didn’t just get it because he’s biracial or an actor.
Yes, there are darker-skinned activists–“legitimate” activists–that did more and deserve accolades for what they’ve done, but they’re not entertainers.
BET Awards are handed out to entertainers, again, for the sake of entertainment.
Maybe the problem here is we’re asking BET to do the work that the larger community needs to do, which is to valorize our real-life heroes and make sure that their names are known, their work is appreciated, and their accomplishments are awarded.
Williams said in his acceptance speech at the awards, “Just because [black people are] magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Just because lighter-skinned people are privileged doesn’t mean they’re not embattled.
Just because darker-skinned people are embattled doesn’t mean they’re not powerful.
Just because colorism is real doesn’t mean it’s not killable.
No, black people are not a monolith, but we do need to be a unified front.
We need to acknowledge all the ways we are divided, refute all of those divisions, and come together to mobilize and do better for ourselves.
Just like Jesse Williams said we should.