Understanding Jesse Williams, Cultural Appropriation, & Blackness

Black pop-culture this week has been dominated by the firestorm of commentaries and stories emanating from the firebrand acceptance speech that Jesse Williams, the actor of “Grey’s Anatomy” delivered upon receiving Black Entertainment Television’s (BET) humanitarian award at their annual awards show.  The entire transcript is here, and it’s worth watching or reading.  My mind hasn’t been able to coalesce behind one particular theme because so much has come up as a result of this.  All the way from bestowing Jesse with the title of revolutionary, to the light-skinned vs. dark-skinned argument, which undoubtedly slipped into whether Jesse was black enough to be making those comments to begin with–just to name a few.  And the ebullience of the moment was marred relatively quickly when a segment of Black Twitter decided to drag Justin Timberlake for a tweet of support to Jesse Williams, that devolved into some grotesque-post-Black Lives Matter-let’s-bring-up-Janet-Jackson-to-make-our-point circus that I’m still trying to understand.  So, let’s start there.

1. Justin Timberlake and (some of) Black Twitter

To be succinct, the issue was around charges of cultural appropriation.  Here’s a news story so that I don’t have to rehash the details again.  A comment on my Facebook page the day after the awards illuminated the fact that in the midst of the conversation people were having on social media that there was a conflation of what constituted cultural appropriation and what was just simply imitation.  Frankly, I thought the response to Justin was stupid.  It seemed as though people were using that as an opportunity to drag him publicly for the “wardrobe malfunction” with Janet Jackson in 2004 because it was a pre-Twitter era.  It was petty and ultimately misguided.

For starters, charging Justin with cultural appropriation when he did a collaboration with Jay-Z on his last studio album, “20/20 Experience” and that collaboration was a chart-topping song is just horrible cultural critique.  Mistaking his innate talent as a musician and a singer for cultural appropriation is misguided.  Combined, the narrative created was that Justin Timberlake was stealing black music and making a profit.  To which the obvious question is what qualifies as black music? (I’ll come to that later.)

To round this out, Black Twitter, thankfully, was divided on whether to drag Justin or not.  There was a sizeable crowd who didn’t see the point, and didn’t join in.  Even today,R&B singer Tank took the opportunity to offer another perspective not just from within the music industry, but also someone who undecidedly is black.  However, as the Monday morning news reported, it was the collective Black Twitter.  Therein lies some of the problem with how narratives are created.  Black Twitter is no more monolithic than black folk in real life.  But it was clear that the Pharaohs of Black Twitter were running the show.

2.  Who are the Pharaohs of Black Twitter?

I’m convinced they are the people that hand out Black Passes.  The Black Passes are those things that white people can apply for to get you invited to the cookout, church services and other black cultural events–like family reunions and HBCU homecomings.  The Black Super Pass is the executive level pass you get when you can perform parts of black culture and maintain your coolness while doing it.  For example, Vice President Joe Biden has a Black Super Pass because he’s just as badass as Obama, and his wife probably makes a decent enough green bean casserole to show up to the cookout with.  Black Super Passes are usually only given out to celebrities, namely musical ones: Eminem by virtue of being from Detroit is a prime example, and Justin Timberlake’s regular Black Pass was upgraded to a Super Pass when he did the collaboration “Suit and Tie” with Jay-Z and his music was getting routine play in black clubs and on urban radio outlets.

These Pharaohs of Black Twitter, you see, are the same people that sit on the board that issues and revokes Black Passes and Black Super Passes I’m convinced.  Apparently, they operate on the model of engaging in theessentialism debate of what blackness is.  The glaring contradiction is that these same popes will use the “race is a social construct” argument when engaging in anti-white racism conversations, but rely on the ontological argument when it comes to common cultural understandings.  The irony is that the same way blackness can be assigned to white folks and revoked is much of the same way that levels blackness is assigned and taken away from other black folk–as seen fit by those that shape the narrative.

3.  Is Jesse Williams black enough to make that speech?

This is a dumb question to begin with, but it was out there.  The answer is yes he is.  To that point a white person could have made that same speech in the same arena–it was stuff that needed to be said.  This is more to debunk the Hotep line of thinking that says his white mother invalidates him from saying what he said.

Jesse Williams 34.  Is Jesse Williams too light-skinned to make that speech?

This is another dumb question.  One in which I refer you back to the second paragraph of #2.  Dumb the question may be, it does illuminate some of the real intra-racial issues that still exist in the black community.  The way we selectively privilege rears its ugly head.  When a brown skinned or darker skinned person makes a statement about being disadvantaged, abused, ignored, or not considered attractive in anyway because of their skin color, and a light skinned person comes back and says “but we’re all still black,” it’s the intraracial equivalent of saying “all lives matter.”


While yes Jesse can be light skinned AND black at the same time (I don’t think anyone was trying to deny his blackness), by pushing back against people who are bringing to fore this issue is EXACTLY the same oppressive mechanism some of these same people accused Justin Timberlake of doing. Truth is, Jesse ain’t said nothing all that new. It’s not suddenly more (or less) revolutionary because he said it at the BET Awards either. No, his career isn’t on the line because he said at the BET Awards either. It was a powerfully true statement, but not the second coming of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

5.  Does this make Jesse Williams a revolutionary?

No.  Let me repeat it for the people in the back: Hell no.  Here’s the definition of a revolution  –

revəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n/ noun –  a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.

I just went back and checked his speech.

And I still didn’t see where he made a claim for overthrowing the system for a new one.  In fact, I didn’t see him even push for a tangible policy to be put forth, which would at least put him in the column of radical reformer.  No, Jesse is an agitator; an activist with a bully pulpit.  Oddly enough, I think he lived into a lot of what Black Lives Matters (BLM) was good at which was (and still is to an extent) raising awareness.  I’ve long argued that BLM was not a movement, just a very visible and effective awareness campaign especially on the issue of police brutality.  To date, not a single policy has landed at the federal level that could be directly attributed to BLM.  There are dozens of local municipalities that used the national momentum to push for ordinances around better policing for their communities.  And most certainly, police are under a level of public scrutiny that has never been seen in this country–and for that I’m glad.  But, yet and still, no wide sweeping magnanimous policy and legal change has come from it.

I won’t put Jesse in the revolutionary status until the government comes after him, until after he’s black listed in Hollywood and until he has some followers.  By that I mean, the System, as we know it doesn’t care if you speak and there’s no action behind it.  There was zero call to action in Jesse’s speech, just call to awareness.  I don’t want to belittle the need for influencing consciousness; there’s a powerful need to do that, but it’s not revolutionary.  Essentially, Jesse saying what he said was the equivalent of the slaves meeting out behind the shed when the sun went down talking about running away to the North.  All that means nothing without 1) a plan and 2) action.

6.  What is this Black music Justin is allegedly stealing?

I’m still waiting for folks to illuminate this to me too.  I think, yet again, this was an instance in which the Pharaohs of Black Twitter opened Keisha’s Box (the black cultural equivalent of Pandora’s box) and unleashing repressed pissivity around the columbusing activities that white folks routinely get into on a regular basis.  The true ideology behind cultural appropriation is when white culture adopts, or spreads the news about an ethnic cultural habit–a restaurant, a hairstyle, a fashion style–and then turns around and sells it not just to American culture as new.  But by virtue of black, Hispanic and Asians being a part of American culture, it’s a literal taking of ethnic culture and selling it back to the same ethnic group as a new discovery.  Hence the moniker of columbusing.  The v-blogger Almonte exposes this one pretty well.  It’s a classic case of white culture “discovering”  an ethnic food item, and presenting it back as something novel.  It’s NSFW because of the language, but definitely worth the watch to get the point.

The only music that I’m willing to call black in a true sense is jazz and blues.  Simply because they are recognized as uniquely American in creation and originated outside the purview of the white gaze in the American South, a feat unto itself.  That is to say, blues and jazz weren’t improvisations or blends of another musical genre, nor were they the next iteration in a similar genre.  Most music doesn’t operate that way.  Tank illuminates that in the link I posted in #1. It’s always a sampling from something else. The original charge from the tweet

Is Justin an imitator of black musical styles?  Sure.  I don’t think anyone denies that, nor himself.  Undoubtedly, if ever asked about his musical influences, I’m quite sure he’s going to list black artist one of which would probably be Michael Jackson and Prince–person’s who’s blackness has never been questioned, right?

7.  …and speaking of cultural appropriation, can black folks be guilty of doing so?

Yes.  Yes we can.

The Love Life of an Asian Guy pointed out just how that works on Facebook following the BET Awards.  I actually had my head down and heard more of the Fat Joe song with French Montana and Remy Ma.  I was too busy tweeting that Fat Joe needs to be renamed Medium Sized Joseph now.  But he illuminated through satire and wit the ways in which Asian culture had been appropriated on that stage through the eyes of an Asian American.

And black folk need to own that.

Irrespective of what the Pharaohs of Black Twitter would have you to believe, the balance of power amongst second culture groups (black, Hispanic and Asians in America) to oppress others shifts like a bowl of water balancing on the end of a stick depending on context, timing to who’s holding the proverbial microphone and occupying the stage.  In that particular moment, the black performers on stage culturally appropriated Asian culture and sold it to a black audience as new and inventive art.  No, it didn’t have the same wide-reaching affect as when Miley Cyrus decided to twerk and suddenly a word and associated dance that had been in black dance clubs since the early 1990s became a new dance craze, but the performance of cultural appropriation was very much the same.

8.  Is it cultural appropriation if black folk give it away?

Nope.  It’s not.  Our yeses need to be yes and our nos need to be no.  Here’s a classic example of when “we give it away.”

In all fairness, much of the black media consortium side-eyed this whole thing.  But first you need to understand the weird double standard that exists.  For starters, the Try Guys got a Black Super-Deluxe Pass from a group that supercedes the power of the Pharaohs of Black Twitter and this group is formally known as the Popes of Blackness.  Now you have to understand a Black Super-Deluxe Pass is temporary, it’s never permanent unless you marry a black person, even though you can apply for one (for the record George Lucas and Robert DeNiro still haven’t gotten through all the red-tape get their application processed).  So, the Try Guys got this Super-Deluxe Pass to do this.  And the double standard is that–wait for it–

–even some black people don’t have this pass.

Maybe this was the unheard of Max Super-Deluxe Passbecause many of us know, even as other black people we aren’t invited to step with black Greek letter organizations (BGLOs), let alone sit on their benches and plots on campus, nor wear paraphernalia.  Just ask Laila Hathaway, someone who embodies black culture to the utmost, how it felt when she was ridiculed for wearing the fraternity letters of her late father.

The trouble comes when you suddenly see white people performing step moves that many who are in and around black Greek culture would automatically associate with the given BGLO.  Methinks it wouldn’t be completely fair to accuse legitimately ignorant white folk of cultural appropriation.  The same goes when so-called blackdances are created such as Hit the Quan, Whip/Nae Nae, Bobby Shmurda’s two-step or Drake’s Hotline Bling two-step, The Dab or any of the other numerous dances in recent memory are performed by white folk in the innumerable YouTube videos, it’s not cultural appropriation when other individuals are imitating what they see in popular culture.  Miley Cyrus’ twerking rose to the level of cultural appropriation because white gazers at white media outlets decided to turn back around and sell it to the public as something new and novel.

See the difference there?

9.  But Jesse was just perpetuating decades old ideas that black folks are victims and can’t do better for themselves.

This is more for the straggling white folk that find this site and actually believe that this is a valid question.  If you truly believe that, I also have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.  If you honestly believe this, then I’m sure you know who Tomi Lahren the perennial-Fox-News-auditioner is and I have this sweet gem and treat for you:

It’s not worth my time to dissect this, but please know, black folks spending their time on Justin Timberlake dragging on Twitter while this woman was let off the plantation should make us pause and reconsider what we’re really discussing here.

Hopefully this answered some of the more nuanced questions around this topic.  There wasn’t just one single thing to talk about, but multiple things all at once.