Almost as soon as Jesse Williams stepped off the stage at the BET Awards after giving a powerful speech about racism, activism, and Black folks access to freedom in America, some people rushed to point out his privilege as a biracial Black man with light skin and blue eyes.
black men have been saying what Jesse Williams said for YEARS lmao just say if all black men looked like Jesse you’d actually listen
— Kniggas Of Ren (@SoloDahSystem) June 27, 2016
The critique was simple: if he was a dark skinned man and said the same thing, no one would listen.
Perhaps they are right.
Colorism still cuts deep in the Black community, just as it does in communities of color across the world where skin bleaching products result in billions of dollars each year. Moreover, lighter skinned people are afforded certain privileges their darker skinned brothers and sisters are not—like greater access to jobs, and oddly enough, shorter prison sentences. Add on the countless rappers pining for a “redbone,” or the men across social media who claim they would “trade it all for an Ayesha,” lighter skin is still seen as more desirable and valuable because of its perceived proximity to whiteness.
So yes, Williams, a biracial actor with blue eyes on a hit TV show has far more access than another brother who may also loudly proclaim the same views. But does that invalidate what he said?
Dr. Yaba Blay, the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University and the author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, says absolutely not.
“I remember when I interviewed Soledad O’Brien for my book and I told her, quite honestly, that I remember feeling some type of way when I first saw Black in America. I wondered, why is SHE the face of Black in America? Why did CNN choose HER to do Black in America? Her response forced me to start thinking a little different about my critique of ‘light-skinned privilege,’” Blay admits. “She said, ‘If I didn’t do it, who would?’”
While Blay acknowledges there could have been others, perhaps darker skinned journalists, who have pushed for a series like CNN’s Black In America to get made, she gives props to people like Williams and O’Brien who are not only aware of the skin color privilege they have, but also acknowledge it.
Williams has spoken at length about how palatable his appearance makes him to mainstream (read: white) America. Back in January he admitted, “European beauty standards have given me a better seat at the table and the favor of the microphone over my darker brothers and sisters my entire life.”
Instead of merely cashing in on his privilege, Williams uses his access to mainstream platforms to speak out about race and racism anyway—even though it puts his acting career at risk. For Blay, this is vitally important.
“We complain about light-skinned privilege; we want folks to acknowledge it. And then what?” Blay asks of Williams’ critics. “Soledad did the ‘then what.’ And so did Jesse Williams.”
Instead of merely shouting out his own accomplishments, Williams used his BET Awards acceptance speech to praise Black women, acknowledge the names of those killed by police violence, warn the system that “woke” Black folks are rising up across the country to change things, and implore his fellow entertainers to speak out. Those who know Williams as just the star of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy may think his outspokenness is new. Others, like Blay, say the actor has been advocating for these issues for years. In fact, Blay was a teaching assistant at Temple University while Williams was working toward his degree in African American Studies at the university.
“Jesse graduated from Temple with a double major in Film & Media Studies and African American Studies. Temple is the home of Afrocentricity, vis-a-vis Dr. Molefi Asante, and Jesse represents the best of what our department produces,” she says.
Instead of packing up his blue eyes and heading straight to Hollywood after graduation, Williams stayed in Philly and taught Black History on the city’s north side.
“I remember him when he wore locs and a red, black, and green wristband every day,” Blay recalls. “This is not new. He has ALWAYS been committed to US.”
Blay calls the colorism complaints levied against Williams counterproductive.
“Folks’ critique that browner brothers have been saying this for years, and now we want to listen is a non-critique,” she says, particularly if the main purpose is to raise these issues in the mainstream in the first place. “Now we’re mad because people are listening?”
If the goal is to inspire more Black folks to get involved in social justice while taking America to task for its racism, sexism, and oppression, Blay says questioning Williams’ Blackness won’t get us there.
“We can’t win like this,” she says simply.
Britni Danielle is the Senior Digital Editor of EBONY.com and JETmag.com. Catch her tweeting @BritniDWrites