But times are a-changing. Last night at the BET Awards, Jesse Williams delivered a speech that will blast your understanding of what getting goosebumps feels like to all-new stratospheric levels.
If you don't have time to watch it in full, make time. If that's not possible for some reason (nosy boss, bad internet connection, what have you), here are some choice lines that'll give you an idea of what we're working with here:
- "Police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So what's going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours."
- "The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That's not our job, alright - stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down."
- "We've been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, 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, 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. Just because we're magic doesn't mean we're not real."
Justin Timberlake was presumably watching at home and felt moved, as anyone should. He decided to tweet from his glass house.
Seems harmless. Jesse does deserve props for that speech. But there is an absurd lack of self-awareness at work here. One of the major points of Jesse's speech is that black art is so often devalued, only to be appropriated by white people and reevaluated as suddenly worthy. No one knows this better than Justin Timberlake, who has made a career out of co-opting black culture and gaining the kind of success that is rarely afforded to those who originated it.
Twitter helpfully pointed this out for him:
This is where Justin should have logged off. But no:
A one-two punch of condescension ("sweet soul"? really?!) and #AllLivesMatter / #We'reAllAfrican sentiment? Plus, a sardonic "bye" send-off? Justin, you are not Beyonce and people on Twitter speaking truth are not Felicia.
Yes, Justin, we are all human beings and should be treated equally, but that's not our current reality. When someone from a marginalized group expresses his or her feelings on their lived experience, it is not appropriate to step in and say something that makes their message about you. Sometimes the best way to be an ally is to know when to stop talking and start listening.
For over a decade, Justin has gotten away with being mediocre (his last single, which is horrible, went straight to #1) and being a coward (lest we forget how he left Janet Jackson out to dry, after ripping her Super Bowl Halftime outfit). Judging by the response to an essay I wrote earlier this year about Nipplegate, it seems like many have forgotten. For those who missed it, here's something to chew on:
When he sings, “Better have you naked by the end of this song,” he was supposed to pull Janet’s bustier to reveal a red lace bra, but both pieces ended up ripping off.
Then everyone got insanely mad at Justin for messing up. Oh, wait, sorry, I forgot about the patriarchy for a second. Let me try that again: then everyone got insanely mad at Janet for having breasts and no one ever really mentioned Justin again. For example, The Washington Post’s Tony Kornheiser wrote, “What Janet Jackson did was bizarre, deliberately flopping out of her costume like that.” Justin’s grabbing hand is entirely erased from the scene.
The senseless sexism didn’t end there. Janet was disinvited from that year’s Grammys. Meanwhile, Justin was not only allowed to attend, but also performed. Janet was blacklisted from radio and music video channels for the next several years, leading to multiple album flops, while Justin got to be goofy on SNL and become a movie star.
And what's worse is that Justin let Janet take all the heat, more concerned with making it as a solo artist than doing the right thing. Granted, the way America so easily absolved him of any wrongdoing wasn't really up to him and speaks to a national legacy of racism and sexism that's far bigger than one single boy band member. But what was up to him was whether or not he used his privilege to highlight the unfair advantage he enjoys in this world and the hypocrisy of it all.
If Twitter had been around back in 2004, maybe Janet and Justin's career trajectories would have taken different courses. Maybe so many wouldn't have kept quiet as Justin moonwalked away from the mess he helped create, using Janet's brother's appropriated dance moves to boot. There's no way to know.
Today, Justin apologized for his tweet and says he feels "misunderstood." So does Janet. So do many African Americans. So do most people who aren't straight white dudes.
It's time for Justin to take a seat and some of his own medicine, the same dose he prescribed for Britney, another woman he used and then discarded to get to where he is today: Cry me a river.
To learn more about how troubling Nipplegate really was, listen to this episode of The Cooler:
Or read all about it: