When activist and “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams launched into an impassioned defense of the Black Lives Matter movement during an acceptance speech at the BET Awards in late June, he likely anticipated some backlash, but he may not have been prepared for this.
A Change.org petition has called for the actor to be fired from his role on the hit ABC medical drama, because he allegedly “spewed a racist, hate speech against law enforcement and white people at the BET Awards.”
“If this was a white person making the same speech about an African-American, they would have been fired and globally chastised, as they should be, but there has been no consequences to Williams’ actions,” the petition reads. “There’s been no companies making a stand against his racist remarks and no swift action condemning his negative attitude.”
In his widely praised speech, Williams laid bare what he considers the inherent inequality of our nation’s economy and justice system, which he argued disproportionately abuses and marginalizes people of color. He also cited specific controversial cases involving police violence inflicted on African-Americans, including Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Williams also referred to the controversial alleged suicide of Sandra Bland while in the custody of authorities.
“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, 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,” Williams said. “The thing is though … just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Williams was being honored with a Humanitarian Award and, with his activism on behalf of the Advancement Project, he has been viewed as a rising star in the realm of celebrities, such as his mentor Harry Belafonte, who lend their fame to social justice causes.
In fact, Williams is currently planning to produce and star in a biopic of the iconic Calypso singer.
While Williams’ remarks have been rapturously received by many viewers — acclaimed writer Alice Walker even penned a poem inspired by his soliloquy — the backlash is reminiscent of the same polarizing reaction pop star Beyoncé engendered earlier this year with her “Formation” music video and subsequent Super Bowl performance, which paid homage to the Black Panthers.
She, too, faced petitions calling for the disavowal of her creative work, but didn't appear to suffer any significant commercial setback due to the controversy. In fact, she embraced the fallout, selling ironic "Boycott Beyoncé" T-shirts on her current world tour.
Meanwhile, Williams has brushed off his naysayers on social media, tweeting: "Do not promote empty people & their tantrums. Pure clickbait to gain followers, attention & money, for themselves, not you. Never you."
And his benefactor, the hugely successful TV producer Shonda Rhimes, has also rushed to his defense."Um, people? Boo don't need a petition. #shondalandrules," she tweeted. The petition points out that veteran actor Isiah Washington was fired from "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007 after calling a cast-member a gay slur on set, suggesting that there was a double standard in Williams' case.
But Williams has argued that the purpose of his speech was not to offend or take sides, but instead inspire a generation of African-American youth who all too often feel their contributions to this country are short-changed.
"If we keep poisoning our children to believe that we are nothing and that white people are everything, that's when it finds itself reflected in the way we treat each other," Williams recently told PEOPLE magazine. "It's not that complicated. The truth we are teaching is that every contribution in the history of the planet came from blonde people. It's not true and it's destructive, and people are getting killed long term as a result. People don't believe that we deserve it."