Forget the dozens of people killed and more than a 100 who were injured in the Istanbul Ataturk Airport bombing in Turkey this week. The speech actor and activist Jesse Williams gave at last Sunday’s BET Awards is still a hot topic if the plethora of posts circulating the web are any indication.
I didn’t watch the show, but I did enjoy the speech Williams gave after receiving the Humanitarian award. It was exceptionally brave. So many people of influence hesitate to speak on their beliefs for fear of being punished – blacklisted or pigeonholed – for being political.
But Williams made no effort to hide his disdain for critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, though he never named the movement specifically. He was also openly against black cultural appropriation. If you don’t know what that is, it’s when black people do something – wearing corn rows or certain types of clothing, for instance – and society turns up its collective nose. Then white people do it – Kardashians and high fashion designers, anyone? – and suddenly it’s not ghetto or garish, it’s stylish and avant garde.
Justin Timberlake was impressed too. On June 27th he tweeted:
@iJesseWilliams tho…#Inspired #BET2016
What did he do that for?
The backlash was instantaneous, and in my opinion, extremely unfair and silly. People immediately jumped on his neck, virtually hollering about his cultural appropriation of black people, and basically telling him to shut up. He tried to defend himself and ended up pouring lighter fluid on an already raging fire.
It was ridiculous.
Aside from that unfortunate braided hair period during his N’Sync days, when I think Justin Timberlake, I think great voice, cute dancer, all around entertainer; I don’t think cultural appropriation. I could be wrong. Ernest Owens, the black journalist, who kind of kicked off much of the drama made some excellent points in his critique of Timberlake’s response. It was dismissive. But that brings us right back to my point about communication.
I’ve never read anything to indicate that Timberlake has anything but respect for the black music artists who’ve influenced him or his black staff. No reports that he doesn’t pay them, or that he abuses them, or anything of the sort. I buy his music, and I’ve long admired his habit of hiring black musicians to perform in his band, in his concerts, not to mention black/minority dancers in said concerts and in his videos. He lets us shine out front too, and it’s not the big butt, video ho show you often see when black women are featured in musical art.
And before you launch into the whole, “his entire sound is black” spiel, what musical genre isn’t? Think about it. That’s a broad, sweeping statement, I know, but black life has found its way into most facets of popular culture. There is no reason Timberlake should not comment, positively, I might add, on Williams’ speech.
I see that too often. A white person dares to weigh in on a diversity-related discussion that affects us all, and the trolls and sillies come out in force to rip his or her head off. How is that helpful? What will it do except create resentment and further alienate a group of people minorities need on our side in order to fight and win the battle for equality.
It happens all the time in the workplace. A well intentioned white person offers a critique or a poorly expressed compliment – a microaggression – and boom! The recipient is immediately incensed and reacting badly. It’s not that white people should get a free pass on being insensitive. Absolutely not. But we have to move away from this idea that everyone white is the enemy. They’re not. Just as every black man isn’t stupid and lazy, and every black woman doesn’t have a passel of illegitimate children, all Mexicans don’t pick oranges for a living, and all LGBT people are not secretly trying to “turn” everyone else gay.
Stop with that. Diversity is not an all or nothing game. We have got to embrace dialogue and that feeling of discomfort that comes when we don’t know something and we’re learning, particularly about people who are different from us. Maybe white people say screwed up things because they don’t know what they’re saying is screwed up. “Well, they should!” Yeah, but they don’t, not always. They haven’t had to – but that’s another discussion for another blog.
Look at it this way. Minorities, you don’t want someone to attack you or slight you when you open your mouth to speak, do you? Give white people the same courtesy. Attacking them for flimsy reasons, taking your angst and anger at some, out on all, is not the way to affect change. We have to educate them. You don’t want them to use you as a whipping post, don’t treat them that way. It’s divisive and does serious harm because when you attack people, they shut down. In the workplace that’s the death toll to constructive feedback – or any feedback – learning opportunities, promotion chances, productivity and any enjoyment in coming to work every day.
Don’t take my word for it. I did an impromptu survey of some of my white colleagues. I asked them if they’d ever been verbally attacked for a saying something in front of or to a minority and how it made them feel.
Our designer Anna referenced radical feminism and how toxic infighting can feel. Editor Lauren referenced the HeForShe movement; women can go it alone, but it definitely helps to have allies. Editor Andie echoed my thoughts; dialogue is important. Conversations to move diversity forward won’t happen if people are uncomfortable asking questions or afraid to speak freely – “if something is problematic, you won’t know,” she explained.
At the end of the day, it’s all about dialogue as a precursor to action and change. We don’t always have to agree; it’s unrealistic and frankly, immature to think that’s what necessary to push diversity forward. Instead, focus on dignity and respect – shout out to Candi Castleberry Singleton who made that phrase into an actionable and successful campaign.
We have to be respectful of each persons’ right to speak. If someone speaks openly and respectfully, respond in kind. And don’t, please don’t, forget to listen. Think about what you could learn – or what you could subsequently teach – not just about how you feel in the moment.
The battle for equality is much greater than one person’s – or even a group of people’s – hurt feelings. We have got to learn how to talk to one another. The stakes are too high not to.