Jesse Williams On Backlash To His Famous 2016 BET Awards Speech

The actor also talks about racism in tech.

In 2016, actor and activist Jesse Williams went viral for his powerful BET Awards speech. The Grey’s Anatomy star, who was given the Humanitarian Award, poignantly addressed police brutality and other topics that are important to the Black community. While Williams was praised in some spaces, he also encountered backlash. 

In a sit down with The Hollywood Reporter, the 39-year-old opened up about the reaction to the speech.

“I absolutely lost jobs because of it,” Williams said. “I also became more known. People felt like they really had a sense of who I was, and that I was going to loom large. A lot of people at that point were telling stories that compromised the humanity of Black people, and I don’t play that sh*t. So, if I’m working with you, we’re going to have to take out that unnecessarily racist trope there and shift focus on that.”
He continued, “Yes, I’ve gotten a ton of very specific death threats and lost a few jobs because of it, but I’m sure there are things I’ve gained.”

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Williams also said he turned down many opportunities, “I turned off social media afterwards, and I was offered a lot of adulation afterwards. I was offered these big covers, profiles, and photo shoots, and I just didn’t feel comfortable blowing up off of our suffering. I didn’t want to monetize or become more of a celebrity off this. I’m actually in the streets, watching people sacrificing their lives organizing from Ferguson to Philly to Oakland and everywhere I’ve been, and I wasn’t trying to do a damn photo shoot and pretend this is a reality show and not real life.” 

In addition to continuing his role on Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Jackson Avery, he has also ventured into the tech space with Visibility Media, which brought the  Black trivia gaming app BLeBRiTY and now Ya Tú Sabes, a gaming app for the Latinx community.

When dealing with the field of predominantly white men in tech, Williams said, “I’ve had a proximity to white gatekeeping my whole life. I went to a privileged white high school, and it’s not that much different in the tech space. I find it an interesting and worthwhile challenge. We’ve had really positive experiences, and very clearly racist experiences.” 

He continued, “And there’s even a split there, because some things are maybe consciously dismissive and racist, and sometimes they don’t even realize they’re exotifying, perverting, or ghettoizing Black and brown culture in a way that they would celebrate if it looked like some white-girl popstar.”

Williams added, “You pick and choose, as you do in a social situation where somebody says some wild, dumb shit, and you either call it out and stop the flow or say whatever and keep moving on.”
Read Jesse Williams’ full interview with The Daily Beast here. 

Watch his 2016 BET Awards speech below:

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