In 2016, Grey’s Anatomy star, Jesse Williams, made headlines after accepting the Humanitarian Award at the annual Black Entertainment Television (BET) awards. During his acceptance speech, he spoke solely against racism in the United States – recognizing that it happens and challenging the audience to fight against it because “the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.” The corresponding speech not only gained his popularity, but it also received a lot of condemnation as well. One critic in particular was Tomi Lahren, a television commentator, who released a video demanding to know the ways in which black Americans were unequal. She was also recorded to have asked, “in fact, do you know how many of our [white] ancestors fought in the civil way to free your [black] ancestors?” Lahren was disgusted that Williams contested against police brutality and the brand being forced unto African Americans –both acts of institutionalized racism and modern slavery. Nevertheless, these are issues Sara Ahmed (author of Living a Feminist Life) and Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge (authors of Intersectionality) are speaking up against, trying to find a seat for them on coffee and dinner tables.
In his speech, Williams candidly denounced institutionalized racism. While the night was mainly concentrated on remembering and honoring Prince, who had just passed away, and the advancement of African Americans in the music industry, he did not shy away police brutality. He reminded the audience – both the people present and the people watching the live show both on TV and on the internet – that “what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday.” Police brutality has been an issue in America even before Trump was elected as the president, but it has only gotten worse. In 2015, the Guardian conducted a research, which concluded that the police shot 1,134 Americans during the year and that the victims were nine times more likely to be young black men. Following up on Audre Lorde’s famous quote, “your silence will not protect you,” Sara Ahmed adds that, “your silence could protect them. And by them I mean those who are violent, or those who benefit in some way from silence about violence” (Ahmed, 260). By speaking at an event that attracted 7.2 million viewers watching it live, Williams did not only break the silence and encouraged millions of people to do the same, but he also revealed and protected the violence of the American police force. This speech was given just two weeks after Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge released their book, in which they stated, “this version of assimilation ignored the fact that becoming American often meant upholding racism, sexism, and xenophobia by learning how to practice the discriminations that they endangered” (Hill Collins and Bilge, 166). Following Williams’ speech, many people (including celebrities) voiced out their disagreement; Williams was criticized for apparently perpetuating a war on police, an accusation that labeled him an enemy of the state. There were questions concerning his race and whether he had the prerogative to speak against police brutality. His mother is Swedish American and his father is African American, so is he American enough? Hill Collins and Bilge would jokingly argue that although Williams’ is American – by birth and by identity – he is not American because he condemns racism, sexism and xenophobia.
Aside from police brutality, Williams also spoke against another aspect of institutionalized racism: being branded. He notes that we dedicate “our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.” The first use of the word “brand” refers to well-known (but costly) fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Channel or Louboutin. The second is speaking about racism – the use of the word here can mean two things: 1) the scars on the bodies of black people during slavery from whippings and burns and 2) in reference to slave trade, Williams’ is saying that black people were brands white people were buying (the same way one would buy fashion brands today). Lastly, he uses brand to explain how black people today are trademarked; that they get paid for someone else to stamp their brand on them (the blacks), which is the new, modernized way of slavery. Extending Williams’ idea of modern slavery, Sara Ahmed writes about companies that use minorities during campaigns and advertisements to sell themselves. She says, “we might even laugh about being poster children of diversity; and laughing does not mean we do not experience pain and frustration at being called upon by institutions to provide them with smiling colorful faces; to make our faces theirs” (Ahmed, 261). The idea that companies are using “our” faces on their posters is one of the ways in which companies brand its workers – their smiling faces becoming part of a larger collective. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge would agree with this, but would also extend the idea beyond companies and argue that counties can brand its citizens too. They would use Brazil as an example, saying that the fact that the country is denying the existence of race (and prohibiting its citizens from identifying themselves as black) is one of the ways in which they (the citizens) are being branded. Citizens are forbidden to classify themselves as black because they would be refuting “the national identity of racial democracy, and thus ran the risk of being accused of disloyalty and not being fully Brazilian” (Hill Collins and Bilge, 23). Williams’ statement about being branded is echoed by Ahmed as well as Hill Collins and Bilge; that black people are trademarked by brands, by companies they worked for and for some, their countries.
In the introduction of her book Ain’t I A Woman, Bell Hooks writes, “it was the silence of the oppressed – that profound silence endangered by resignation and acceptance of one’s lot” (Hooks, 1). By speaking up against police brutality, and institutional racism, Williams is entangling himself from the chains of oppression and slavery. He is rejecting the system and unprotecting those who are benefitting from (the silence of) the oppressed. Although Ahmed, Hill Collins, Bilge and Hooks’ man focus is ‘black women and feminism’ and ‘racism and feminism’, Williams argues that we are not free until every black person – young, old, man, woman – is oppressed. The same tools, which are used to fight against feminism, can be used to fight against institutionalized racism and refusing to be silent is the first step towards achieving this freedom.