As he nonchalantly chewed gum and prepared to speak, I knew that things were about to get real. He was humble; thanking his parents for teaching him and recognizing his wife for changing his life. Then, he took his opportunity to address various issues that affect the black community. Jesse Williams, the recipient of BET’s 2016 Humanitarian award, delivered a captivating speech last June.
In a poetic fashion, Williams also discussed police brutality, cultural appropriation and equal rights within the short span of five minutes. He unapologetically stated, “So what’s gonna happen is that we are gonna have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”
Williams demanded change. Both inspirational and informational, his speech instilled awareness of the negative effects of racism, injustice and oppression. The most powerful and chilling part of his speech: “If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
Days after his speech, a group created a petition on Change.org to remove Williams from ABC’s TV show Grey’s Anatomy. At press time, the petition has over 20,000 supporters who want Williams to be fired because of his “inappropriate, unprofessional and racist commentary against police officers and Caucasians.” The petitioners claimed, “Had any one of his offensive words been said by any other race other than an African American, they would’ve been publicly shamed, fired from whatever job they had, lost endorsements, advertisers.” The petitioners ultimately argue that Jesse Williams’ speech “fuels racism.”
Pause. This petition is ironic. How can the petitioners employ their First Amendment right to petition, yet seek to deny Williams of his First Amendment right to free speech? Under the provisions of this Amendment, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This means that Williams is allowed to speak and to petition freely; hence, he can address oppression, a grievance which marginalizes large groups of people. It’s clearly an issue, so why shouldn’t Williams follow in the footsteps of other civil rights activists?
Petitioners, if you want to call Williams’ gum-chewing inappropriate or unprofessional, I can’t argue with you. Social decorum dictates that people should not speak while they chew gum, but social decorum also dictates that we listen to others. How can we truly listen to the oppressed if we ignore their circumstances by making the issue about ourselves?
Here, we see that petitioners have ignored Williams’ speech by calling it “racist against police officers and Caucasians.” Yet, the focus of Williams speech is not these groups of people but rather those affected by the actions of these groups. Williams stated, “Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday.” Williams’ statement here is a reflection of recent events and should not be confused for racism unless it’s racist to acknowledge how race may play a role in different events that occur under similar circumstances. Is it also racist to acknowledge your race and the race of others aloud? Maybe the issue here is that some get uncomfortable when race is mentioned in a conversation. The reality is that Williams isn’t fueling racism by mentioning racial oppression. Furthermore, if the petitioners have a problem with racial issues being discussed, perhaps they should seek to fight against the issue itself and not the activist (who also happens to be be an actor on a popular television show).