Jesse Williams on Facing ‘Frightening’ Racism in Tech and His BET Awards Backlash
The activist and “Grey’s Anatomy” star opens up about his difficulties breaking into the tech world and Hollywood’s strange reaction to his viral BET Awards speech.
On the night of June 26, 2016, Jesse Williams spoke his truth. While accepting BET’s Humanitarian Award, the actor and activist delivered a rousingly poetic speech addressing police brutality, the echoes of slavery, cultural colonialism, and so much more.
“There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t levied against us—and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. ‘You’re free,’ they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free,” he remarked.
Viral though it was, the Grey’s Anatomy star says that stirring BET Awards speech resulted in a deluge of death threats—and even cost him acting jobs.
In the years since, Williams has continued appearing as Dr. Jackson Avery on Shonda Rhimes’ TV juggernaut, as well as indie films like Selah and the Spades and the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, while producing social justice documentaries, organizing, and branching into the tech space with his company Visibility Media.
The brainchild of Williams, artist Glenn Kainon, and ex-Apple marketing exec Arturo Nunez, Visibility Media aims to produce “content and media that is representative of diverse cultures and voices,” from the GIF app Ebroji, which sought to provide a diverse GIF keyboard, to the Black culture gaming app BLeBRiTY and now Ya Tú Sabes, a trivia app for the Latinx community.
“It was interesting with the pandemic—you’re holed up, so you’re not having game nights in the same way, but you can do it digitally,” says Williams. “That’s where this bubbled up from.”
He adds, “The tech space is a deep-pocket white boys’ club generally, but so is the rest of the country. We’re still surviving and thriving.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, The Daily Beast spoke with Williams about his struggles with racism in the tech world, the fallout of his BET Awards speech, and much more.
I know this is sort of the requisite question, but how have you been handling the pandemic? And what have you learned about yourself during these strange times?
Quite a lot. No complaints though, I’m doing great. The family’s good, the kids are good, so I’m good. It happened when I was in New York, three weeks into rehearsals for a Broadway play, and that got uprooted and I had to come back home, but just been holed up with the kids for the bulk of 2020. Lucky enough, we’ve been able to work, create, and come up with new ideas— Ya Tú Sabes being one of them.
With Ya Tú Sabes and BLeBRiTY, what inspired you to get these apps off the ground and get into the tech sector?
The tech sector really kicked off with Ebroji for me, which was our culturally-curated GIF app library. We saw something happening—a new wave in digital via Twitter and other social media exchanges—where folks were using GIFs to express themselves, and we saw that the only depot that had GIFs was really white and excluding us. That gave us a taste for, “Yo, we can do this ourselves. We already have a high IQ when it comes to centering ourselves, so we can be involved instead of being excluded.” And for those tied to social justice organizations and activism, we also like to relax and play games and be in the crib. BLeBRiTY was a great success, and then I thought, everywhere I’ve lived has had a vibrant and significant Latin American population, so what if we expanded this? We have a global perspective in our company.
You know, I’m mixed myself and people often think I’m Hispanic and speak Spanish to me. Do you get that as well?
Oh, for sure! In Chicago, I lived in a Puerto Rican neighborhood and everybody thought I was Puerto Rican and that I was faking that I didn’t speak Spanish. Everywhere I go—South Africa, Brazil—people think I’m from there. But in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Chicago, even in Philly, people think I’m Dominican, Puerto Rican, or even Cape Verdean. I’ve heard it all.
How has it been for you to break into the tech world? There’s not a whole lot of Black and brown faces there, and a lot of white gatekeepers.
Look, 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. 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. 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.
You mentioned some racist responses you’ve gotten from those in the tech world. What were some of those things you ran up against?
When we started with Ebroji, we primarily have Black, brown, Asian, trans, gay bodies that we really pride ourselves on, and we’re using them in a library for “I love you,” for hugs, for face-palms, for handshakes, and for high-fives, and we’re going to give you a Black or brown person instead of a blond person, like a lot of these other apps. And some of these places that we looked to partner with—or to house us—found Black and brown bodies as pornographic, but they don’t mind having Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, or Katy Perry with their boobs out and half-naked or white characters being overtly sexual in their own marketplace. We had very clearly hypocritical behavior. We just point out, “Does that make sense to you?” and they really don’t have much to say.
When we had conversations with folks who were interested in investing in us and partnering in that way, you really get a look under each other’s hood and you see how many products or ideas white creators have that are not on the market, have no profitability or cash flow, are not even prototyped, and they get a $70 million investment—when they haven’t even done anything yet. But we’re cash flow-positive, got a marketing budget, solid relationships, and they’re hemming and hawing. It’s like, the goalpost-moving for Black and brown people and women in the space, it would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.
I’m reminded a bit of what we’ve been experiencing with COVID, which has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic communities, which I think in turn may have led to a half-hearted government response.
COVID didn’t hit in a neutral space. We weren’t all even at the starting line, and then COVID hit. You have generational disenfranchisement and poverty, densely-populated, redlined, malnourished, overpoliced, high stressed, high blood pressure, and high levels of generational neglect, so our immune systems are already compromised—physically and spiritually—and you’re more susceptible. You’re also less valuable and you have less potential. If you get sick, it’s kind of your fault, and we’ll pathologize anything that happens to you.
I really enjoyed your BET Awards speech, and it came in June of 2016, not long before Trump was elected president. Do you think much has changed?
One of the reasons I think civil rights attorneys are heroes is that they’re the ones who apply pressure to make change. This idea that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”—no, people have to do that. People have to put pressure. There is a list of conditioned excuses for why we can have our boot on your neck, and if you start to slowly say, “Can we talk about this for a second? Actually, that’s incorrect,” and you start to slowly poke holes in it—I’m watching movies with my kids that I grew up on, movies like Teen Wolf and stuff like that, and the amount of homophobia and racism and sexism in these movies that was just considered normal? You go, “Whoa.”
And yet if you point that out right now, conservatives will accuse you of partaking in “cancel culture.” Which strikes me as the inability to culturally evolve.
I love when any of them try any of that weak shit with me. This is the same group of people that freaks out when you use the word “white” or even make eye contact with them, so it’s too thin for me to even really do business with. But this idea that in speaking truth to power, calling out blatant hypocrisy, over time you wear down their excuses. People are starting to realize that this is really worthy of analysis, and that you don’t lose anything. Freedom is not pie. If we get a slice, that doesn’t mean you lose a slice. You’re OK. Nobody is threatening you. This is something we’ve talked about in the offices building out Ya Tú Sabes: just the presence of Black and brown folks being happy makes people think something is afoot. Just us being happy is uncomfortable for some people. We’re not supposed to be there, because so much of your identity is predicated on being bigger, faster, stronger, and having more access than us. And we’re here doing our own thing. We’re not working for Twitter, who by the way tried to co-opt one of our companies in a really dirty way.
What did Twitter do?
When we built Ebroji they tried to totally co-opt what we had, and have us do it all for them, for free. It was very Columbus-landing-on-your-shore, and very sad. But it’s all good. We expect that.
To go back to your BET Awards speech for a second, that night was sort of the beginning of the Justin Timberlake backlash that we’re seeing now. He complimented your speech, and a lot of folks came out on Twitter and said, “Well, you’ve trafficked in the thievery of Black culture over the course of your career.” How did you feel about that criticism?
Luckily for me, when I gave that speech, I didn’t go on the internet for the next 10, 11 days. I was unaware or uninvolved in any of that stuff, which was for my own sanity. I missed that, and I’m not so much of a reactionary person. I have no beef with Justin. What we’re seeing in general is, sometimes people are going to be like, “Oh, you’re overcorrecting,” but when Black folks start saying, “Overall”—and I’m zooming out, this is not about Justin—“we’re looking at all the cultures and all the cultural pillaging, and ghettoizing, it’s like how you devalue land. “Marlow, this apartment is looking kind of shitty and I don’t think you can get much for it. I’m gonna give you five bucks.” And then I’ll buy it and flip it for fifty. And then it’s, “Oh, you’re talking to me that way? I don’t like your tone, Marlow, about the way I’m ripping you off.” This is why we care about cultural appropriation: because you won’t let me in your establishment with my hair like that, but then you’re wearing my hair on the runway and selling products around it for thousands of dollars. It’s not about feelings; it’s about very real exploitation.
With “cancel culture,” of course there’s going to be in some people’s opinion an overcorrection here or there, but that can’t be the lead narrative. It’s ridiculous. You didn’t care about “cancel culture” when you were beating the shit out of us for the last four hundred years, and now you’re talking about how we’re being too harsh? You’ve got to start at the beginning. These waves are going to come and go, and I think it’s incumbent on people to learn, to acknowledge, and to not be defensive at first. Go ask questions. I’m creating a game that is in Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish. So, I ask questions. I bring people on and give them ownership in the company. Inclusion lifts all of us up.
I’m biracial myself, and I’m curious what your experience has been like as a biracial person. It’s a strange existence, because you don’t really feel fully accepted anywhere.
I had a pretty particular upbringing in that, yeah, I’m Black and white. I have a big white family with a lot of cousins and did a lot of New England cultural things—sailing, music, camping, cabins—but I also grew up in the ‘hood in the crack era of Chicago, dealing with gangs and violence and police in the ‘80s, and was embraced in that community. There were no white people in my neighborhood. So, I was in an all-Black area and then in junior high I moved to an all-white area. I had very homogenous environments—Black poor environments and upper-middle class white environments.
Then I went to a New England private school for high school that had a small but real urban Black community there where I started to take on leadership roles in student government and cultural organizations. You’re always both and neither. I always found myself in a situation of: Black folks weren’t calling me “n-----,” and white folks were—pretty immediately. I got a real look into expectations of the white community based on all the image-making and all the mythmaking around the power of whiteness, and then I got to see it for myself and realize that the emperor had no clothes. It was really informative and helpful. At an early age, I learned not to be intimidated and that nothing about these people or communities made them better than me.
To go back to the BET speech for a second, I’m curious how Hollywood really received that speech. Because Hollywood folks will praise you online for something like that and then behind closed doors squeeze you out of projects and say, “Oh, he’s too outspoken and he’s a problem.”
Yeah, you’re… pretty close. Look, I would do it again every day. There’s not a single element of it that I regret or am not proud of. But I absolutely lost jobs because of it. I also became more known. People felt like they really had a sense of who I was, and who I was 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 shit. 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. 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.
It was interesting. I tuned 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. Whether I played that entirely right or not, it doesn’t matter to me. It was my truth at the time. I stayed back and stayed close with my activist-organizer people. It was more, who do I have to help or bail out of jail? That was my focus. I didn’t want to become a celebrity for it. And I think the business found that curious, to be honest. I wasn’t playing the game to be on their talk show.
Lastly, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Grey’s Anatomy. It’s grown to become one of the most culturally significant TV shows ever—and is showing no signs of slowing down. Is there even an end in sight?
I’ve given up guessing because I’ve been wrong for ten years. For the last 10 years, I’ve thought it had two more years. And somehow, the writing staff and their leadership figures it out. No shows go half this long. Plus, we do twice as many episodes. We do 25 hour-long episodes. Most shows now do 8 half-hour episodes. It’s such an impressive achievement for the creators and producers. And it doesn’t get enough credit: it is absolutely one of the most important and pioneering shows when it comes to diversity in broadcast media. Y’all said that nobody wanted to watch Black people, nobody wanted to see gay people, nobody wanted to see trans people, nobody wanted to see differently-abled folks, and they did it all. All of it. It’s the No. 1 show on TV and a top-5 show in 226 territories around the world, and y’all said none of this shit would work, and you said that 17 years ago. And Shonda just did it. And I’m really proud of it.