Jesse Williams Explains Modern Racism in BET Awards Speech

June 27th 2016

Jesse Williams gave an impassioned acceptance speech at the BET Awards that shook the internet.


The "Grey's Anatomy" actor was accepting a humanitarian award for his civil rights work when he made some powerful comments about police brutality, institutional racism and methods of protest. The audience was so inspired that they literally stood with him for half of the speech.

Jesse Williams' speech

Williams started by thanking his parents and then dedicating his award to activists and protesters across the country who are fighting racial inequality.

"Now, this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents and families and teachers and students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right?"

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He made an appeal for Black people to learn their own history and stand up against oppression. He mentioned Black women in particular as motivation to continue fighting.

"It’s kind of basic mathematics that the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize. Now this is also in particular for the black women who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you."

Jesse Williams' speech. BET - bet.com

Williams called out police brutality, saying that officers are often able to "de-escalate" tense situations with white people, but do not give the same treatment to Black people. He made a call for the Black community to demand equal rights.

"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 every day. So what is going to happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours."

Jesse Williams' speech. BET - bet.com

He slammed the idea of a post-racial America, which is a theory that race relations in the U.S. have improved drastically following the election of President Barack Obama, the first Black president. This ideology has lost popularity with the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

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Williams said that the U.S. still has a long way to go to improve race relations. He described several high-profile cases of Black people shot and killed by police or who died in police custody.

FILE - In a Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 file photo, Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy fatally shot on Nov. 22 by a rookie police officer, in Cleveland, Ohio, during a protest.AP/Jose Luis Magana - apimages.com

"Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s fourteenth birthday. So I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian Hunt."

He called on the successful Black Hollywood actors and music artists in the audience to do more for Black civil rights than collect pay checks.

Jesse Williams' speech.BET - bet.com

"Now the thing is though, all of us in here getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right? Dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our bodies -- when we’ve spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies -- and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies?"

In what could arguably be the most poignant moment of his speech, Williams said that Americans need to stop making excuses for institutional racism and deal with the discomfort of confronting it. He said that anyone who is uncomfortable with Black Lives Matter protests can "sit down."

"There has been no job we haven’t done. There’s 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. Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now. And let’s get a couple of things straight, just a little side note: the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right? Stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you’d better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down."

He ended his speech by slamming cultural appropriation, a term which is commonly used to describe the exploitation of one culture by another.

Jesse Williams leaves the stage with a Black power fist. BET - bet.com

"We’ve been floatin’ this country on credit for centuries yo! And we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes, before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though, the thing is: just because we’re magic don’t mean we’re not real. Thank you."

You can watch Jesse Williams' full speech below.

RELATED: Jesse Williams Responds to #AllLivesMatter With This One Brilliant Comic

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