As Down As Justin Timberlake Is, Does He Really Understand What’s Up?
Jesse Williams’ speech during the BET Awards was everything. And by everything, I mean it was truthful. It was inspirational. It was factual. And most of all, it was a message our country needed to hear. Many of us were moved. Among that number was Justin Timberlake.
After Williams’ speech, he tweeted
Immediately, someone questioned the sentiment.
I’m not going to lie, at first glance, I felt like Ernest might have taken things a little too far. I’m among the group of Black people who believe that while Justin certainly could have spoken up in defense of Janet Jackson, I don’t think he needed to apologize to her when “Nipplegate” was clearly a well-devised plan. But that’s another story for another day.
No doubt I thought Ernest had done too much because I’ve been a fan of Justin Timberlake for a long time. Just yesterday, I had an intense discussion about why N’Sync was better than the Backstreet Boys. I was here for the curly fro and cornrows. I’ve loved all of his collaborations with the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell. (“Brand New” literally makes me dance in the street.) He is a personal friend to Beyoncé. Hell, I even loved the romantic comedy he was in with Mila Kunis. And don’t even get me started on his performance in The Social Network. I’ve been here for Justin.
But it was his response to Ernest that made me think, for the very first time, that despite his affinity and appreciation of Black culture, Justin still just really doesn’t get it.
Ok…yeah, but no.
Of course, we’re all the same. But the point is, all of us are not treated as such. I’m talking about women. I’m talking about Black people. I’m talking about the people whose hair you’ve tried to emulate, the people whose music you’ve co-opted, with the help and cosigns of some big-named Black people. For as much as Justin appears down, does he really understand what’s up?
Perhaps Justin didn’t notice the distinction in the way he was treated vs. the way Janet was treated after the Superbowl performance. Perhaps Justin hasn’t noticed that while he might have acknowledged that he borrowed from Black culture with his hair and musical choices, there are far too many other White celebrities and the White publications who write about them who have never mentioned that these styles were originated by Black people. As much as I love and have supported Justin’s career, maybe he doesn’t realize that as a White man, his performance of traditionally Black music is privileged. Maybe he doesn’t recognize that while his sound is embraced commercially celebrated, there are tons of Black artists who will never receive that same recognition.
And I’m not suggesting that Justin give up the music that he has worked so hard to make. I told y’all, I think it’s great. But still, if you’re going to profit off of Black culture, as he, no doubt, has, he should be willing to acknowledge the differences in our experiences. Black folk realize we’re all the same. We don’t need to hear that. It’s the very reason we’re fighting. And for Justin Timberlake to use his position and platform, with access to a gang of White folk, to attempt to educate a Black man about our shared humanity is not only unnecessary, it’s insulting. This is the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that we’ve seen Justin speak on race and race relations in this country. And this is what he says?! There are other people, his people, southern White folk, in his native Memphis, who would been better served hearing that message.
After that response tweet, Black Twitter came for Justin and his “we are the same” comment, reminding him of Janet and even the demonization of Black men who wore their hair like him …
…and the fact that the point of Jesse Williams’ speech is that we are not all the same in this country. He eventually issued an apology.
Yes, we’re all the same. But the problem with White, male privilege, a privilege Justin enjoys, is that it allows for the dismissal, the belittling or the straight erasure of the plight of another, unlike yourself. And while I think Justin may recognize that we’re not all treated equally; despite decades worth of profiting off of Black culture, he seems to have done very little to actually address that discrepancy.
We all have our blind spots. And now that Justin’s has been exposed, it’ll be interesting to see what he does with this new bit of insight.