On Sunday night, Justin Timberlake tweeted in admiration over Grey's Anatomy actor Jesse Williams' speech at the BET Awards. The recognition was more than warranted. Williams' speech on black lives, police brutality, racism and institutional racism, deserves to be studied, recognized and praised. It was thought-provoking, raw, and unapologetically black. And for many black people like myself, it was both empowering and healing. But as well-intentioned as he may have been, Timberlake's Twitter comments on race missed the mark for one very important reason.
For many Timberlake fans (or former 'NSync-enthusiasts), the "Can't Stop The Feeling!" singer may not be the poster child for people who are racially problematic. Sure, Timberlake is hardly ever compared to the Iggy Azaleas and Rachel Dolezals of the world, but his image, and his tweets last night, necessitate important conversations about issues directly affecting black people, like cultural appropriation and color blindness. (Timberlake's publicist did not immediately return a request for comment.)
After Williams' momentous speech, Timberlake tweeted the hashtag, "#inspired," paying respect to Williams' message. But William's message – layered with both black pride and black struggle — talked about the dangers of cultural appropriation and exploitation of blackness.
"...We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo," Williams said, captured in a transcript by the Washington Post. "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 then stealing them."
Shortly after Timberlake's tweet, people were quick to call out what many have long-perceived to be an ironic connection between Timberlake and Williams' speech: cultural appropriation. One tweet in particular, led to a firestorm of responses. "So does this mean you're going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet [Jackson] too?" one user, @MrErnestOwens, wrote back, linking Timberlake's original tweet.
But perhaps it's Timberlake's tweets that followed that really sparked a much-needed conversation on race. "Oh, you sweet soul," he wrote back. "The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye."
The backlash was swift.
Within hours, Timberlake had begun to backtrack somewhat on his earlier comments. "I forget this forum sometimes... I was truly inspired by Jesse Williams' speech because I really do feel that we are all one..." he wrote. "A human race."
Once again, fans and the public sphere reacted in anger. "Such a privileged white misinterpretation," one user scolded. "You're exactly who he was talking about. Huge part of the problem." Another noted, "'We are all one... a human race' until little black boys and young black women are MURDERED ...and [you're] silent?"
For the millennial generation, who lived in a society where teeny boppers contentiously chose sides over liking N'Sync or Backstreet Boys more, you may remember Timberlake memorably sporting cornrows back in the late '90s and early 2000's. He had several mega hits over the course of his solo career, thriving in R&B-styled music (though Timberlake previously opened up about that, saying that he was considered pop more so than R&B). He successfully worked with many talented artists, like Jay Z, and Timbaland – likely further expanding his fan base across cultures and race.
But often times when white people, especially celebrities with powers of influence, wear cornrows or other traditional black hairstyles, it inadvertently mimics black culture by exploiting black identities without sharing the same marginalization that black people face for having the same features or wearing the same things. Many feel that Timberlake's music has essentially had the same effect.
In his speech Sunday night, Williams also made somber acknowledgment of the need to protect black women, who are often left out of conversations on violence towards black lives, and in "mainstream" feminism movements which tend to be rooted in white feminism. "Now, this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves," Williams said. "We can and will do better for you."
After Timberlake's Twitter back-and-forth on Sunday evening, many were quick to point out that wounds had not healed since Timberlake and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl controversy — in which Timberlake tore off a piece of Jackson's bustier top, exposing one of her breasts — for which Jackson received notably harsher criticism. Many believed Timberlake abandoned Jackson in the media frenzy that followed, rather than standing up for her or publicly showing support.
Timberlake's "we are the same," and "human race" rhetoric, actually contradicts Williams' message. Williams called out the disproportion of police violence directed to black lives, and a criminal justice system that historically works against black people. The context of Timberlake's "human race" message suggests equality on all fronts, which, as Williams pointed out in his speech on Sunday, does not currently exist.
Timberlake may have apologized with a message of love for everyone ("I apologize to anyone that felt I was out of turn. I have nothing but LOVE FOR YOU AND ALL OF US," he tweeted later), but I'm glad the conversation happened. Because artists, public figures, everyone, should be pressed on their words and actions – and race conversations especially are always important.