Justin Timberlake, Rachel Dolezal, And Our Complicity In Oppression
Justin Timberlake, like Rachel Dolezal, has made a career of parodying Black people. Yet Timberlake, unlike Dolezal, is well-respected, even protected by many Black Americans. There are layers to this and they are all problematic.
On Sunday, actor Jesse Williams gave a phenomenal speech at the BET Awards as he accepted his well-deserved award for Humanitarian of the Year. In the speech, he said many things but I want to draw attention to two parts.
“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.”
“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.”
In the first statement, Williams is clearly calling out White people who do not get involved in racial conflict until it affects them directly (or usually not at all). His point is that allies should not expect people of color to coddle their feelings whilst fighting for justice. The second statement is just a detailed explication of the first. Williams is clearly not here for the appropriation and exploitation of Black cultural practices, moments, and histories. What’s more, he sees a direct connection between the leveraging of blackness and the construction of whiteness as structures leading to our demise.
So, when Justin Timberlake, a White entertainer who has made an entire persona and fortune based on his adulation and emulation of blackness, took to Twitter to explain how he was “inspired” by Jesse Williams’ speech, there were a host of reactions.
Many people on Twitter pounced on the singer specifically for his role in the exploitation of Blackness and his decision not to stand up for Janet Jackson after he ripped off part of her costume during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, exposing her breast. Twitter users asked him directly about both of these issues.
This was when Timberlake went into peak whiteness, patronizing his critic and dismissing their (very valid) concerns.
Then came the White Guilt.
It isn’t surprising Timberlake resorted to the common “all lives matter” theory that what we should really focus on is the fact that “we are all one…a human race.” What did surprise me though were the scores of Black people who jumped to his defense in the name of preserving White allyship.
I couldn’t help but think back to the defenses of Rachel Dolezal after it was discovered that she had been pretending to be a Black woman, even lying about who her father was and refusing to discuss her race when asked. The common reply from folks who sought to valorize her station in the Black community she had infiltrated was that her love for blackness and her empathy with our struggles was enough to justify her exploitation. They called her an ally rather than an appropriator. They encouraged us to see the good intentions in her poor choices rather than the negative consequences to Black women. Sadly, most of those people were, themselves, Black.
After Justin Timberlake was properly dragged on Twitter for completely missing the points made in the speech that “inspired” him so much, the dust settled and many fans stood in his defense. Probably the most important questions asked were: 1) is it racist for people to mistreat Justin Timberlake on account of his whiteness? and 2) how will we achieve liberation if we exclude and ostracize White people like Timberlake who call themselves allies?
I refuse to ever address the first question again as I have already explained why Black people can’t be racist. However, the second question is critically important especially in a moment when the Movement for Black Lives has catalyzed a socio-political consciousness amongst young people of color.
I guess the simplest answer to whether or not we can achieve true liberation without sympathetic Whites is no. We absolutely cannot.
Scores of social movement theory and literature details why collective action must span beyond the limits of those directly involved in the social issues to those who are indirectly impacted (like sympathetic and unsympathetic Whites, institutions which enact laws, and even the mainstream media). Collective action and social engagement requires that all of these stakeholders be considered in social movement. But, there is a real difference between taking these individuals and groups into account when noting grievances versus centering them in the very work we do.
Yes, Justin Timberlake was dragged. Mercilessly dragged. And maybe the dragging hurt his feelings. It might have even made him think, “you know what? Fuck these Black people. I’m not inspired anymore. I’m going to take my whiteness elsewhere.” If that was his reaction, then he was never truly an “ally” in the first place. Allying oneself with a group that has a different or more pronounced set of marginalizing features than you is something that has to be actively embarked upon each day. Part of that process is being willing and open to being checked regularly when you get it wrong, harm people, or otherwise fuck up. That is what it means to center the least among us. Justin’s response to a simple critique of his role in the exploitation of Blackness proves that he has not grasped what it means to decenter whiteness, maleness, upper class-ness, or anything else.
In this instance, Timberlake was not in the mood to be checked. And, not only did he speak down to people who were attempting to let him know he should shut the hell up, he reduced the very issues Jesse Williams raised by arguing for a colorblind, unrealistic solution to our very real race problems. It’s like he didn’t even hear the words coming out of Jesse’s mouth.
The truth is: Timberlake showed that he is no better than Rachel Dolezal – a culture snatcher whose whiteness tells them the only way to love a culture or people is to steal it for oneself.
As Black folk continue to defend him, I can only think that it stems from being rejected and dejected by many unsympathetic Whites for so long. Maybe they are just grateful to have any semblance of allyship even when it comes with exploitation, erasure, and a host of other harms. Maybe they are okay with permitting a chosen few group of Whites to consume our culture as long as they do something nice for us later.
I’m not okay with either. And, I certainly don’t think we owe Timberlake or Dolezal any debts of gratitude. I won’t be complicit in my own demise or anyone else’s.
Photo credit: YouTube
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