An Open Letter To Justin Timberlake + Twitter About Race

It All Started Here

So, the first Tweet by Justin Timberlake that foregrounds this entire discussion only said that JT was "inspired" by Jesse Williams speech.

Here is that speech (only audio - because Viacom):


Just Another Privileged Guilty White Guy Talking About Race?

So, before I get rolling, given the heated nature of this discussion so far, I want to make some caveats up front.

Look, I don't pretend to know anything. But I believe the key to making progress on race is talking about race. I am a white guy lucky enough to  have experienced a pretty wide variety of social experience and education (poverty, relative wealth, college, graduate school, prison, poverty etc.).

One unintended consequence of blasting people when they say inconsiderate things or things that were not thoughtfully constructed is that people just quickly apologize, roll up the tent, and go into turtle mode (total silence on the subject). Usually, this means no discussion, progress, or growth occurs.

At the same time, I do not believe that it is the job of people of color to continuously be expected to explain racism to white folks (I am white in case that isn't clear). I don't think people of color should be mocked for not engaging in coalitional politics or educating away racism.  

The onus for change should be on the people doing bad things (I have certainly learned that in my life). We should challenge ourselves to always speak up but not to silence.

I also fully understand that many people will fully disagree with almost everything I am about to say. I will always be civil in any discussion that we have (as long as it is civil on both sides). I may disagree with you, but you have as much right to your opinion as I do.

My goal here is to talk to anyone who wants to engage in an open discussion about race.

I absolutely am NOT trying to explain racism to people of color. I am speaking from my own experience and understanding and am 100% ready to admit when I am wrong.

I am under no illusion that J.T. will read this letter (or that anyone else will either). But, the dispute is about him, so I put him in the title.

I do not think I am better than anyone. I struggle with racism as much as anyone else. I struggle with finding the right things to say as much as anyone else.

Okay, so here is what I wanted to say.

We Probably Are Not All One Race

A few tweets after the original #Inspired Tweet you said:

I 100% believe you meant well when you responded Justin, however, the message that you appeared to endorse was literally the opposite of the message that Jesse Williams was endorsing.

You are a pretty smart and funny fellow, I suspect you get it (especially after a long day of getting blasted on Twitter).

But just in case, I am going to explain.

So, yes, technically we are all one race.  There is no scientific basis for race. But this does not mean that race doesn't exist.

Race still exists.

It exists because it is "socially constructed" by people (which just means that we create it using our eyes and social relationships not using science). This "construction" of race literally has been at the very heart of our nation from the very start. 

A few problems with what you said:

So, while you are affirming our common humanity (good) you did it in a way that (unintentionally?) erased both socially constructed racism and 100's of years of racist history (bad).

Beyond that, some people may have assumed that you said you were "inspired" without actually listening to the speech. I cannot attest to this, but given that you seemed to endorse the opposite message from what Mr. Williams discussed, this could have accounted for the hostility that dominated the online responses.

People can get pretty resentful when people try to newsjack an important moment in a cynical way. 

Finally, imagine we both love ice cream and we live in a society where ice cream is rationed but you are given ice cream every day of your whole life and I am only given ice cream once a year. After I give a speech on the evils of ice cream rationing you Tweet publically "#Inspired, everyone should have ice cream."

This is kind of like that, only in this case, many of the people have been harassed, searched, arrested, denied jobs, and faced many other consequences for being deprived of their common humanity.

I guess what I am suggesting is that people might also have been a bit resentful that you can just declare solidarity as a common member of the tribe when you have gotten TONS of benefits from the appreciation/appropriation of R&B and Soul music but without having to pay the race toll. 

A last problem, part of Mr. Williams speech was about keeping criticism to yourself unless you have been engaged in the struggle for equality at cost to yourself. This kind of means, that he is calling for commitments of solidarity to come with commitments to the actual struggle.  The point is not that you can't have an opinion, just that they really are not interested in criticism from people whose interest is in maintaining the status quo.

Now, I am not accusing you of consciously meaning to publicly perform any of this with the Tweet you posted. In fact, it is very possible you were #Inspired by the speech. Of course, if this is the case, it might help to explain what about the speech inspired you? 

The Art Of Strategic Apologia

Okay, next we have your posted apology: 

So yeah, hopefully you see that while you have every right to your opinion, this seems to double-down on several of the problems mentioned above.

What are you apologizing for? If people cannot tell from your apology, what kind of apology is it? You seem to still be convinced that what you said was okay, no?

So anyway, I don't think people are really asking you to change your opinion (that we are all really the same) as much as understand the following:

1) Maybe you are right that all of "WE" should be considered all of "US" but that is an aspiration and not a reality for many people in this country.

You may treat people the same, but people are NOT universally treated the same.

In addition, and this is pretty important, racism isn't just about what we say or how we treat people one on one. Racism is about all of the conditions that create inequality.

Imagine, for instance, the casting for the HBO show Game of Thrones (I do recaps of GoT).

Game of Thrones has one of the largest on-screen casts in history and if you Google "Game of Thrones Cast" you will find that four of forty people are of color (there are a few more who are not listed - including the Sand Snakes and Lucian Msamati who played Salladhor Saan).

Remember, this is a show that covers events in an entire massive fictional world (a world that includes people of color) but there are very few people of color represented in the main cast (certainly a lower representation as a percentage in our world or in Westeros). 

But, I would bet almost any amount of money that the casting directors for the show are not actively aware of the disparity, trying to be racist in casting, or possessed of racial animus. Yet, the racism still happens.

Structures of racism often affect us even if we don't know it or intend for it to happen. 

2) You benefit from privilege

Dude, I totally understand this can cause lots of anger.

You work HARD for what you have.

I know you started poor with a single-Mom. I know you work hard.

But, as hard as everything has been for you, much of your success was singing your version (homage) of R&B music but without paying a racial tax. You have crossover appeal by being white. 

Even poor whites, and I grew up poor, have advantages. There is no shame in this, the point isn't to say that we white folks are EVIL because we are privileged (although ignoring privilege can result in evils). The point is that we should be aware that we don't start the race at the same place, so we should all be engaged in the struggle to make things fair.

And privilege doesn't only mask whiteness, it masks all kinds of social ills. 

Which is really the point of this whole thing (which might seem like an attack). Listen to what people like Mr. Williams are saying, try to recognize the places where you can make a difference and keep working for your aspirational goal of becoming ONE PEOPLE.

Hell, you may be doing a million things for equality. I have no idea. I think hopefully, that is what you are inspired about...Being involved in the struggle to ensure that there are no more Tamir Rice or Eric Garner incidents in a country that professes equal treatment under the law.

3) Anti-Racism

I can't help but get the feeling that white people (me too) are so afraid of being called racist that they refuse to engage in discourse about race.

Here is the problem, racism is all around us, the only hope we have is to do the best job we can talking about race and learning as much as we can about how best to be anti-racist.

Look at studies about wealth inequality, educational inequality, incarceration, or property inequality in the United States. In every instance, the rate of racial disparity is greater than the percentage of people of color in the population. 

If racism doesn't exist, how is this possible?

If we don't talk about racism - even when we use the wrong words - how can we make progress. Way too often, racism gets pushed underground and often appears neutral or invisible. 

Anyway, if you are interested, the studies are pretty easy to find. I would also recommend reading the following books:

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

There are a ton more, feel free to ask.

What did you think of the Tweets, leave a comment!