Actor And Activist Jesse Williams: 'I'm Certain I'm Making A Difference'

Dec 31, 2016
Originally published on January 1, 2017 3:32 pm

As 2016 comes to a close, we wanted to take the time to hear from a few people whose words and actions influenced the nation this year.

One such person is actor and activist Jesse Williams. Many may know him as Jackson Avery, one of the many good-looking doctors on Shonda Rhimes' long running medical drama Grey's Anatomy.

In addition to starring in Grey's Anatomy, Jesse Williams dabbles in a lot of things: He's launched two mobile apps, hosts a basketball podcast and is in the midst of filing a remake of the 1990 thriller Jacob's Ladder.

But this year in particular, we came to know Jesse Williams as an activist. He made a blunt speech at the BET awards that got people talking. And he also produced two documentaries, one about Black Lives Matter and the school-to-prison pipeline.

So as you can imagine it took a while to catch up with him. NPR's Michel Martin recently spoke with Jackson about the big year that he's had and some of his thoughts on major events of 2016.


Here are interview highlights

On his speech at the BET Awards, when he was awarded the humanitarian award

I was shooting a film called Jacob's Ladder at that very same time in Atlanta, so I was actually living in isolation for several months. So I was really distracted with other things and focused on my jobs, but in preparation, on the flight, I scribbled some thoughts down on my iPhone to accept the award but also to take advantage of the opportunity for us to address some of these issues that brought us here.

You know, I wasn't winning an acting or music award, I was being awarded — or being acknowledged, I prefer to say — for work being done in the space of human rights and civil rights and general public consciousness. ... I felt the energy in the room and kind of surfed it.

On whether he anticipated the reaction he got from the speech

I didn't, but I don't care. I logged off the Internet for the following 10 days, I was not part of all of the hype. I turned down every offer to be covered in this and to be featured in this. It wasn't a media play for me. I meant what I said and I stand by what I said, and months later people still haven't properly been able to unpack what I said.

So I avoided the hype around it, and when I did resurface, people sent me so-called critiques, so-called attacks. And I watched them eagerly, excited — I love constructive criticism, and let's have this conversation. And they were all vapid, empty, red-faced shouting.

There was no substance to it. You know all those critiques that got a lot of buzz and petitions, there's no information in the sentences that they scribble. And they just want you to shut up and keep dying. Shut up and keep taking it; you're inconveniencing me by bleeding to death. So I wish that I saw something substantive, and I would always welcome that conversation. I don't know everything, I'm a student.

On why he shut off the Internet and turned down media requests in the 10 days following his BET award speech

I was working. That was my day off, they gave me a day off. I flew across country from Atlanta, did the speech and flew directly back to playing a very troubled soul. So I had to focus on the job I was hired to do.

Also, I wanted the words and the moment to be about this nation and where we are and not about it being a play for me promoting something. It wasn't to tease. ..

I don't want to be on the cover of your magazine. I don't want to turn into a celebrity for that reason. I wanted to let the words simmer. I wanted people to spend some time trying to figure — like a novel or something — what does it mean to you? What do those words mean to you? I think when we talk about police in particular — the word 'police,' the idea, the institution of militarized police roaming the streets, collecting people — mean something different to very different people.

[To] some people, police mean safety and helping me when I need help and being there when I need you. And it's a lovely image that is a reality for many people; I fully acknowledge that. For other people, police means terror and fear and intimidation and harassment. Both of those things are true, so we have to operationally define terms. I said a lot, I put myself out there and folks can take the time to try to unpack it, and they don't need me to hold their hand for that.

On the importance of defining the terms of discussion

I've lived in a few different communities. I'm biracial — my mom's white, my father's black. I've lived in the hood in Chicago in crack-era '80s. I've lived in the white suburbs in Massachusetts. I've gone to really, really, really bad schools, underserved, violent schools. I've gone to the cream-of-the-crop, WASPy private institutions in New England. I've seen a lot of different spaces, and we all use similar vocabularies but mean very different things. I started to pick up on that as I reached adolescence.

And then also, I think as I started studying kind of scientific method and taking graduate classes at Temple University and learning from professors about the value of taking the time to be clear and operationally define terms before you engage in battle with those same terms. So police, as an example, like, "What do you mean when you say 'safety' — safety for who?"

"What do you mean when you say you were offended? I'd like to know what we're talking about first, before we go down a rabbit hole about why you were offended, just want to make sure we both heard the same thing first so we can actually make the most of this exchange."

So, being patient and respectful enough of the value of language and intellect and feeling to unpack it first so we can all see everything. We agree on the words that were said, now we can talk about how they made us feel or think.

On what he would say to people who think celebrities should not be activists

We're not your property. ... We're human beings. You don't own us anymore — why are we using language of ownership? If you're a mechanic, I don't tell you you can't have a feeling about your local sports team. Or be upset if your doctor misdiagnoses your wife's Crohn's disease. In what other world are people that they have to stay in one lane and one lane only? ...

The bottom line: This thing, this marketing con called 'whiteness' that convinces so many people that it relies on having your boot on somebody else's neck, perpetually having advantage over somebody else — there's no form of protest that has been OK with them. We'll gladly listen if you give us a list of what we're able to do, how we're able to behave, what we're able to do with our bodies, minds and hearts. Just give us a list of the infractions that can be responded to with spontaneous public murder.

On whether he feels he's making a difference

I'm certain that I'm making a difference. That's clear to me by the effects that I've seen it happen in the public consciousness and discourse, and I would say that hesitated because I work in a space that's around celebrity and attention and that's something that's delicate and often misused so I want to be careful to avoid that. But having an impact is something that doesn't require vanity.

But I'm inspired by other people, right? I'm not doing anything alone. I'm just a reflection of the incredible — as I said in the speech, that I award, I took that on behalf of a great number of people. We don't have this movement without the incredible courage of black women and the black LGBTQ community being on the front lines. Not at award show, not on the weekend, 360 days a year, full throated with no positive support or connective tissue around them that has trained them for these things. It's a real heroic effort happening collectively. And that's something I'm proud of.

On his collaborations on mobile apps

I'm proudest of collaboration; I'm not proudest of any independent action. You mentioned mobile apps, and to be clear, I'm a co-founder of Ebroji, a GIF-kind of cultural language keyboard, but Scholly — I have come on as a board member and a brand ambassador and partner in the company, but it was founded and created by Christopher Gray. And that is a mobile app that aggregates and connects students to millions and millions of dollars of scholarships every year.

There's over $100 million in scholarships every year that go unclaimed. People just aren't aware of them. And on the Scholly app, you plug in your information, your demographic, your height, you're left-handed, you love the clarinet, you used to wrestle, and we would pull together all the scholarships that are available to you. And we've connected students to over $70 million in real scholarships, in real money so far.

Ebroji is amazing. Ebroji is so fun but also subversive. So Ebroji is a GIF. ... A GIF's a moving image, it's very very viral and addictive and kind of sticky online. Little clips, little short video clips that run on a loop usually with a comedic tilt that help people communicate and people use them to express, express "LOL," express their joy, express they're in love, express [that] they're disappointed, eye roll ,etc.

And what we noticed as a group of folks was that youth in black and brown culture occupy such a leadership position in cultural trends and behaviors and mannerisms, dances, language but don't really have their points of view represented from the outset in any social media or online company. So we realized we can figure out a way to kind of cut out the middle man and not wait for our language, our slang, our terminology to be — as I've said before — "ghettoized," reduced in its value.

To put it very simply. ... It's a little language tool that works in keyboard as you're texting, emailing or on Snapchat or on Facebook Messenger or a lot of other applications. And it's a great way to embolden your communication tools.

On how he wants to be heard in 2017

It's a tough one. ... I think a lot of people are dealing with a little bit of post-election funk and trying to figure out how to get back up off the couch and what can we do, how can we work more efficiently still? And I think that have — maybe a protective mechanism, to be perfectly honest — turned a wider eye to my creative endeavors. And one of the real reasons I got into storytelling to begin with is that for so many people, narrative storytelling, also documentary, is news. It is the lens to the outside world; outside world meaning any world that you don't otherwise touch or feel physically.

So really kind of looking back into the archives of terrific storytelling and collaborating with great people to make things that can also supplement us having real deal political discourse on its face. You can be really subversive and impactful. So I'm going to be really focusing and spending a little bit more attention on that as well as politically active.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: As we said earlier, we've been reflecting back on 2016. We've been speaking with reporters we've checked in with throughout the year and people who influence the nation in some way. That's why we're turning to Jesse Williams now. You may know him as Jackson Avery, one of the, shall we say, extremely unhandsome doctors on Shonda Rhimes' long-running medical drama "Grey's Anatomy." But Jesse Williams also has his hands in a number of other projects. He's launched two mobile apps, hosts a basketball podcast, and he's doing a remake of the 1990 thriller "Jacob's Ladder."

This year, though, Jesse Williams stepped into the spotlight as an activist. He gave a very blunt, some might say provocative speech at the BET Awards that got a lot of attention. He also produced two documentaries, one about the Black Lives Matter movement and another on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

We've been trying to reach him to talk about all of this. And we finally caught up with him just in time to get his reflections on 2016. He joins me now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Jesse Williams, thanks so much for being here.

JESSE WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So I'm carrying full disclosure. We've been trying to get you on the program for some time now, especially since June, right after your speech at the BET Awards. But actually the timing seems right now to kind of look back over the course of the year.

But can we start with your talk at the BET Awards? You were awarded the humanitarian award. And for those who already know you as a civil rights activist, the speech might not have been a surprise. But for people who had not been aware of your interest in this area, it might have been. So let me play a little bit if we can, and we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice's 14th 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.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We've got freedom of speech.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: You know what, though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: And let's get a couple 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 better have an established record of critique of our oppression.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

MARTIN: So tell me, as you were preparing for that moment, what was going through your mind?

WILLIAMS: You mentioned I was shooting a film called "Jacob's Ladder" at that very same time in Atlanta. So I was actually living in isolation for several months, so I was really very distracted with other things and focused on my jobs. But in preparation, I just kind of on my - on the flight, I scribbled some thoughts down on my iPhone to accept the award but also to take advantage of the opportunity for us to address some of these issues that brought us here.

I was - you know, I wasn't winning an acting or music award. I was winning an award - or being acknowledged, I prefer to say - for work being done in the space of human rights and civil rights and general public consciousness. So that was an opportunity. And I just figured I would go with the flow. It was really about the room. I felt the energy in the room and kind of surfed it.

MARTIN: The speech, as you know, engendered a tremendous reaction - mixed. You know, it has been shared, gosh, I don't even know how many times at this point. But it also drew criticism from conservatives. The one talk show host in particular said you were issuing a war on cops in that speech.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MARTIN: Some people took to Twitter to demand that Shonda Rhimes fire you from "Grey's Anatomy." I wondered, did you anticipate that kind of reaction?

WILLIAMS: I didn't, but I don't care. I logged off the Internet for the following 10 days. I was not part of all of the hype. I turned down every offer to be covers of this and to be featured in this. I didn't - I wasn't - it wasn't a media play for me. I meant what I said, and I stand by what I said. And months later, people still haven't properly been able to unpack what I said. So I avoided the hype around it.

And when I did resurface, people sent me, you know, critiques - so-called critiques and so-called attacks. And I watched them eagerly, excited to - I love constructive criticism. And let's have this conversation. And they were all vapid, empty, red-faced shouting. There was no substance to it. You know, all those critiques - they got a lot of buzz and petitions. There's no information in the sentences that they scribble. They just want you to shut up and keep dying, shut up and keep taking it. You're inconveniencing me by bleeding to death.

So I wish there were something - I saw something substantive. And I would always welcome that conversation. I don't know everything. I am a student. But I just wanted to be clear about that. Those so-called critiques and calls for a petition and the Internet kind of tough guys throwing bombs - there were - they're empty. There was nothing in them.

MARTIN: Why did you take yourself out of it? You said you shut it down for 10 days after that and declined requests to discuss it, including ours. So (laughter) - so at least thank you for letting us know it was - we were not alone in that...

WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That it wasn't personal. But tell me why. Was it so that you could reflect yourself?

WILLIAMS: Well, no.

MARTIN: Or was it so that you could let it - your words speak for themselves? Or - tell me why.

WILLIAMS: It was several of those things. One, on its face, I was working. I had - I am - that was my day off. They gave me a day off. I flew cross-country from Atlanta, did the speech and flew directly back to playing a very troubled soul. So I had to focus on the job I was hired to do. I wanted the words and the moment to be about this nation and where we are and not about it being a play for me promoting something. I don't want to be on the cover of your magazine. I don't want to turn into a celebrity for that reason.

I wanted to let the words simmer. I wanted people to spend some time trying to figure out how they, like a novel or something - what does it mean to you? What do those words mean to you? I think when we talk about police in particular - the word police, the idea, the institution of militarized police roaming the streets collecting people means something different to very different people.

Some people, police means safety and helping me when I need help and being there when I need you. And it's a lovely, lovely image that is a reality for many people. I fully acknowledge that.

For other people, police means terror and fear and intimidation and harassment. Both of those things are true, so we have to operationally define these terms. And I said a lot. I put myself out there. And folks can take the time to try to unpack it. They don't need me to hold their hand for that.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of defining your own terms, is that something that has always been a part of your nature - to define your own terms? Can you tell me where that comes from?

WILLIAMS: I think I - I've lived in a few different communities. You know, I'm biracial. My mom's white. My father's black. I've lived in the hood in Chicago in crack-era '80s. I lived in the white suburbs in Massachusetts. I've gone to a - I've gone to really, really bad schools, under-served, violent schools. I've gone to the cream-of-the-crop, WASPy (ph) private institutions in New England. I've seen a lot of different spaces.

And we all use similar vocabulary but mean very different things. And I started to pick up on that as I kind of reached adolescence. And then also I think as I started studying kind of scientific method and taking graduate classes at Temple University and learning from professors about the value of actually taking the time to be clear and operationally define terms before you engage in battle with those same terms so I don't - so, like, police as an example - right? - just, like, know what do you mean when you say safety - safety for who?

What do you mean when you say you were offended? I'd like to know what we're talking about first before we go down a rabbit hole about what you are offended - just want to make sure we both heard the same thing, first, so we can actually have - make the most of this exchange. So being patient and respectful enough of the value of language and intellect and feeling to unpack it first so we can all see everything. We agree on the words that were said. Now we can talk about how they made us feel or think.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actor and activist Jesse Williams. This has been an interesting year in that a number of people who are well known in one discipline, in one area also wanted to speak out about issues of concern to them. I mean a lot of people, like - remember the NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, whose activism received a lot of attention when he decided to start taking the knee during the national anthem at 49ers' games. A lot of people, you know, took issue with that.

A number of activists, a number of celebrities, other artists wanted to speak out this year for all kinds of different reasons. But a lot of people will say, you know what? That's my entertainment. That's my enjoyment, and you're mixing the two. And I don't like it. And I wonder what you say about that.

WILLIAMS: We're not your property. That's what I say to that. We're human beings. You don't own us anymore. Why are we using language of ownership? If you're a mechanic, I don't tell you you can't have a feeling about your local sports team or be upset if your doctor misdiagnoses your wife's Crohn's disease. In what other world are people - do they have to stay in one lane and one lane only? What other profession?

I've gotten to know Colin a little bit after - earlier this year. And look. I was on a stage on a microphone on many channels that ran and became an Internet thing all over the world - loud, well-lit thing versus Mr. Kaepernick who, unnoticed for a series of games, quietly, behind a watercooler, took a knee, didn't say a word.

Somebody did it as quiet as you possibly can, and the same people are furious on the same level. The bottom line - this thing - this marketing con called whiteness that needs - that relies on - that convinces so many people that it relies on having your boot on somebody else's neck, perpetually having an advantage over somebody else - there is no form of protest that has been OK with them.

MARTIN: Do you feel you're making a difference?

WILLIAMS: I'm certain that I'm making a difference. Yeah, that - that's...

MARTIN: Because...

WILLIAMS: That's clear to me by the effects that I've seen it happen in the public consciousness and discourse. And I would say I hesitated because I work in a space that is around celebrity and attention. And that's something that is delicate and often misused, so I want to be careful to avoid that. But having an impact is something that doesn't require vanity.

But I'm inspired by other people, right? I'm not - I'm not doing anything alone. I'm just a reflection of the incredible work, as I said in the speech. That award - I took that on behalf of a huge - a great number of people. We don't have this movement without the incredible courage of black women and black - the black LGBTQ community being on the front lines not at an awards show, not on a weekend, 365 days a year with no positive support or connective tissue around them that has trained them for these things. There - it's a real heroic effort happening collectively, and that's something that I'm proud of.

MARTIN: Speaking of proud of, of all the things that you were involved with this year, what are you proudest of?

WILLIAMS: I'm proudest of collaboration. I'm not proudest of any independent action. I mean you mentioned, you know, mobile apps. And to be clear, I was - I'm a co-founder of a Ebroji, which is a .gif kind of cultural-language keyboard. But Scholly - I have come on as a as a board member and a brand - and brand ambassador and partner in the company, but it was founded and created by Christopher Gray. And that is a mobile app that aggregates and connects students to millions and millions of dollars of scholarships every year.

There's over a hundred million dollars in scholarships every year that go unclaimed. And what we do is - on the Scholly app, you plug in your information, your demographic, your age, your height, your left-handed, you love the clarinet, you used to wrestle, and we will pull together all the scholarships that are available to you. And we've connected students to over $70 billion in real scholarships and real money so far.

MARTIN: And what about Ebroji? Tell me a little bit more about that.

WILLIAMS: So Ebroji is a .gif, G-I-F - I say .gif. Some people say jif (ph). They're wrong - and so gives a moving image. It's very, very viral and addictive and kind of sticky online - little clips, little short video clips that run on a loop usually with a comedic tilt. And people use them to express that - L-O-L, express their joy, express they're in love, express their disappointed, eye-roll, et cetera.

And what we noticed as a group of folks was that youth and black and brown culture is such a - occupies such a leadership position in cultural trends and behaviors and mannerisms, dances, language but don't really have their point of view represented from the outset in any social media or online companies. So we realized we can figure out a way to kind of cut out the middleman and not wait for our language, our slang, our terminology to be ghettoized, reduced in its value.

To put it very simply - I'm giving you a lot of backstory, but it's a little language tool that works in your keyboard as you're texting or emailing or on Snapchat or on Facebook Messenger or a lot of other applications. And it's a great way to embolden your communication tools.

MARTIN: Going into the next year, how do you want to be heard from in the coming year?

WILLIAMS: It's a tough one. I'm struggling. I think everybody - well, not everybody obviously. But I think a lot of people are dealing with a little bit of post-election funk and trying to figure out how to get back up off the couch. And what do we do? How can we work more efficiently still? And I think that I have, maybe as a protective mechanism, to be perfectly honest, turned another eye to - a wider eye to my creative endeavors.

For so many people, narrative storytelling, also documentary, is news. So really kind of looking back into the archives of terrific storytelling and collaborating with great people to make things that can also supplement us having real deal political discourse. On its face, you can be really subversive and impactful. So I'm going to be focusing - you know, spending a little bit more attention on that.

MARTIN: And somewhere in there, you're going to find time to sleep, yes?

WILLIAMS: I'm told that I will. I've got a sleep session scheduled for a week from today.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. That was actor and activist Jesse Williams. He was nice enough to join us from our NPR West bureau in Culver City, Calif. Jesse Williams, thank you so much for speaking with us. Happy New Year, and thank you for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. Happy holidays, everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKU SONG, "FAIRY TALE - NUJABES TRIBUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.