TV Shows, Pop Culture

Jesse Williams won’t get fired, and here’s why

If only everywhere were like Shondaland.

When Jesse Williams accepted BET’s Humanitarian Award last month, he made an incredible speech about social justice and his activism. Naturally, what was epic and important to some people, like those of us who have become all too used to America’s disinterest in black lives, was offensive to others. And thus, a petition to have Williams fired from Grey’s Anatomy where he stars as surgeon Jackson Avery was started. The petition now has over 18,000 signatures, and was created by an Erin Smith who is clearly ignorant of 1) social justice 2) reality and 3) Shonda Rhimes. 

Sorry, Erin. Jesse Williams isn’t getting fired.

The initial description for the petition reads:

Jesse Williams spewed a racist, hate speech against law enforcement and white people at the BET awards. If this was a white person making the same speech about an African American, they would have been fired and globally chastised, as they should be, but there has been no consequences to Williams’ actions. There’s been no companies making a stand against his racist remarks and no swift action condemning his negative attitude. Why was Burke’s character fired from Grey’s Anatomy after his inappropriate homophobic slur, but nothing for Jesse Williams? Why the one-way street? Why the support for a hater? Why the hypocrisy? #AllLivesMatter  All humans bleed the same color. #EqualConsequences4RacistBehavior

In that whole frustrating paragraph, Erin Smith was right about one thing: Isaiah Washington played the aforementioned Burke and was in fact let go after he used a homophobic slur on set. Seven years later, after what I would assume was some serious growing up, he returned to reprise his role in a single episode. This alone should have informed Erin Smith, who claims to be a Shondaland fan (I’m calling BS), about where Shonda Rhimes, and the network, stands with controversies like Washington. 

[bctt tweet=” This isn’t on par with Isaiah Washington calling another cast member the f-word.” username=”wearethetempest”]

While Rhimes’ “no assholes” policy has sent actors out the door before, Jesse Williams isn’t an asshole. He accepted an award with a speech that was proof of why he was receiving it in the first place. This isn’t on par with Isaiah Washington calling another cast member the f-word. It’s not similar to former Scandal actor Columbus Short’s alcoholism or domestic violence allegations, and it’s not anything like Katherine Heigl’s unprofessional (but true) comments regarding some of her worst Grey’s plotlines. And Williams’ speech definitely doesn’t compare with the continued assaults on black people in the United States.

[bctt tweet=”Williams’ speech definitely doesn’t compare with the continued assaults on black people in the U.S.” username=”wearethetempest”]

But alas, there is an Erin Smith and more than 18,000 people who disagree. And we can’t count the ones who didn’t sign/don’t know who Jesse Williams is. While this petition is a small and certain-to-fail effort, it is an effort and speaks to a very real fear for a lot of us: our professional ambitions can be threatened by an Erin Smith who thinks pointing out inequality is tantamount to oppression. 

Unlike Williams, we don’t all have the Shondaland safety net to fall back on. So it’s safer to remain silent about social injustices.

At least when it comes to Shondaland, Williams won’t have this issue. Once you’re in with Shonda Rhimes, you’re with Shonda Rhimes, but anything beyond that is a still a question mark. After his speech, how many studio execs decided Williams – despite his acting ability and supremely hirable face (look at him!) was no longer a casting option? In the age of #OscarsSoWhite, it’s well established that actors of color have an uphill battle when it comes to being hired and showcased onscreen. This is without the activism or Humanitarian Award acceptance speeches or the mere admission that discrimination exists in Tinseltown.

With it, the difficulty increases notably.

[bctt tweet=”After his speech how many studio execs decided Williams was no longer a casting option?” username=”wearethetempest”]

Shondaland, a space where people can work and be unafraid of speaking up about injustices, is an anomaly. Even if the network did penalize Williams for his speech, what would that say to its viewership, particularly those drawn in by Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder – both fronted by black female actresses and also big hits with black viewers? And what would that say to Rhimes, a black woman who claimed an entire Thank God It’s Thursday lineup for herself and continues to build her television empire? The Rhimes who makes ABC truckloads of money? The same ABC that recently appointed its first black woman president, Channing Dungey? The same Rhimes who has spoken out regularly, including at the recent United State of Women summit, about the necessity of television that mirrors the world we live in? 

Shonda Rhimes isn’t a woman, nor is ABC a network, that’s going to fire Jesse Williams. Instead, he gets to take advantage of the good Grey’s Anatomy has provided for him: a platform. It allows his work and his words, like his speech, to be widely circulated. Just as important, it’s also given him a place where he can be vocal without fear of professional reprisal.

[bctt tweet=”Shonda Rhimes isn’t a woman, nor is ABC a network, that’s going to fire Jesse Williams.” username=”wearethetempest”]

This job security is something that I wish the rest of us had – which only further speaks to the necessity of hiring and promoting people of color. While we still have people balking at actual racists losing their jobs or opportunities, the rest of us risk similar professional hurdles just by acknowledging injustice exists and that we’re affected by it. I worry that potential employers will see evidence of my interest in social justice on my blog, my social media accounts or my writing for The Tempest and decide it’s too incendiary for me to be offered a job. The only reason I continue to write and tweet is because of the understanding that if an employer can see my opinions and be offended, then I don’t want to work for them anyway.

But not everywhere is Shondaland, so it’s likely there are several places I don’t want to work.

When it comes to Jesse Williams, Erin Smith seems to be coming around to the futility of her efforts. The petition was updated to call for a “necessary escalation:” boycotting ABC network and Shondaland programming. But since 18,000 is only a fraction of a fraction of the viewers Shondaland pulls in every Thursday, I don’t think we need to concern ourselves. While the number of signatures will likely grow as the petition remains a news topic (which is why I refuse to link to the thing), we still have no reason to worry.

If you don’t believe me, take it from the queen of Shondaland herself: