Justin Timberlake means a lot of things to people. Maybe he was your first crush back in the NSYNC days. Maybe he emboldened you to try out an all-denim look or an edgy Ramen noodle hairstyle. Or maybe he taught you a lesson about the Teflon nature of white male privilege and how, for some, nothing bad sticks.

But times are a-changing. Last night at the BET Awards, Jesse Williams delivered a speech that will blast your understanding of what getting goosebumps feels like to all-new stratospheric levels.

If you don’t have time to watch it in full, make time. If that’s not possible for some reason (nosy boss, bad internet connection, what have you), here are some choice lines that’ll give you an idea of what we’re working with here:

  • “Police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”
  • “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – 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. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
  • “We’ve been floating 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 then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

Justin Timberlake was presumably watching at home and felt moved, as anyone should. He decided to tweet from his glass house.

Seems harmless. Jesse does deserve props for that speech. But there is an absurd lack of self-awareness at work here. One of the major points of Jesse’s speech is that black art is so often devalued, only to be appropriated by white people and reevaluated as suddenly worthy. No one knows this better than Justin Timberlake, who has made a career out of co-opting black culture and gaining the kind of success that is rarely afforded to those who originated it.

Twitter helpfully pointed this out for him:

This is where Justin should have logged off. But no:

sweet soul_1

A one-two punch of condescension (“sweet soul”? really?!) and #AllLivesMatter / #We’reAllAfrican sentiment? Plus, a sardonic “bye” send-off? Justin, you are not Beyonce and people on Twitter speaking truth are not Felicia.

Yes, Justin, we are all human beings and should be treated equally, but that’s not our current reality. When someone from a marginalized group expresses his or her feelings on their lived experience, it is not appropriate to step in and say something that makes their message about you. Sometimes the best way to be an ally is to know when to stop talking and start listening.

For over a decade, Justin has gotten away with being mediocre (his last single, which is horrible, went straight to #1) and being a coward (lest we forget how he left Janet Jackson out to dry, after ripping her Super Bowl Halftime outfit). Judging by the response to an essay I wrote earlier this year about Nipplegate, it seems like many have forgotten. For those who missed it, here’s something to chew on:

When he sings, “Better have you naked by the end of this song,” he was supposed to pull Janet’s bustier to reveal a red lace bra, but both pieces ended up ripping off.

Then everyone got insanely mad at Justin for messing up. Oh, wait, sorry, I forgot about the patriarchy for a second. Let me try that again: then everyone got insanely mad at Janet for having breasts and no one ever really mentioned Justin again. For example, The Washington Post’s Tony Kornheiser wrote, “What Janet Jackson did was bizarre, deliberately flopping out of her costume like that.” Justin’s grabbing hand is entirely erased from the scene.

The senseless sexism didn’t end there. Janet was disinvited from that year’s Grammys. Meanwhile, Justin was not only allowed to attend, but also performed. Janet was blacklisted from radio and music video channels for the next several years, leading to multiple album flops, while Justin got to be goofy on SNL and become a movie star.

And what’s worse is that Justin let Janet take all the heat, more concerned with making it as a solo artist than doing the right thing. Granted, the way America so easily absolved him of any wrongdoing wasn’t really up to him and speaks to a national legacy of racism and sexism that’s far bigger than one single boy band member. But what was up to him was whether or not he used his privilege to highlight the unfair advantage he enjoys in this world and the hypocrisy of it all.

If Twitter had been around back in 2004, maybe Janet and Justin’s career trajectories would have taken different courses. Maybe so many wouldn’t have kept quiet as Justin moonwalked away from the mess he helped create, using Janet’s brother’s appropriated dance moves to boot. There’s no way to know.

Today, Justin apologized for his tweet and says he feels “misunderstood.” So does Janet. So do many African Americans. So do most people who aren’t straight white dudes.

It’s time for Justin to take a seat and some of his own medicine, the same dose he prescribed for Britney, another woman he used and then discarded to get to where he is today: Cry me a river.

justin cry me a river gif

To learn more about how troubling Nipplegate really was, listen to this episode of The Cooler:


Or read all about it:

Nipplegate Revisited: Why America Owes Janet Jackson a Huge Apology

Justin Timberlake Finally Gets Called Out, 12 Years after Nipplegate 25 August,2016Emmanuel Hapsis

  • anna

    Yes they owe Janet Jackson a apology why wasn’t Justin timberland in trouble for what he did to Janet Jackson he is an assistant. We all going to write to the cubs, Grammy and whoever is going to listen Justin know what he did to Janet Jackson At the super bowl. This is wrong if I was Janet I would have sue Justin he is no good I will never buy his music one day he will think about what he did to Janet and it is going to eat him up and some of the celebrities will blame him for what he did to Janet he is an jerk.

  • anna

    Justin timberland will get his what I mean his future will not be great this will eat him up

  • Rev

    Time for YOU to sit down.

    Act like a whiny baby; get treated like one. I’ll keep paying my taxes. I’ll keep supporting you. But sit down, shut up and try to act like a civilized person for ONE moment.

    As a white person, I definitely feel sorry for you people. I’m also sorry that Justin Timberlake is a successful musician and grown adult that has had more experience in the world than you ever will. #blamewhitey

    I’m sorry that Justin never apologized for the mistake of Janet’s wardrobe crew. As always, we white people will take the blame for that one. #blamewhitey

    I’m also sorry, that you, as a POC that has never contributed to their own culture, how hollow and sad a gesture it must be to be programmed to whine about the “appropriation” of things you’ve never contributed to. I’m sorry that Justin has lead a long and rich life of being a color-blind, talented artist, always willing to learn new styles of music. As an artist, I know how wonderful it is to learn about other cultures through the arts. That’s often how us civilized people share with each other.

    Must be frustrating to have no accountability for your actions. Must be frustrating to live your life based entirely through victimizing yourselves. Must be frustrating to see groups of people leave the room/bus/restaurant when you enter.

    Sit down, shut up and find SOMEONE/ANYONE who can empower African-Americans. You’re not children. We’re not your nannys.
    At some point, you’re going to have to be judged based on your own merits, not the color of your skin.

    Until then. Keep whining. We’ve got “do not hire” lists and they’re growing by the day.
    I’ll send my tax checks, you’ll cash your welfare checks.

    #WinWin

    • PrinceNahari

      To use stereotypes in response to someone using stereotypes only makes you ten times lower. I could agree with your point if you didn’t stoop down to their level.
      I hope you’re talking about this person in specific and not the entire race, because I don’t agree with them and I’m black. If you were referring to them and people like them, regardless of race, then I apologize for chastisizing you. Otherwise, my point stands.

  • Will Homelsy

    “Yes, Justin, we are all human beings and should be treated equally, but that’s not our current reality” THAT IS SUCH A LAME STATEMENT. YOU WANT TO BE FELT SORRY FOR?? AWWW ARE PEOPLE NOT BEING NICE TO YOU? REALLY ? REALLLY???!! THAT’S EXACTLY HOW YOU SOUND. MAN YOU GOTTA MAKE IT YOUR REALITY! RIGHT NOW! STOP ACTING LIKE A PUNK WAITING FOR PEOPLE TO CHANGE SO THAT YOU CAN BE HAPPY IN THE WORLD. THEY WILL NEVER CHANGE. CHANGE ONLY HAPPENS WITHIN. WE ARE THE CREATORS OF OUR OWN REALITY. IF WE STOP TALKING ABOUT IT, BEING A VICTIM TO IT, GIVING ENERGY TO IT, THINKING ABOUT IT, IT WILL GO AWAY. IT EXISTS BECAUSE WE LET IT EXIST. OTHERWISE IT MEANS WE ARE MERELY POWERLESS VICTIMS. FUCK THAT. WE ARE FAILING TO UNDERSTAND THIS IMPORTANT FINAL HURDLE AND IS WHY WE CAN’T FINALLY BREAK FREE OF IT. PEOPLE WILL NEVER EVER TREAT YOU HOW YOU SHOULD BE TREATED. STOP EXPECTING THEM TO, OTHERWISE THIS WILL BE A NEVER ENDING BATTLE. YOU REALLY ARE FREE. YOU REALLY ARE IN CHARGE OF YOUR OWN DESTINY. STOP MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF IT AND JUST “SIT ON THE BUS” WHEREVER THE FUCK YOU WANT TO! FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO ATTRACT WHATEVER BULLSHIT YOU GOT GOING ON IN YOUR LIFE AND COME TO AN AWARENESS THAT YOU HAVE THE POWER TO ATTRACT SOMETHING ELSE!! TRUTH!

Author

Emmanuel Hapsis

Emmanuel Hapsis is the creator and editor of KQED Pop and also the host of The Cooler. He studied creative writing at University of Maryland and went on to receive his MFA in the field from California College of the Arts. In his free time, he sings his heart out at karaoke.

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