Turns out infidelity isn’t the only thing JAY-Z planned to reveal on new album 4:44. In the recently released footnotes to 4:44, JAY-Z enlists several black celebrity men to discuss adulthood and their relationships. Featured in the video was Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams, who finally confirmed rumors that he is dating actress Minka Kelly. Williams, who is in the midst of a divorce and custody dispute with Aryn Drake-Lee after a five-year marriage, is also an avid activist who regularly speaks about social justice issues as they pertain to the black community. Unfortunately, this new celebrity coupling has sparked a vicious backlash on social media from those who believe Williams has turned his back on black women in light of his relationship with Kelly, a white woman.
Angered by the backlash and nasty messages written about him online, Williams addressed his haters on JAY-Z’s video project: “I was in a relationship 13 years. 13 real years, not five years, not seven years — 13 years. And all of a sudden motherfuckers are writing think pieces that I somehow threw a 13-year relationship, like the most painful experience I’ve had in my life like with a person I’ve loved with all of my heart, that I threw a person and my family in the trash because a girl I work with is cute.” Pardon this motherfucker, but the inclusion of your personal life in a project by JAY-Z is pretty much inviting public scrutiny on yourself.
Williams first began to feel the heat when his divorce was made public. It’s not hard to understand why — even if the reaction was overblown. Williams was in a 13-year relationship with Drake-Lee, a black woman, and he’d recently been awarded the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards. There, he delivered a poignant speech about how important it is for black men to support black women: “This is also in particular for the Black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.”
Many black women surely felt as if Williams was speaking directly to them. The media still does a piss-poor job of offering positive depictions of black women. Black women have to take what they can get, which is why they flock to films like Hidden Figures and Girls Trip — rare examples of projects that depict not only positive, but three-dimensional black women. To hear a black man on a national stage give props to black women and their journey in America felt like going to church. So when Williams’ divorce was made public, to some it felt like a betrayal. His description of Kelly as a “cute girl,” in particular, has come under fire, since Drake-Lee often found herself under attack on Twitter for purported “average” looks — a cruel insinuation that Williams never addressed publicly. But should any celebrity need to respond to trolls online who knock their wife’s looks? He married her and had two children with her. It is obvious that Williams found his wife attractive, and addressing such odious comments would have granted them legitimacy. But then again, Drake-Lee doesn’t have the public platform to defend herself like Williams.
Williams’ divorce from Drake-Lee has nothing to do with how he perceives black women. Gone are the days of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, where we need to interpret every black man’s relationship with a white woman as an attack on all black women. Williams’ relationship with Kelly should in no way diminish the amazing work he’s been able to do as an activist. The personal reasons for the collapse of a relationship are just that: personal.
Conversely, it does no good to equate Williams’ relationship with Kelly to other high-profile interracial relationships — like Serena Williams and her fiancé Alexis Ohanian. Black women in America are disproportionately judged for interracial relationships, and here we are, faced with hordes of men attempting to “justify” Serena’s relationship while conveniently overlooking the long history of disrespect toward black women in America. As if a relationship with another human being needs justifying.
Williams’ relationship with Kelly shouldn’t be used as a “gotcha” in online debates — and neither should Serena’s. Just as Serena’s relationship does not diminish her work uplifting black women as the greatest athlete in the world, Williams’ relationship doesn’t diminish his political activism. After all, JAY-Z delivers a very definitive statement on the 4:44 song “The Story of O.J.” about how success as a black person does not mean you can cast your blackness aside. Williams has not repudiated blackness in any way, and neither has Serena.
Perhaps some of the backlash to Williams is steeped in the privilege many believe he’s been afforded as a light-skinned black man. It’s no secret that men like Williams and Colin Kaepernick have enjoyed outsized media attention — and with that, criticism — due to the perception that they are non-threatening black men. But I’m thankful that both men have used their platforms to speak openly and honestly about what it means to be a black person in America today. It’s also worth remembering that Williams has addressed his privilege as a biracial man in America before. Speaking to The Guardian, he shouted-out “the incredible women running [Black Lives Matter]” and opened up about being biracial: “I have access to rooms and information. I am white and I am also black. To some people I might be a celebrity because I’m physically attractive. We are programmed to believe that someone is attractive because they told you that blue eyes are hot. I am not going to participate in that shit. I aim to do what I can with what I have.”
Williams is a man who recently ended a 13-year relationship with a woman, and he’s currently dating — not even married to — another woman. If your first instinct is to wield that as a weapon against Williams rather than attempt to understand his humanity, take a look at who hurt you. He is not a man who’s publicly denigrated black women the way black celebrities like Kodak Black have. He’s a man who’s been on the ground in Ferguson and Flint. He’s a man who has advanced media projects to tell the stories of all black people — men and women. He has a young black daughter named Sadie who I hope Williams raises to love her mother and, most importantly, love herself. As long as he continues to do that, mind your business.