The exchange occurred last night shortly after Williams offered a passionate and powerful speech on race, when he received the event’s Humanitarian Award. “…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,” Williams stated. “The thing is though…just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Timberlake took to Twitter to praise the Grey’s Anatomy star’s message, saying how it inspired him. The tweet was met with criticism by some users who accused the artist of appropriating black culture throughout his career, which contradicted a statement Williams made about cultural appropriation towards the end of his speech.
One user wrote that Timberlake was an example of a white artist “gentrifying our genius” — a quote taken from Williams — while another referenced the performer’s infamous 2004 Superbowl fiasco with Janet Jackson, where the latter seemed to endure the majority of the backlash that came from it.
Predictably, The 20/20 Experience creator offered a response that only made matters worse:
“Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
Whether you’re a Timberlake fan or detractor, it has to be stated he has been remarkably successful in staking out his position in pop culture as “white dude who’s invited to the barbecue.” His transition from boy band sensation to mature artist has generally been characterized by a holistic reverence for the culture of soul music he draws from; the direct influence of Michael Jackson and James Brown balanced by, for instance, his support for the rebirth of Stax Records in his hometown of Memphis. Up until now that is. Perhaps more so than his support for Williams, JT’s response to viewers highlighting the unmistakable irony read as condescending and willfully oblivious to the realities of white privilege — and ultimately, even Timberlake seemed to realize it.
After experiencing further criticism Timberlake retracted his statement, saying that he felt “misunderstood” and offering an apology to those that were offended, saying:
“I apologize to anyone that felt I was out of turn. I have nothing but LOVE FOR YOU AND ALL OF US.”
It’ll be interesting to see if and how Jesse Williams himself responds to the meta-conversation he unintentionally sparked. Apologies aside hopefully Timberlake learned his lesson. Sometimes it’s best to keep that response tweet as a draft or, even better, don’t respond at all.