Jesse Williams might have been named People magazine’s sexy man of the week and have a starring role as a handsome doctor on Grey’s Anatomy, but there is a lot more to him than meets the eye, as he’s proven over the past two years with his searing, insightful comments on social and racial equality.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, he rejects “celebrity culture” and prefers to talk about his social justice work, the privileges of being biracial and why Black people have justification to be angry.
Williams may be living the good life now, but it hasn’t always been that way. He grew up in Chicago, the son of two social justice activists and spent his entire childhood “living below the poverty line.” As a child he dreamed of being a civil rights lawyer, and still toys with the idea.
“That was the plan,” he told The Guardian. “It still very well could be the plan. I could still get around to taking the bar. It’s what I love and what I care about. That’s why I wake up.”
Williams also learned about the peculiarities of race when his family moved from Chicago to a predominately white Massachusetts suburb. He went from being the lightest kid in the neighborhood to being the darkest kid at school. However, Williams says being biracial often allows him to hear what white people really think about Black people, since some people don’t think he’s Black.
“I have access to rooms and information,” he admitted. “I am white and I am also black. I am an invisible man in a lot of these scenarios. I know how white people talk about black people. I know how Black people talk about white folks. I know—I am there and everyone speaks honestly around me.”
Williams has been lauded for his looks, but he sees his image as a means to an end.
“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 s–t,” he says. “I aim to do what I can with what I have. And I have my [looks] – you know, European beauty standards give me access to things.”
Before making it in Hollywood, Williams worked as a teacher and still speaks fondly of those years.
“I loved being a teacher,” he said. “It’s the best thing I have ever done. My favorite job ever. I miss it every day.”
When he’s not working on Grey’s Anatomy, Williams is a board member of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, and is one of the executive producers of Question Bridge, a traveling exhibit that focuses on the experience of Black men. One of the goals of Question Bridge is to provide a more fully-rounded image of Black men.
“We are just like your husband, son, your father, your brothers. We have the same fears and worries,” said, Williams, who has also expressed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Williams is critical of how the media portrays Black people. He is also annoyed by the stereotype of the “angry Black male or female.” Williams pointed out that Black people are not angry, they are upset— and justifiably so.
“It doesn’t begin with rage, right. It’s a community that’s f–king hurting and is really disappointed in itself, in the people that it trusted, in the government it paid taxes to,” he said. “That is where the frustration comes from.”
Williams said the stereotype of the angry Black man is an ugly myth.
“There is zero evidence, zero evidence that Black people are more inclined to be angry in a vacuum than anybody else,” he said.