Sabrina Santiago/The New York Times

Jesse Williams, the former "Grey’s Anatomy" star, spoke to Cornell students this Friday at a CUPB and MCFAB event.

February 11, 2024

Jesse Williams, Activist and “Grey’s Anatomy” Star, Discusses Barriers for Black Actors, Need for Student Activism

Print More

Over 1,000 Cornellians eagerly gathered in Bailey Hall for an engaging Q&A session with “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams on Friday, Feb. 9. As a Black activist and actor, Williams shared his experiences in the entertainment industry and perspectives on social issues.  

Organized by the Cornell Program Board and the Multicultural Community-Fueled Activities Board, students highly anticipated Williams’ arrival with lines forming outside the venue an hour in advance.

The event commenced with a highlight reel showcasing Williams’ lively acting career and then transitioned into an educational discussion.

In 2016, Williams was presented with the BET Humanitarian Award for his social activism and received international praise and recognition for his acceptance speech that addressed police brutality. 

Williams explained that his interest in activism is rooted in his personal life experiences rather than an external influence. 

“I’ve never once thought, ‘How can I use my platform or what do I do with this?’” Williams said. “I’m just being myself. I’m just doing the things I’m sincerely interested in and what I want to do.”

Williams explained how growing up in Chicago with a creative and working-class family shaped his perspective on race and economics from an early age.

While initially pursuing a career in education at a school in Philadelphia, Williams was able to explore his interest in activism as a teacher. In his classroom, Williams engaged his students by creating a connection between his students and the material that he was teaching them.

“I started as a sub[stitute teacher] and I [essentially] converted most of my classes into African studies class or African American studies class, and it changed the posture of my students,” Williams said. “And they see people that are as dark as them with hairstyles like them that were master astronomers and irrigators and scientists and mathematicians. And it made learning super engaging, and for me, it was life-saving.”

Williams ultimately left teaching to pursue a career in acting. He expressed the struggles he faced as a Black actor, as well as those shared by others, in taking on certain roles and securing enough money to maintain their status in Hollywood.

“Every decision you make [within the acting industry] could stop you from your other jobs,” Williams said. “The amount of conversations I’ve had with Black men and women who [say], ‘If I do this role [and] wear a durag again and rob this person or [be] this ignorant character, I won’t get the role as the lawyer next time, but I need the money.’” 

Throughout the evening, Williams encourages the audience to advocate for their own beliefs. Acknowledging the Coalition for Mutual Liberation’s Thursday die-in divestment protest, Williams encouraged Cornellians to continue to raise questions and demand answers from the University.

“You give them your money; you give them your time and energy. It needs to be raised and raised and raised again,” Williams said. “Keep the same energy on all issues that affect people who need advocacy and who can benefit from advocacy.”

When Alyssa Farber ’27 came across the announcement that Williams was coming to Cornell, she immediately knew she wanted to attend the event. 

“I have watched many seasons [of “Grey’s Anatomy”], multiple times each for years, so when I heard that he was coming here, I thought it was really exciting and I knew that I wanted to go,” Farber said.

After attending the event, Farber explained that she found learning about Williams’ background to be enlightening regarding overlooked details of his personal life and career.

“[Before attending] I didn’t really know that he was a teacher and that he has a lot of other passions besides acting,” Farber said.

Nina Mitin ’26 was intrigued to hear from a relevant actor like Williams. 

“I did enjoy the event, and, actually, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it at first because I think we have some presumptions about the actors we see [in media] and we kind of assume their characters off of what we see,” Mitin said. “But I was happily very surprised by what he was saying today.” 

At the end of the Q&A session, Williams revealed his upcoming journey to Italy to film an Amazon Prime show, the details of which are yet to be announced.

Williams encouraged the audience to make the most of their time in college.

“[As students,] I would just take advantage of not just the people but the resources,” Williams said. “You gotta get in the game and you gotta start taking some risks and start trying something, stop waiting for the writers to write you something.” 

Isabella Hanson ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].