Grey's Anatomy's Jesse Williams discusses his path from acting to activism

Actor, activist and educator Jesse Williams proves there's 'more than meets the eye' during his discussion at Syracuse University.

Jesse Williams is famous for his role as Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, but he's getting more and more attention now for his involvement in civil rights activism.

Syracuse University's National Association of Black Journalists' Remington Bennett interviewed Williams Wednesday night and started by asking him about his path to acting, which soon transitioned into his activism.

As someone who grew up in Chicago before moving to the suburbs of Massachusetts, Williams described adjusting from being the “whitest” kid in his west Chicago neighborhood to being the only biracial student in the suburbs.

“I grew up in a real dual environment,” Williams said.

He shared stories that demonstrated how he worked against racism starting from a young age.

After graduating from Temple University, he pursued a teaching career in low-income communities in Philadelphia.

“It was the most satisfying job I ever had," Williams said. "I miss it every day."

To afford school, Williams did some brief modeling and after remaining in contact with his agent, he decided to put his teaching career on hold to pursue a career in film. Taking odd-ball jobs on TV sets off Craigslist exposed him to “all the different sides of storytelling.” He decided to pursue a career in acting after having had no formal training, which landed him small roles and then a life-changing audition with Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes.

Williams revealed that since Rhimes is very secretive about roles, he wasn’t even exactly sure what his role on Grey’s would be, but he knew he wanted to be a part of it.

During the Q & A portion of the night, Grey’s fans were especially excited to hear Williams talk about his favorite episode to film. He described the shooting episode in season six and how intense it was to film during his first season on the show.

Williams gave an audience member, who is a social worker, advice on how to motivate and relate to her inner city students while also advising an audience member on how to rise above the racism that he and his inner-city basketball team face.

Williams addressed an issue that African American and biracial celebrities get asked about often: the use of the n-word.

“Saying the n-word is relational," Williams said.  I don’t call your mom, ‘mom’ because she isn’t my mom. I don’t call your wife 'sweetheart'. We know how to speak to people in a way that makes sense. Don’t call me ‘n****r’—please."

The event concluded with a chance for fans to snap pictures and briefly chat with Williams. Even after tearing his ACL in the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, he still braved the stage and stood to take pictures with fans. 

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