Here is my reflection on Jesse Williams’s BET speech. I’ll start by noting that I spent a good chunk of the day on bar exam study, so I’m pretty worn out. I’ll do my best to lay out my thoughts clearly.
Let me preface by saying that I am not personally involved in the Black Lives Matter movement or am a part of the African-American community. Therefore, I recognize that I have much to learn before I can speak to the specific issues that Williams brings up. I want to address a broader question about trust.
As I mentioned before, these lines in particular struck me:
“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
I believe that Williams is speaking to criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the criticisms that I have heard is that Black Lives Matter raises a stink about black people killed by the police, but not about black people killed by other black people, or that Black Lives Matter approves of violence and rioting. Many of these criticisms (though not all) come from people who are not African Americans and have not previously expressed much concern for the specific grievances of that community.
The speech got me thinking: What if this were about my immediate community?
Imagine that someone shows up on national television to decry problems in the Korean-American community. Imagine that this person is presented as someone informed and knowledgable, which is why they are on national television. Let’s say that the person is white, although they could easily be of another race. Imagine this person saying “the problem with the Korean-American community is that they are too focused on material gain, that they are patriarchal and hierarchical, and that they idolize safety over risk-taking and innovation.”
I would want to ask the speaker if they have spent time in the Korean-American community. Have they been to our homes, our businesses, our community centers? Do they know about our history, both in this country and in Korea? Are they concerned about the problems facing Korean-Americans?
Because if they tell me that they haven’t been involved, that they haven’t sat with our families and heard our stories and shared our worries, then I would really wonder if they genuinely care about us. If they are speaking with authority about something that they don’t know anything about, I would wonder if they are more concerned about being an authority than actually helping my community.
Let’s try a different approach. Let’s say someone shows up on national television and says “The problem with Christians is that they are bigoted, they are judgmental, and they are stupid!”
I would ask this person if they have gone to visit many churches. Have they talked to Christians from a variety of denominations, socioeconomic status, and backgrounds? Do they know why Christians believe what they believe, why they hold certain values closely? In short, is their opinion informed?
Because if they have never set foot in a church, and don’t know anything about Christianity, then I would think that they are more interested in having a strong opinion than having an informed one.
That’s not to say that an outside perspective can’t be helpful. As someone who is in the Korean-American community and the Christian community, I have blind spots. There are problems within my circles that I can’t see, and I value hearing from people with different perspectives. In fact, the above critiques may well have a ring of truth. But if the speaker hasn’t taken the time to know my community and see the problems that we face, then it’s hard for me to trust that this person has my community’s best interests at heart.
Because if this were my community, and I saw my people band together to address significant challenges that have plagued us for a long time, and then saw people—people who do not know us and have never before expressed concern for us—try to tell us how to solve our problems, I would find it difficult to listen. And in fact, if the critics were a part of a system that has profited people who look like them at the expense of people who look like me (even if the critics did not play an active role in that system), then it would be difficult for me to believe that they truly had my best interests at heart. I would find it hard to trust them.