When Jesse Williams got up to accept the Humanitarian Award during the 2016 BET Awards, it was, in many ways, the culmination of two years’ worth of advocacy and work alongside others in the Black Lives Matter movement. The actor may have made a name for himself as Dr. Jackson Avery on the hit show Grey’s Anatomy, but his work as an activist and as the executive producer of the recent documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement are of far greater importance to many. So when he spoke of the need to continue fighting for equality in practice rather than word or law, of police brutality, and of the need to simply be valued as people, it stood out as far more than platitudes and well-wishes from a prominent individual.
As Shaun King of the New York Daily News wrote of the speech, “It was a profound and important moment that many of us will never forget.” Those sentiments were echoed across social media. Not all of the support, however, was well-received. When Justin Timberlake tweeted #Inspired #BET2016 following the speech, many took issue because they see him as passively perpetuating part of the problem Williams spoke of in his speech—particularly Williams’s lament regarding the way aspects of black culture are often used and assimilated for profit without adequate credit and compensation being given to those truly responsible for their creation.
As King wrote, “It seems, in some ways, that Justin Timberlake has gotten famous and rich off of mimicking black moves and sounds without ever really standing up for black people when it mattered most. So when Timberlake tweeted that he was ‘inspired’ by Jesse’s speech, it just struck a lot of people as odd at best and grossly aloof at worst.” King would go on to say, “I think Justin Timberlake was genuinely inspired when he heard the speech, but that when he heard the part about ‘trying us on like costumes’ that it probably never occurred to him that some think he does just that.”
The controversy might have ended quickly if Timberlake’s response had not been founded upon the idea that we are all equal and the “all lives matter” mentality. While it’s true that we are all part of the same human race and, therefore, equal, many saw that fact as missing the point.
Williams’s speech at the BET Awards targeted the particular struggles faced by black people and anything that shifted or enlarged that focus threatened to lessen its impact. As a result, rather than express his empathy with those struggles, Timberlake’s “we are all one” approach perhaps reinforced a fundamental part of the problem.
Certain aspects of our lives are unique to us, and that’s not a bad thing. Race is often one of those aspects. I’m white and, as a result, will never be able to fully understand what it’s like to be black, Hispanic, Asian, or any other race. I can, perhaps, understand facets of those lives and I can certainly advocate against discrimination, inequality, and any number of other problems members of those races face on a daily basis. Such issues should not exist and, as members of the human race, we must all address the problem when they do.
However, it is vital for people of every race to understand that we can sympathize with another’s plight, but that that we will never fully understand what it’s like to be them. Again, that is neither good nor bad—it just is. When we forget that important truth, we run the risk of minimizing and trivializing the struggles others endure.
While God calls us to take those struggles just as seriously as he does (Isaiah 1:17), I don’t have to understand what it’s like to be genuinely afraid of the police to know people shouldn’t have to be. I don’t have to know what it’s like to be used for my culture to know that people deserve credit for what they create. And I don’t have to understand what it’s like to be stereotyped to know that people are far more than their skin color, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of their identity.
In sum, while we can never truly understand what this life is like for another person, God does (Psalm 139), and he can help us to know what is needed to be his hands, feet, and voice in serving them according to his will. That will necessarily includes correcting injustice, ending oppression, and doing good to every person he died to save. We don’t have to understand another person’s experiences to love them in that way. So who will you love like that today?