Okay, before we start, I’m going to ask you to bear with me and read to the end. We’re taking a step back from the strictly mystical for a moment to talk about some important stuff. You’re probably going to feel a lot of emotions, maybe even defensiveness, sadness, and anger. That’s okay. Let yourself feel those things. Just read ‘til the end, okay? Give it a chance.
Black lives matter. And I say this as a white person, a white voice in a world that really doesn’t need more of my voice shouting around. But as a white person, the least I can do is talk to other white people about racism, help to educate each other so that maybe the black community won’t have to carry that burden alone. I encourage you to do the same as long as your voice isn’t taking precedence. If we shy away from this discussion simply because it makes us uncomfortable, or because we’re afraid of being wrong, the discussion won’t ever happen, and neither will change. To the black community: if I’m wrong, please tell me. I’ll listen and I’ll do the work.
It’s important to me that I say this: I’m speaking up to help, not to silence black voices. I encourage you to seek out more information and articles on this subject written by black people because theirs are the important voices here—but don’t just expect them to educate you. Put in the work yourself. I imagine it’s exhausting having to constantly be the one doing all the work, so if I can help in any way, I want to. And sometimes that means speaking up and sometimes that means shutting up. I am by no means an expert here, but I’m trying out the speaking up part.
Here’s what we have to realize: saying black lives matter is not the same as saying some lives don’t matter. It’s really not. Instead, what you’re saying is that right now black lives need a louder voice. White lives have always been assumed to matter. No question. That’s why it’s so easy, I think, for white people to shout “all lives matter.” Because for us, we’ve never had to think that our lives might not matter. It’s just not a thing. It’s abhorrent to us, but it’s never been a problem, never been on our radar. It seems like a strictly nightmarish but fictive scenario because it’s so far from our lived experience. We don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to raise our voices to be heard because the world is already listening. Imagine if that were turned on its head. Take a moment to imagine if your reality were the opposite of that.
I’m about to use a scary word. Ready? Privilege. That whole not having to think about it thing? That’s what privilege is. Does privilege necessitate that we must feel guilty or that our lives have to stop mattering? No. What it means is simply that we benefit from a system in ways which we didn’t earn. That also doesn’t mean that we’ve never known hardship or that we haven’t had to work for what we have. But it does mean that we don’t have to work as hard. And that’s not fair. And we need to do something about that. Complicity is harmful.
If you find yourself feeling upset or defensive about this, take it as a good sign because that means that you’re a feeling human being. But rather than shove away the discomfort and drown it out with platitudes about “color blindness” (which is another form of denial and complicity—while on the surface it seems nice to “not see race,” all we’re doing when we pretend this is the case is turning a blind eye to a problem that really does exist—erasure won’t fix anything) or shouting that all lives matter, take the time to examine it and see it for what it is. You’re feeling defensive because you don’t want to be a part of a bad thing. You’re on your way to recognizing the issue and maybe even harnessing those emotions for positive change. Let’s aim for that.
Because my guess is that most of you saying, “all lives matter,” mean well, but inadvertently took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. More on this in a moment. Please keep an open mind and bear with me.
Okay then. I’m about to use an even scarier word. Racist. Let’s talk about racism and white fragility. Racism is bad. We all know this, and I’m sure that’s a huge part of why we get defensive so easily when we’re called out on it. Because we have this narrative in our country that says there is only one way to be racist, and that is by actively harming or wishing ill on a person of color and their community on a personal level. The narrative is, racism is evil and if I am a racist, I am evil. But the problem with that is that there are so many more insidious ways to be racist, and we all take part, whether we mean to or not. We’re raised in a society that ingrains racist ideas into the very fabric of our reality. As white people we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’ll be denied housing or a job because of our race. We don’t have to worry about being followed around in a store because someone thinks we might steal something because of our race. We don’t have to worry about getting killed in a routine traffic stop because of our race. We have the luxury of being able to take these things and so many more for granted.
Does that luxury make a person evil? No. Of course not. But it makes good people complicit, which is why you have to stop shutting it out and start listening, and then even more importantly, start doing something about it.
When someone calls you out when you inadvertently say something racist, don’t shut it out by jumping right into denial mode. Instead, listen and learn and make an effort to change. I get it. It’s hard to hear you’ve messed up. When someone calls me out on a racist mistake I’ve made I’m not going to pretend like I never feel shame or discomfort or the urge to go on the defensive. That’s a fairly natural instinct—it’s your mind’s way of protecting itself from uncomfortable feelings. For me, getting called out on something like that hurts, because I know I’ve hurt someone with my actions and words. I suspect that most of you in the “all lives matter” camp feel the same way. You didn’t mean to hurt someone, but you have. And because they hurt, you hurt. The thing to remember is that your hurt in that instance isn’t as deep or important or deadly as theirs is. We need to set aside our hurt. We need to own that and change.
Here’s why “all lives matter” is hurtful. (See? I told you we’d get back to this part.) It’s hurtful because instead of uplifting black lives and voices, you’re drowning them out with your defensive reflex. When you hear someone say that black lives matter, the inherent implication is that they didn’t matter before and that’s why it needs saying. That implication is terrible and scary and you hate it, so you’re going into that self-protection mode—if you say that all lives matter, that implication goes away. You’ve turned it into a placation rather than a rallying cry for change. The problem is that the implication that black lives didn’t matter before carries truth, as is borne out by the violence faced by that community, and placation won’t fix the problem. It may be soothing to that voice inside saying, “but racism is evil and I’m not evil,” but that dichotomous way of thinking is hurting literally everyone—including you.
When you say that all lives matter, you’re quieting voices that have been forced to be quiet for far too long. Your life has always mattered, so you don’t have to think that hard about it. It’s time to start thinking.
When we say black lives matter, we’re not saying other lives don’t. We’re saying that black lives matter and they’re not being heard or upheld and that needs to stop.
Here’s an analogy for you: You and a friend are sitting at the breakfast table, each with a cup of tea. Yours is leaking. The cup has a chip in it, so it can’t possibly hold liquid as well as the other. Its structure is making everything harder. Your friend says, “Hey, you’re spilling tea all over my kitchen table! You’re such a slob.” That frustrates you because you didn’t decide to get a chipped cup. You respond, “You gave me a cup with a chip in it. I’m trying not to spill but it’s difficult given the situation. Can you please either give me a better cup or help me fix this one so it can hold tea too?” Seems like common sense—there’s a problem so let’s fix it. But your friend says, “My cup holds tea. All cups hold tea.” You look down at your cup and it’s almost empty. You haven’t even had a chance to get a real taste, but when you try to argue, your friend gets defensive, saying, “Well, I didn’t chip that cup!” And they’re probably right in that they personally didn’t chip the cup. But they contribute to the leak’s existence by not fixing it or helping you. It’s frustrating, isn’t it?
You may not have personally broken the cup, but it’s time to help fix it anyway.
That’s why we need to be saying black lives matter. It’s already a given that all lives matter. Black lives need the conversation right now. Let’s start listening and helping.