A friend recently messaged me with this wondering:
"Hi Tad. I like you! I've been reading some of your posts lately and have wondered something: if something horrible and unjust happens to a person, why focus on the color of their skin? Doesn't focusing on that just perpetuate more race based issues? A bad thing happened and justice / awareness needs to be served (and yes context added perhaps), no matter what. Even if it happened to you or I, and it was outrageous, we deserve to be stood up for, and we are not the minority. Maybe getting to the core issue can help you be a solid advocate without feeling crazy in your mind? All lives matter. You are love and participate in a lot of goodness and awareness raising / advocation in this world."It's an important question because there is a trend I'm noticing that whenever someone uses the tag #blacklivesmatter or #nativelivesmatter someone else (almost always, and this is crucial to see, a white person) will reply with #alllivesmatter or #livesmatter.
I think for many white people, it can feel much like this:
#alllivesmatter is an attempt to reframe the conversation in a more useful way so that it's more all encompassing and no one is left out. The intention is good. But the lense and analysis, from which that correction or suggested edit comes, is the thing I want to talk about.
MY THOUGHTS: I think that the ability to say 'all lives matter' is this strange and unsought privilege white people have. I think the reality on the ground is that these issues are much worse for black people and that this pattern has been largely ignored by much of white society. So the #blacklivesmatter is an attempt to bring attention to it.
Our lives do begin to end when we become silent about things that matter. And we have been silent about the importance of black lives for too long.
The #alllivesmatter response to me feels a lot like a scenario where I get my heart broken and go to a friend to talk about it and their response is to say, "Honey. Everyone's got a broken heart. Let's talk about the broken heart of humanity. I mean I've got my OWN broken heart too, this one time..." and suddenly the healing empathy is gone from where it's most needed back into the abstract place where we think it ought to be.
To have someone listen to a story I have of romantic heartbreak about a particular girl in a particular moment in my life and then to reflect what they heard with, "Hrmm. Sounds like a life event had you feel bad, hey?" would have me sit back and shake my head and wonder if they'd heard a damn thing. I might try again to restate the details but if their response was to say, "Right. So... yeah. Bad feelings from a thing." I'd just walk away. They're incapable of hearing my particular story.
And particulars matter.
As Stephen Jenkinson puts it:
"Whenever we do things ceremonial, generally speaking, we don’t do it at the mountaintop. We don’t do it in a beautiful meadow. We don’t do it in a lot of other Class-A ceremonial places. I look for places that are pretty plain. I know as lot of places have been withered by human larceny. Maybe they could use it a little, those places, it seems to me, and those are not easy places to love. Not at all. So you really exercise your humanity trying to do this love thing that we’re talking about, you see.”The idea that talking about race will create more divisions along racial lines is a good thought to ponder. The way we talk about things certainly matters a great deal and, more often than we'd care to realize, the way we talk about problems actually deepens the problem. I don't think that's the case here. I think what it's doing is simply reflecting the genuine and real divides in experience that exist. It's a faithful mirror to what's happening whereas the #alllivesmatter ends up feeling to black people like a distorted fun house mirror that gives them a feeling that maybe they're crazy... maybe they're blowing things out of proportion. But their reality has been blown out of proportion for many generations now. Naming something that's true doesn't make it more true. It just gives us something to work with.
I think #blacklivesmatter is the medicine needed for this particular time and place.
As is the #idlenomore movement.
As was the #occupywallstreet movement.
And years ago the antiglobalization movement.
And the civil rights movement.
But, in every different time and place, the movements, if they're going to be true children of their times and places, must look differently, just as you look different from your mother and father and your grandparents while carrying some of the same traits. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles of modern culture, white culture in particular, is to actual BE in any particular time and place rather than to live in the abstract world of ideas, metaphors and notions (e.g. new age movement, monotheism, the personal growth movement etc). So much of the world view we're handed has literally no roots in the the land it's in. I once saw a book entitled, "If this is your land, then where are your stories?" No, we live in a culture that doesn't talk about the spirits of this place but about 'spirit' as universal thing. We, and I have to emphasize that I'm largely speaking about civilized humans (and largely white) don't talk about much that's particular, but we talk a lot about things in general. And we're smug when we do it, convinced that it's better.
Modern culture is big on getting to the essence or core of things beyond the current form.
The desire to strip context and have an abstract philosophical conversations that don't pertain to any particular people, place or time is a modern one I think. The desire to keep conversations either purely personal or utterly universal is something white people do much of. But by avoiding the current political realities of this place and time we are, of course, denying the past. By insisting the present is only a still body of water we make others feel crazy for feeling waves from the wake of the passing boats of injustice.
So, to get to the heart of things, we say, "Well the essence of #blacklivesmatter is that #alllivesmatter". I predict it won't be long until that is further abstracted to be #allLIFEmatters.
And of course, all three are true. And all three need to be spoken to.
But I think there's a power to the getting specific in time and place. #alllifematters is true but it feels like it's an anaemic, general notion with no teeth to it. I don't think that #alllifematters is more true than #blacklivesmatter. It's the ground from which it comes but a corn plant is not less true than the Earth is springs from. It's just the particular expression of it. Is love important? Surely. But we also need to decide if love is simply a quality to know in some general, abstract way or if it's a verb - something we do, a skill we cultivate. If it's a skill or a capacity then surely it needs to be practiced where we find ourselves just as building a home is a skill. Would I build the same home in the Highlands of Scotland as in the deserts of the Sinai as in the mountains of Tibet? If I were a product of this culture, the chances are that I would. But that doesn't speak to my skill as a home builder. It speaks to the rigidity of my cultural training to which I am most likely blind. It speaks to a certain interior homelessness I carry around with me. It speaks to a lack of skill in making home where I go. And I think it's the same with love.
Love, in this time and place, means seeing the heartbreaking reality that many black people genuinely do not feel safe living in the United States because they are not convinced that their lives matter at all to white people. The difficult consideration for many white people I know is this - what if they're right? What if it's true? What if the biggest evidence they see for the lack of their safety isn't the police brutality and the murders of black men and women at the hands of police but the reactions of white people?
I'm going to say that again: What if the biggest evidence they see for the lack of their safety isn't the police brutality and the murders of black men and women at the hands of police but the reactions of white people?
What if the thing that makes them most afraid is seeing white people say things like, "She should have kept her mouth shut." to the death of Sandra Bland? Or "He shouldn't have tried to get away?" to the death of Samuel DuBose?
What if their fear stems not only from the violence of certain white people but the countless ways the rest of them say, in one way or another, "Well, they had it coming."?
What if they're scared because, while we can walk through the streets like this, they feel like they need to make lists like this...
In 1938 civil rights activist and poet Langston Hughes wrote his chilling poem “Kids Who Die” which illuminates the horrors of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. Now, Hughes’ vivid poetry is being featured in a three minute video created by Frank Chii and @Terrance Green and narrated by Danny Glover. It is a startling reminder that the assault on Black lives did not end with the Jim Crow era.
What if what convinces black people that their lives don't matter to white people is the way that white people seem to believe that white police officers are allowed to have the emotional maturity of four year olds? That ff someone is mean to them, they're allowed to beat the shit out of them or kill them because, well, they started it. We should also definitely assume they are not racist. They should *not* be expected in any way to understand the impossibly heavy history of race relations between white police officers and black people and how many black people not only can't rely on police protection but need protection from the police.
And what if what convinces black people that their lives don't matter to white people is the way white people continue to react instantly to #blacklivesmatter not with "Yes. They do." but with #alllivesmatter instead? Why is it so hard for white people to feel or express empathy for black people's pain?
GeekAesthete from Reddit explains this brilliantly using the example of having dinner with ones family and not getting enough food:
Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!I think our job as humans is to be faithful to the time and place we're actually in right now and to bring love where it's needed now.
The problem is that the statement “I should get my fair share” had an implicit “too” at the end: “I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.” But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant “only I should get my fair share”, which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement that “everyone should get their fair share,” while true, only served to ignore the problem you were trying to point out.
That’s the situation of the “black lives matter” movement. Culture, laws, the arts, religion, and everyone else repeatedly suggest that all lives should matter. Clearly, that message already abounds in our society.
The problem is that, in practice, the world doesn’t work that way. You see the film Nightcrawler? You know the part where Renee Russo tells Jake Gyllenhal that she doesn’t want footage of a black or latino person dying, she wants news stories about affluent white people being killed? That’s not made up out of whole cloth — there is a news bias toward stories that the majority of the audience (who are white) can identify with. So when a young black man gets killed (prior to the recent police shootings), it’s generally not considered “news”, while a middle-aged white woman being killed istreated as news. And to a large degree, that is accurate — young black men are killed in significantly disproportionate numbers, which is why we don’t treat it as anything new. But the result is that, societally, we don’t pay as much attention to certain people’s deaths as we do to others. So, currently, we don’t treat all lives as though they matter equally.
Just like asking dad for your fair share, the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter”as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.
Tomorrow it might be different.
And everywhere we go, that love will look different. The love needed for the indigenous cultures of this place is different than what's needed by the black community. Does the white community need love and healing? Surely, but for us, I think it looks very different. We've grown up in the absence of all that we've lost from our flight from Europe. Indigenous people have grown up in the presence of all they've lost. Surely, love will look different. The struggles of the black community are different still.
I don't think the guiding question, "What is most universally true?" is a faithful guide. I think the questions, "What is being asked of us here and now? Where is the love needed most? What does love look like here?" might be more trustworthy sherpas on our upwards journey through the troubled times in which we find ourselves towards something that might come to look like justice.