I don’t count myself among the greatest of people dead or alive, but I can’t imagine a situation or a society or a circumstance in which I would reply “All Lives Matter” to an expression of grief, loss, pain and frustration.
A month ago a friend of mine interviewed me for her Instagram Live. She wanted me to talk about race, social justice and the church. I mentioned my frustration with the phrase being parroted by many a Christian in response to “Black Lives Matter”: “all lives matter.”
“So when people say ‘all lives matter’ in response to ‘Black Lives Matter’, what do you say to them?” she asked innocently.
“Nothing. I’m tired. I don’t explain it anymore.”
If you have been paying attention, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter arose shortly after the slaying of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, in 2013.
Although the context was undoubtedly clear and indubitably obvious, almost immediately people the world over feigned confusion and responded with “All lives matter.”
Along came the lengthy explanations and thought pieces. For almost ten years since the murder of Trayvon Martin, we’ve shared multifarious memes and analogies — countless analogies. We’ve tweeted. We’ve posted. We’ve content created. We created cartoons. So many cartoons. We debated. We discussed. We shared. We contextualized — oh, how we contextualized. Although we thought that the treatment of Blacks in North America was and is quite glaring, palpable and well documented (I mean, well documented. Centuries of primary and secondary sources, not to mention reports from governments and commissions, in addition to anecdotes and qualitative and quantitative data), we still went to great and storied lengths to get people to understand our plight. There has been an earnest effort to be clearer and specific. It is all quite admirable.
And yet swaths of people were and are still hellbent on singing the most tone-deaf of refrains: “All Lives Matter … and — oh yeah — if you want us to understand, you should add ‘too’ or ‘also’ at the end of ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ‘Black lives matter too.’ That’s better. That’s where the misunderstanding comes from. It wasn’t clear.”
Before 2013, if someone said “Black Lives Matter” I would understand the confusion. Lifted from its context, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a random assertion.
But now? You’d have to be incredibly daft to respond with “All lives Matter” to “Black Lives Matter”. It goes beyond ignorance. It’s rude. It’s cruel.
The level of tone-deafness is mind-boggling. It angers me. It hurts me.
If people with disabilities were being disproportionately killed by the police (and it could quite possibly be that they are — that’s a conversation for another day) and from this phenomenon arose a movement with the creed “People with Disabilities Matter!” I couldn’t imagine responding to that with “All Lives Matter.”
If Indigenous people were being disproportionately killed by the police (and it could quite possibly be that they are — that’s a conversation for another day) and from this phenomenon arose a movement with the creed “Indigenous People Matter!”, of all the things I could say (and I could think of many ignorant things to say) I would not have said, nor would it have been my “go-to” or knee-jerk reaction or first response to say “all lives matter.”
Depending on my temperament or knowledge of the situation there’s a lot I could say. Or better yet, I’d get curious. I’d maybe even shut up and listen. But outright denial and negation? No. Not I.
They say “never say never” and I think that is sage advice. I would hope, however, that when someone tells me that they are bleeding, I would never say, “I bleed too; we all bleed.” I would hope that when someone tells me, “My people are dying unjustly. They matter too. Their lives matter,” I would not callously retort, “All lives matter.”
My mother tried to teach me how to sew. I could imagine her saying to me, “Stitch here. This stitch matters.” A reasonable follow-up question would be “Why?” I suppose of all the responses I could offer, I could say flippantly, “All stitches matter,” but I would only say that if I wanted to somehow minimize the importance of the stitch she was showing me.
My father taught me how to drive and would tell me to watch the speed limit in whatever given area in which we were driving. For me to reply, “all speed limits matter” would 1) be asinine and dangerous and 2) would be a denial of the important difference and distinction been the speed limit in a school zone versus a highway and 3) would almost be like saying that this speed limit that he is telling me to follow doesn’t matter.
The correct response to “ Black Lives Matter” — the polite response at the very least — is to listen.
It is deeply concerning that after all of the analogies, after all of the context laid bare, and after all of the explaining, that people — too many of them — choose (because at this point, it’s a choice) to misconstrue the intention of “Black Lives Matter” and would instead prefer to promulgate the lie that “all lives matter.”
Pray tell on what planet do all lives matter when Black lives obviously don’t?
People view the statement “Black Lives Matter” as divisive, as “starting a race war,” wholly ignorant to the fact that the race war has been raging for centuries and is not now being newly ignited. Black people have felt the heat under their lynched bodies and have been scorched by it, but I suppose when you live in houses where you do not have to worry about your sons you can just as easily ignore the flames outside your window.
The United States was never truly united. This world has always been racially divided, and “Black Lives Matter” is a curdling cry for justice and inclusion in the social contract and not a clarion call for division, discord and disharmony.
But the cognitive dissonance is striking. To recognize Black death would mean to cede one’s own racial power. It would mean that one had some sort of responsibility to restore, reconcile, return, restitute and relinquish.
I can’t remember one phrase being so misunderstood in recent memory. I simply don’t have the energy for that level of discourse anymore. I wonder at what point is it truly a deep misunderstanding or just an outright refusal to admit what is happening to Black people around the world, and particularly in the United States of America.
I said I wasn’t going to explain. This too shall fall on deaf ears. And I am tired.
And if I must go to such extreme lengths to explain a glaring phenomenon, then I am not convinced that such people are worth my time (and are probably steeped somewhat in racism and White supremacy).
I said what I said.
Finally, astonishingly, after almost ten years of analogies, some people are like, “I get it now.” But why didn’t you get it before? What took you so long? It’s not trigonometry.
It almost makes me wonder what rock everyone has been living under.
I wish I too could hide in the cleft of the rock of racial power, to feel so safe and secure that I could exhale and rest and benefit from the “wake-up” call of which David Graham wrote in The Atlantic. It must be nice to receive one’s wake up call almost 200 years after the abolition of slavery in British North America. George Floyd was killed barely three months ago. In a summer of racial awakening, it must be nice to have fallen asleep or taken a nap.
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As for me, I don’t get to sleep. My ancestors never had the privilege of rest — literally and figuratively. And for my survival, I must stay woke.
If you don’t understand the context of “Black Lives Matter” with or without a “too” or “also,” if you are only now awakening to the lived brutal reality of Ebony-hued people the world over, it means that you had somehow been lulled into a deep slumber of privilege. If you have not been paying attention, it means that you have had the privilege of not paying attention, and the only privilege you can have that affords you an ability to not pay attention is White privilege.
If I, in the year of our Lord, anno domini 2020, almost ten years after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, still have to explain “Black Lives Matter,” then you weren’t listening.
I also have to ask myself why were you not paying attention? Why were you not listening? Do you not care? And if, at this point in time, you still don’t get it, is there more than ignorance or lack of cognition at play?
And it’s one thing if you’re truly ignorant, but if you’re willfully ignorant? That’s racism.
I mean, that truly is what racism is isn’t it? We often define racism too narrowly. We think racism is calling someone a “nigger” or an “ape in heels.” We think racism is not having equal access to jobs and career advancement and education. But it is all of that and so much more. Racism is the ability to ignore. It’s the ability for a police officer to turn a blind eye in the 1960s in the Deep South and it’s the ability of the state, even now, to do the same when a report is made about harm done to a Black person. If turning a blind eye to the pleas of a female rape survivor is sexism, turning a blind eye to the deadly plight of Black people is racism. After all, racism, at its core, is a refusal to recognize and the ability to ignore the equal worth, value and humanity of a racialized person.
“Prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.” — Nathan Rustein
So I’m thankful for all of the analogies. I’m thankful for the witty cartoons. Keep it up. You’re doing a good job. You all may continue to do the work of explaining simple concepts to simple people. I’m not doing it anymore. All the power to you. God speed.
Racism finds its root in delusion. Racism finds its root in denial. Racism finds its root in dismissal.
And I refuse to continually defend my humanity before those who are determined and dead set on not seeing it.