I am a Black woman, an educator, and a PhD candidate, studying multicultural education and how to prepare culturally competent teachers. The following is a tease of the autobiographical work I am doing in my dissertation to analyze culturally and racially insensitive moments that have caused me (and others like me) psycho-emotional trauma. Confronting moments like these is creating a path of resilience and healing for me and helps others do the same, and it’s teaching others to look more deeply into their privilege in order to see the storied lives of marginalized people around them.
A #blacklivesmatter matter. A while ago I came across this meme on Facebook that had a picture of a tragic train wreck where probably many lives were lost. The text on the picture said Enough about 9/11 already, #alltragediesmatter … see how dumb you sound when you say #alllivesmatter? I posted the meme to my Facebook page and someone I knew in high school replied and attempted to explain my ignorance to me. He let me know that all lives do in fact matter. And Black on Black crime means Black people are more racist than White people. And poor White people matter too. And so do veterans, who are treated the worst in this country.
My response to this (below) is both specific to my White, male, middle class high school acquaintance, but I am also speaking to the following:
Anyone who thinks race doesn’t matter
White people who refuse to recognize their privilege
White people who think racism only matters when they have explicit and specific experiences with it
and definitely to progressive White people who think they have done the work of interrogating their privilege already
and definitely to White people who hide behind the label progressive and use it as an excuse to say they are still learning about racial oppression, as if they expect not to be held accountable for any injustice they contribute to
Dear high school Friend. Here are five reasons why your response furthers the point that #blacklivesmatter:
The fact that you, a White man, feel the need to tell me all these reasons why #alllivesmatter deeply insinuates that you know all the things and I know none of the things; that you know why #blacklivesmatter doesn’t need to be a thing and my perspective on the matter, doesn’t matter. So basically, you’ve just further proved that the movement of #blacklivesmatter needs to exist as the perspectives and opinions of Black people continue to be spoken over and spoken for by White people.
By stating all those reasons, you’re not actually disproving my point. Yes, veterans matter. Yes, poor, White people matter. Yes, Black people can be horrible to each other. Now why does that then mean#blacklivesmatter is unnecessary?? As one of my former third grade students stated, it doesn’t say #ONLYblacklivesmatter, it means that #blacklivesmatterTOO because Black people have been treated badly for a long time.
Your reply also greatly assumes that I didn’t already know these things, that I just made this post and have never considered all of the points you made. Like, I’m just speaking out of my butt. But, if you were to look, not even closely, but like out of the side of your eye for a split second, you’d know that I have committed my life to studying about racial oppression and other forms of injustice and I speak from a place of earned authority. My thoughts and opinions are not misplaced ramblings just because I feel like being mean to White people today. I don’t like to flaunt my PhD, but when I do, I make sure it’s for privileged and unaware White men. Seriously. I feel like I have to make that clear every once in awhile to remind the people that, yes I am Black, and I live some of the experiences I talk/write about, but I also have read countless books and articles, written miles of papers and presented at conferences, and taught classes and sat in classes and workshops facilitated by some of the most seasoned minds on race and equity in the entire world. I know a thing or two about a thing or two.
Fourthly, you didn’t actually address anything in the meme or attempt to engage me and my ideas. You immediately went to defending your own stagnant views, using empathy-inducing examples of whiteness juxtaposed with violent examples of Blackness to illustrate your point. But, I shouldn’t be surprised. White supremacy intentionally does this: perpetuates the differences of our experiences to keep us on opposite sides of this struggle, ensuring that there will always be a struggle. Because if we were to look at any ONE of the issues you brought up from multiple perspectives (e.g. poor White people, poor Black people, poor, Latinx people) the disparate inequities along lines of race would be clear and your argument immediately dismantled. It’s not that no one cares about poor, White people. It’s that poor, White people still don’t have the same life experiences and challenges that poor people of color do and we are just trying to be honestly heard.
Finally, when I posted this, it was about the point in life where I started to think, if one more (White) person tries to tell me ‘bout my life… I am Black! So, believe it or not, I know what it’s like to live as a Black person. Stop trying to erase my interpretation of my own lived experiences. You can’t tell my story better than me. So just stop.
Here’s what I think you could do instead:
Be quiet. Seriously. Shut up sometimes. If you disagree, take a pause and consider the fact that you just might possibly not know everything and could learn something from a discussion about race from a person of color.
Then listen. Listen more than you talk. Listen to yourself talk. Listen to how much you talk. Just listen sometimes when you have the urge to disagree or just make your point heard.
And if it’s too challenging to be quiet, ask. Ask a question and seek understanding sometimes. Here’s some examples: What do you mean by that? Why do you think that? Do you have something I could read about that? Is that really how you feel?
And finally, do some independent thinking. Consider, just for a moment, that a person of color who has the same identity markers as a White person except for the color of their skin (gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and so on), is extremely more likely to be subtly or overtly discriminated against. You may not see yourself as someone who discriminates against others, but systems and millions of other privileged people do indeed discriminate. All the time. And focusing your energy on denying my people’s struggles and ignoring the stain of White privilege on your own life excuses and exacerbates discriminatory behavior. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
A Final Thought
The thing is, accepting your privilege doesn’t all of a sudden make you a different, awful person. You’re still you! When you accept that you are White and privileged, the frame of the mirror through which you see yourself changes. The frame is wider and allows you to see more
of yourself and includes the perspectives of people of color. For most people of color, our frame has always been that wide—a multiplicity of perspectives informing our existence and self-perceptions since before we were born. The narrow frame of White privilege says that you can ignore your own privilege and its impact on others, which is likely why you hold on so tightly to the idea that #blacklivesmatter doesn’t matter. You have the privilege and the choice for it not to matter. Beyond the small frame of your understanding and experience is a world where inequity, complex racial and cultural relations, and the beauty of multiculturalism exists, just waiting for you to decide that it matters. Yes, there is a greater responsibility that comes when you accept your privilege, but it’s going to be ok and you are not alone. There are lots of people, White, Black, Brown, and otherwise ready to walk with you in this journey.