At a surface glance the sentiment all lives have value and meaning, that all lives matter, seems essentially in agreement with ‘Black Lives Matter’. And yes the idea that all lives should be viewed as having worth, value, as mattering is the core sentiment being spoken to. It is the sentiment at the source and the ideal being sought. The reason it is ‘Black Lives Matter’ specifically is the fact that societal attitudes, abusive behavior, and systemic bias having been clearly broadcasting the message that black lives do not matter, or in the most generous interpretation they matter less. Which isn’t any better.
Responding with proclamations of ‘All Lives Matter’ might seem like an ideological agreement or even an attempt to enhance the sentiment to an ideal scope, and that might even be an intent behind it, but in reality it is an action which is invalidating, silencing, and tries to push a counter narrative. However noble the potential sentiment, when it is used to speak-over and silence people seeking to be seen and heard it becomes warped and distorted into a weapon of diminishment and discrimination.
Noble intentions alone are not good enough. We need to make sure the tools and methods we are using to pursue them are not only effective but also congruent and in harmony with our intentions. If not, even the most noble of gestures can wind up further contributing to the problem.
#1 Adding A Silent ‘Only’
The tone and rhetoric attached to a large proportion of ‘All Lives Matter’ responses clearly indicate an interpretation of ‘Black Lives Matter’ which adds a word and intention that simply are not there.
The statement is ‘Black Lives Matter’, not ‘ONLY Black Lives Matter’.
This movement is not campaigning to render all other lives meaningless. It is about bringing an end to atrocities and abuses at the hands of law enforcement which have been happening for centuries without consequence and to the racial biases, even the casually backhanded ones, which have become ingrained in our societal systems as a whole.
#2 ‘Matter’ Does Not Mean ‘Matter More’
The conjoined twin to that is the interpretation of another added word which is not there.
The statement is ‘Black Lives Matter’, not ‘Black Lives Matter MORE’.
This movement is not an attempt to aggrandize or elevate Black people above all others. It is a fight to affect change, to bring an end to the discrimination and subjugation of Black people which has been present and systemized since Europeans first began settling on this continent.
If one house is on fire in a neighborhood of ten houses, wanting the fire put out does not mean it is the only house which matters or that it matters more than the others. It is simply the only one on fire and thus requires the focus of attention and energy at the current moment.
#3 Promoting The Rights Of One Group Does Not Diminish The Rights Of Others
This distortion is not limited to issues of race but it has long been a key weapon in perpetuating the silencing of oppressed groups. The impression that championing a particular issue or group automatically disparages all others paints the act of standing up or speaking up as an act of arrogance or selfishness.
Why bother arguing over whether or not the person’s point is correct when you can simply make it a transgression or crime to speak up at all? If they are thus already guilty their point can be denounced as moot.
If the expressed position is one of direct conflict, of claiming grievance at the hands of another group, it can feel natural and all too easy to react defensively. But are you hearing the actual message?
The statement is ‘Black Lives Matter’ not ‘White Lives Don’t Matter’.
Believing only the lives of one group can, or should, matter at any particular time is the very essence of racism.
It is important to note this silencing by guilt and shame of arrogance or selfishness can also be engendered from within oppressed communities. All injustices and abuses need to be addressed but it is not the responsibility or obligation of any harmed person who gains access to a platform to bring every other harmed and aggrieved person with them by name into that moment.
Just as you deserve your moment so too do they, and you wouldn’t appreciate being shouldered sideways during your moment to finally speak your truth and be heard.
#4 If You Feel Others Having Access To The Same Rights Diminishes Or Threatens Them, You Are Interested In Exclusivity Not Rights
We see this one arise any time an oppressed group seeks access to a right they have been denied. Newly emancipated slaves seeking the vote in the late 1860’s, women seeking to be recognized as ‘persons’ under the law and then also seeking the vote, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, again and again the outcry sounds that extending access to a certain right will somehow weaken, distort, degrade, or destroy the right itself.
It is not a right if only some people in a society have it and others do not. That is a privilege not a right, and those who seek to preserve such restricted access are not interested in rights but in power and exclusivity. If that is the ideology you believe in be honest and clear and say so, rather than cloaking it in the language of rights and freedoms because it sounds nobler.
The other point raised in these kinds of arguments is the notion that rights are sacred things which need to be protected from those who would defile them. This still makes it an argument of privilege not of rights. If it is a right then all members of a society have access to it until they commit a transgression meriting their forfeiture of that access. If it can only be accessed after arbitrary determination by another it is a privilege not a right.
A true and genuine right begins from the premise that all have access.
It is also worth noting more often than not those out front defending an issue’s sacred exclusivity on behalf of the group in power tend to be those with a clear history of disregard for the very thing they declare as sacred, for example those who have had multiple failed marriages due to long histories of infidelity touting the sacredness of marriage.
#5 Agreeing And Correcting = Invalidating
If you agree then you agree. If you agree then add or correct you are not in fact agreeing. You are giving the other person partial credit for being partially correct then demanding they see things your way. It may seem like supporting, furthering, or even enhancing but in truth it is invalidating.
The message is ‘you got it almost right, but you were wrong’.
There are always multiple perspectives to all situations and no matter how inquisitive and aware we are there will always be perspectives and information we may not have considered. There needs to be space, however, for us to feel as we feel in the moment based on our experiences thus far.
There is a time and place for offering other perspectives to consider but if our every opinion, position, or feeling must always include all opinions, positions, and feelings it is never simply or truly our own. And if we can never be who we are as we are without a place to start from we can never grow or change.
If there is not validity to who we are, we feel no point or reason to even try and grow.
#6 It’s Not Listening, It’s Over-talking
Even if we politely wait until the other person is done speaking before, even still politely, demanding the tone and focus shift to a different track we are over-talking not listening.
If we are actually listening we remain in the stated space until we have gained what the person speaking is wanting us to understand before we move forward. We may even wind up heading in the direction we wanted but genuine listening is the process of ensuring the other person’s intended message is understood before proceeding.
Interrupting isn’t listening. Just waiting for your turn to talk isn’t listening. Twisting their words around to force them to see your preferred position might prove you heard them but it isn’t listening.
We have a great deal of difficult and necessary work ahead of us as a society. That can only happen if we truly talk with one another, which can only happen if we genuinely listen to one another. Chanting ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response is an act of continuing not to listen.
#7 It Tries To Make It About You
We will always be the most aware and invested in our own perceptions and experiences. They are the only ones we have. We are not joined to a hive mind, we have yet to develop telepathic capabilities. Our own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are the only ones we truly know.
Thus it is natural to assess every situation and concept first and foremost through our own thoughts and perceptions, that in and of itself is not an evil. But we are also all very much aware that different people can have vastly different experiences and perceptions of the same situation, even between identical twins.
One of the most powerful and important gifts we can offer one another is to step back and allow another person to share their particular perspective and to then genuinely try to understand it.
The ‘All Lives Matter’ response is the opposite of this. It instead demands that our perspective be included in theirs and declares that their perspective is inaccurate and insufficient unless it does so.
White privilege does not mean our lives are not ever difficult or painful, it simply means the color of our skin is not a detrimental contributing factor. We are involved and relevant to this moment, and we need to be, but it is not about us. We as white people will have important roles to play in the coming change but this moment isn’t about us.
We can sometimes inadvertently fall into this trap while trying to communicate we understand due to having had similar experiences. This can be an important and validating gesture demonstrating we do in fact understand and letting the other person know they are not alone. The important thing is to make sure we are not trampling their moment to seek their understanding of us instead.
#8 It Smacks Of Playing The Victim
It is a classic defensive tactic, deflecting and diverting a perceived attack by pretending to be wounded. Children do it by starting to cry the moment they get in trouble in the hopes it will be harder to be upset with someone who is hurt, scared, crying. Our dogs even do it by suddenly pretending to have a wounded paw when we come across the mess they have made.
At the broader societal level it takes the form of disqualifying ourselves from criticism on the grounds of the pain and challenges we have faced, whether or not they are relevant or even real or imagined. You can’t be unhappy with me because I have suffered too.
‘All Lives Matter’ does this by attempting to shift the group being criticized for abuses of power into the category of fellow victims. All of us have challenges and pain in our lives. BLM as an organization seeks to end imbalances and inequities in all aspects of life. But the catalyst for the cry of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the focus of this current moment of protest and rage is the horrific and disproportionate list of atrocities and abuses Black people have suffered at the hands of law enforcement.
Pick a single statistic. In the US Black people are two and half times more likely to die in police custody than white people. Go state to state that number climbs as high as four or five times, and in Minneapolis that number is just over nine times.
White people do die in police custody, it happens. But in this issue, on this metric, we are not the victims of a clear bias. This moment is not about us and attempting to hijack it on account of our struggles on different metrics is no different than the puppy pretending to have a wounded paw.
#9 It Tries To Ignore The Problem By Burying It In Other Problems
On the surface ‘All Lives Matter’ may seem like an attempt to call for an end to all injustices everywhere but in truth it is an attempt to stall forward movement on a specific issue by weighing it down with fine print to the point of paralysis.
The message it sends and demands is we can only, and should only, solve this particular suffering and this particular injustice if we solve all suffering and all injustice. It takes a specific and achievable target and exponentially inflates it to an impossible scale, making a mountain into a galaxy.
It says we can address Black people’s suffering at the hands of law enforcement as long as we also address impossible body image pressures, sexual assault victims, religious persecution, gender stereotypes, homelessness, mental health…
This world of ours offers no shortage of challenges, inequities, suffering, and crises to address. It would be lovely to swipe them all away at once but the only way we will be able to make genuine sustainable change is by focusing our energies at times and tackling them one by one.
The blatant and horrific footage of George Floyd’s death has made this moment about the disproportionate brutalities suffered by Black people at the hands of police. There will be other moments for other issues, this moment belongs to ‘Black Lives Matter’.
#10 It Silences Black Voices
Of all the things ‘All Lives Matter’ does this is the most pernicious and toxic. At a glance it appears to be endorsing a pursuit to end suffering, at some level it may even be intended as such. But what it does functionally is to make that pursuit, or even conversations about it, conditional on the removal of specific reference or focus on Black people.
The toxic underlying message of ‘All Lives Matter’ is that all lives deserve to be protected and protested for as long as there are no perceived differences.
That may seem like a statement of equality but it is not. Equality of treatment and opportunity does not mean uniformity of existence. Treating people the same under the rules of our society does not mean viewing everyone as being exactly the same.
We are all different. Some differences are small, some are dramatic. Difference is intrinsic to our identities as individuals. Disqualifying, denying, or forbidding difference invalidates identity. Whether done en masse or individually, that is discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. When the difference in question is the color of a person’s skin, that is racial discrimination, racial bigotry, and racial prejudice. When these discriminations become incorporated and perpetuated into societal systems, that is racism.
In order to address and attempt to change the abuses suffered by Black people in our communities and societies we have to allow black people to speak in their own voices to their specific experiences, and we have to genuinely listen.
Chanting seemingly agreeable but corrective and silencing counter slogans achieves none of those things. If you don’t actually wish to achieve any of those things skip the slogan and simply admit your disinterest and dismissal openly and honestly.
For those of us who truly do wish to help here are the two primary approaches I keep hearing and seeing over and over in every article, interview, posting, podcast, and message from black people speaking in their own voices.
— Listen. Listen fully, listen openly, listen patiently, listen quietly, and listen with the intent to learn and understand. Even if you don’t initially or ultimately understand or agree, listen.
— Ask ‘How can I help?’ Don’t seek exoneration or absolution, don’t require exhaustive explanation, don’t draw the focus to your emotional needs. There will be time for those things. For this moment, ask ‘How can I help?’
Making and holding space for people to feel angry is difficult and uncomfortable, the urge to avoid it is natural and understandable. Racial injustice is an ugly thing to face straight in the eye and the changes needed to address it will be challenging and uncomfortable.
This moment is not about our discomfort. This moment does not belong to us. This moment belongs to ‘Black Lives Matter’.
‘How can I help?’