The last two weeks have been a roller coaster ride from the ongoing corona virus crisis to the sickening death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The intense protests that followed have spread around the world and brought forth raw emotions. Emotions not only on the streets but also in board rooms, associations, monuments, and many other aspects of daily life.
Not being a person of color might mean the Black Lives Matter events may seem tangential or even threatening. In fact “counter” memes like #alllivesmatter gained traction as a reaction. But #blacklivesmatter truly should matter to everyone (and this deliberately says black, not all).
The first thing it takes to understand this is to grasp the very real distress and anger that people feel. The best way to see this is via two videos.
The first is Dave Chappelle’s Special Segment, “8:46” broadcast last night. The name refers to 8 minutes, 46 seconds which is the time for which a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck:
The second is in John Oliver’s segment on police violence in the United States from last weekend. I recommend the whole thing. In particular though, this clip from the end of the show of a protester voicing exactly the point drives home why this is not just a black issue, but a society-wide issue:
As societies, we have bonds, contracts, agreements, laws, rules, and other structures that build up over time. They form the basis for much of life. However, even if the letter of the law is “just” (which in many cases it is not), the reality of its interpretation is not. Governments have a duty of care and of equal opportunity to their citizens. Not only because this is somehow “morally” right and what our constitutions say (which they do), but because countries that do this well are more successful, safer, and far better places to live.
As a white person who has had more than their fair share of luck, it is tempting to sit back either in ambivalence to what is happening, or be in lukewarm support “let’s hope things get better” but not really feel it is concerning to you. Further, it is possible that the very purpose of the protestors can seem offensive, leading to pushback and clashes. The three worst “banners” for this pushback are: 1) #Alllivesmatter and #Whitelivesmatter, 2) outrage at #Defundpolice without understanding it, and 3) the outrage at the removal of certain monuments without understanding this either.
- #Alllivesmatter. This meme and the associated #Whitelivesmatter taken at face value could seem innocent enough. It might seem logical to say “well Black Lives Matter is exclusionary in its own way” or even that Black Lives Matter somehow suggests that non-black lives do not matter. Neither of these things is true. The Black Lives Matter banner is this way to make the point that white lives already matter, they already receive privileged status, they already have all the advantage. The point is that Black Lives Matter as well. The key point is not to put black lives above others, it is to make them as meaningful as those of others. In that context statements like All Lives Matter and White Lives Matter deride the protests and attempt to paint them as something that they are not. These hashtags don’t make a funny or clever point, they detract from the very real inequality that is out there.
- The outrage at #Defundpolice. I have no idea where this protest meme came from but it does seem like a poor choice in branding. On the surface, it sounds like the removal of all police and has been rapidly seized upon by some for fear-mongering and ridicule. Instead, the calls that go with this are really for a radical restructuring of police, in some cases dissolution of a police force and recreation of a new one from scratch as is now happening in Minneapolis. It also stands for a demilitarization of the police force which in the US is increasingly becoming highly armed. One might think that something like #Reformpolice would have been a better choice. However, given the meek measures police reforms have taken in the past, perhaps the protestors are right to open the envelope of discourse far wider.
- The outrage at the removal of Monuments as “denying history“. Monuments have been attacked both in the UK and US. Obviously, for some historical figures, this makes more sense than for others. However, the whole notion of removal of statues, in particular, gets one specific form of pushback “but it’s history, you cannot erase it”. No, history cannot and should not be erased, but statues do not tell or define history, they glorify it. The specific purpose of a monument is to remember words and deeds. Another John Oliver piece from nearly two years ago makes this point very well for the United States. It’s one thing to remember the history of the slave trade, quite another to have the statue of a slave trader in your home town. The statue belongs in a museum with context, not in a public place. There is clearly a debate in cases where famous people in history engaged in good and bad acts – what matters more? It is simply a reality though that how people feel about these relative merits changes over time and sometimes it’s time to remove some of these figures and celebrate new people.
All of these counterpoints to Black Lives Matter end up creating an “us v’s them” dynamic which is what creates much of the injustice in the first place.
Pushing back on protests with these memes is really a denial of the valid and deep emotion that drives protestors forward. The statements just paper over the very clear problems our societies have in terms of racial equality. The real questions raised of how do we get to genuine equal treatment, how do we carry out deep and meaningful change, and how to stop glorifying the errors of the past are side-stepped.
Even if you see these points and support Black Lives Matter in a general sense, why would it be important to in fact support it actively?
The answer to this is simple: life is not a zero-sum game. In other words making institutions genuinely fairer, safer and equal, as well as in fact over-rotating and making up for some of the injustices suffered in the past is a good thing for everyone, not just those impacted.
The more people of color and other minorities can get fair treatment, the more they can thrive, the more they can contribute on their own terms, the more educated, smart people are in the populace, the less they have to take extreme measures to stay safe or be heard.
The privileged position white caucasians have held in many western societies over the last few hundred years is an anomaly and we should recognize that the historical actions that created it contained some deep injustices. Those can’t be undone in the blink of an eye, but we can do better today and we can try to even out the balance sheet. The us v’s them narratives that deny the arguments that #blacklivesmatter makes so plain are deeply flawed. There should be no us and them, only us. The better we do this, the better off we will all be.
The traditional white privileged position will certainly not last forever. The phrase “make the most of what you are given” is often invoked in a wholesome way to say “don’t waste your talent and opportunity”. That has a lot of truth to it, but it’s important to realize that sharing that opportunity with others and helping them rise is one of the most important ways of all of making opportunity count.
After all this, you may or may not be convinced about how important this is to you, but you might be asking “so what can I do?”. There are definitely people better qualified to answer that than me, and your choices will depend on what you feel most strongly about. A great take can be found here. For me, I’m looking for opportunities to amplify the right voices and help here and there. That includes a regular donation to the Code2040 (thank you to an OAI friend for highlighting that) and a couple of other things, but I’m definitely looking for more things I can and should be doing.
Thank you for reading.
Cover Image: Photo by James Eades on Unsplash
PS: no doubt I’ve missed a lot of nuance in this post but I hope the intent is clear: even if you don’t feel discriminated against, action is needed.
PPS: These are also not arguments to say that every death at the hands of police is a crime (the police do difficult, dangerous work, it simply does not always go smoothly), or that every protest is valid (people take advantage) or that every statue must come down etc. The point is we’re clearly far a place where many people in our societies feel they have an equal shot at safety, security, and prosperity. Not addressing that would be a huge failure.
PPPS: There are clearly many other divisions in society and other injustices (not just racial ones), progress needs to be made there also. However, I don’t raise them here since lumping them all together since doing so devalues or defocuses attention from any one struggle – and for someone, each struggle is front and center.