When the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement started in 2013, there were conflicting reactions, especially among the “White” community. There were some negative views based on the perception of the group that started it. The message was pointed, as could be expected. Some of the rhetoric was arguably reverse-racism. But the most common response was “all lives matter.” What is difficult to grasp is that these three words, seen everywhere as an alternative to BML does not represent one, but two very different agendas and perspectives.
The first message couched in “All Lives Matter” is the accusation that “Black Lives Matter” is an exclusionary statement, suggesting that other lives don’t matter, or not as much. This ridiculous, and I would suggest, intentional misinterpretation was accepted by those who wished to dismiss the legitimacy of the movement. At worst, they were racist pots calling the kettle black. They perverted the more rational context of it meaning Black lives matter, TOO, and specifically that African-Americans haven’t been treated as such with the equality of worth as other lives.
The second message is well-meaning but problematic. There are two fundamental ways that people (both People of Color and those who aren’t) approach the race concept. One is to acknowledge race as a powerful, persisting social reality. Activism derived from this view focus on addressing particular injustices against the social group and individuals identifying themselves within it. It starts from a place of the past, a world, or rather two worlds, which we inherit a baseline of privilege based on the skin we are born into.
Some of us don’t want to see it that way, either because we can’t handle it, or because we are idealistic and (some would say) naive. We say we don’t see color at all and the sooner we all subscribe to that sentiment, the sooner we can “move on” or even let go of the injustices of the past. We insist on living in a post-racial mindset, dragging us toward that future by sheer will. Some of us assert that focusing on race at all is a hindrance, and either through ignorance or an unwillingness (discomfort?) cannot face the reality that we have a long way to go. If we go this route, it is found to be far easier said than done, and it potentially disrespects any celebration of diversity that many of us believe can be done without division.
In this sense, “All Lives Matter” is a positive sentiment that in some ways means the exact same thing as “Black Lives Matter”. Those sign-holders are not being jerks, but trying to say African-American lives matter as much as everyone and we all can choose to stand for that together. It is on the surface more inclusive for many.
The problem is that saying all lives matter detracts from the unique statistical and typical injustices against African-Americans. Sure, every day should be a day we address all particular injustices and challenges faced by members of each and every perceived group. Ideally, we should always make it about equality rather than race-specific justice. But you don’t treat every tumor the same and give treatment to every part of the body equally as if “All Organs Matter”.
These differences in perspective cannot be deciphered by reading a sign. They are a shorthand used by different people that can be easily misjudged by holding them. Three words in an inadequate space to say what’s in your heart or mind regarding a complex issue with a troubled and convoluted back-story.
So how do we navigate this? There are ever-changing social norms as to what sign you should hold and when, and you can’t control what other people think. But we can be sure of ourselves and gentle with each other.
Being supportive of a cause addressing injustices against one group does not mean you are giving special treatment over any others. This isn’t a contest. “Black Lives Matter” is an affirmation that you are making at that time and place. It is your rightful choice to be specific, as none of us can fight all causes at the same time, all the time.
Understand that “All Lives Matter” is not always from a place of ignorance or minimizing the issues. Even “Blue Lives Matter” does not have to be an opposing ideological force. For some, that phrase represents a real concern that the safety of our brothers and sisters in law enforcement are being forgotten, and not necessarily a denial of injustices perpetrated by members and institutional faults surrounding that group.
Such slogans can spark hostility because we let it. Any of these can be a slap in the face to others. There’s no perfect choice here except to be as good and understanding of each other as we can — to listen before we judge and let love step in before anger. I don’t know what sign you choose to hold, or why. I’m not even sure what perspective I think is best in dealing with the race issue today, and even most People of Color I’ve spoken with are honest enough to know they don’t know either.
Maybe we don’t need just one answer. Maybe accepting each other’s answers will fill in a larger puzzle where we can work things out without having to see things the same way. That was what America was supposed to be. This is what will make us better as a nation, and better human beings.