Don't Tell Me My Life Matters: A White Girl's Reflections on the "All Lives Matter" Faux Pas
July 14, 2016. The American flag on the Oakland courthouse has been hanging at half mast, but today it's already risen back up to its default place at the top of the flag pole, just seven days after the Dallas shooting of white police officers by Micah Johnson, and 10 days after our nation's birthday. I still can’t tell to which tragedy the flag was paying tribute.
To make progressive matters worse, this week presidential candidate and lifelong activist Bernie Sanders disappointed much of his constituency by endorsing rival Hillary Clinton, who many (myself included) considered to be a corporate interest puppet without the American people's best interests in mind.
Today, the Netroots Nation conference begins in St. Louis, Missouri, just 15 miles from where the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown happened in 2014, sparking what would become the Black Lives Matter movement. My boss is attending this conference on behalf of our organization, which is building a social networking application designed to increase voter turnout (and, I hope, avoid future situations like the Bernie concession this week, in which turnout could have made a huge difference). Since the project is so small, a nonprofit startup, I work out of his den. It's here that I hear his wife discussing with him how to correct a friend of theirs on Facebook who had taken "Black Lives Matter" to what some believed was its logical conclusion, reminding everyone in a status update that in fact "All Lives Matter."
We have to call out black experiences in particular – otherwise, we ignore them.
Many of us are already aware that this is considered uncool among supporters of Black Lives Matter (which, in theory, should be all of us). People were attempting "All Lives Matter" since the Black Lives Matter movement began. Basically, it dilutes the message. We have to call out black experiences in particular - otherwise, we ignore them. This is similar to the way France approaches affirmative action hiring questionnaires - they don't use them (last I checked). In the U.S., we're used to being asked our race at the end of a job application, which theoretically we could see as racist - but acknowledging race here helps to fight racism. We are tracking whether people of color, women, veterans, and even people with mental illness are being hired as much as they should, considering their proportion in our population.
I made my own faux pas when speaking casually with (white) friends (who I no longer speak with) at a San Francisco bar a couple of years back. Living in a Section 8 highrise in Oakland, I was constantly harassed, sexually and otherwise, by men in my building and surrounding neighborhood. Instead of birds chirping, or a peaceful silence, day and night I heard screaming fights from my window, and when it was open, the bitter stench of crack smoke would waft in, causing me to Google, for the first time in my life, phrases like "can you get a contact high from crack?" Once, a smoker's negligence caused my building to catch fire with me in it. Shootings were common. And I was constantly afraid for my safety, my life. So when I used the word "ghetto" more than once that evening to describe not just my environs, but the people in my community, I was met with a condescending pat on the arm and the admonition that I "really need to find another way to say that, honey."
The implication, of course, was that I was racist. That I was calling out black people as the problem. But I wasn't even talking about race!, I insisted. It's shameful, particularly for a progressive, to be accused of racism. Yet I believe we all carry vestiges of racism and sexism. My being a (radical) feminist who's published works on my views doesn't mean I can't make a sexist remark. And for me, this frustration with my city was a feminist issue, with sexual harassment and violence against women at its heart. And I had heard people in my building throw around the word "ghetto" to describe each other and even me, jokingly, at one point.
But that wasn't going to work for "nigga," and after I watched MTV's controversially titled "White People" documentary and saw a young black girl cry at the mere mention of the word "ghetto" in one of their interviews, I considered myself corrected. A similar debate is going on now around the word “ratchet” – who, if anyone, is allowed to use it, and whether it can exist separately from race. It’s a bit like using “bitch” without thinking of gender, which few of us seem to.
I did what any good Bay area citizen would do – I posted about it on Craigslist...
But if we want people to be receptive to our corrections of their language, we need to be careful with our own language. As I write about in my Bitch Magazine article on the circumcision debate, individual words can frame entire debates - such as when using "cutting" rather than "genital mutilation" in some African communities. That's not to say we all need to be nervous about saying anything, perfectionist in our communication. We also need to speak openly and honestly at times, including when we don't understand why something we're doing is wrong.
Some of this stuff might seem counterintuitive, when we see the message as 'I'm allowed to say this thing because I'm this color, but you're not' or 'Let's create a slogan that calls out one specific race’ when the ultimate goal is equality. But if we're not already on the same footing, pretending we are is not going to help get us there. You could say to me, well of course, all lives do matter. But are we now including dogs, and squirrels, and the mosquito we just killed, and the chicken we just ate, and even amoebae, in what was originally a movement for black empowerment? Are we including fetuses, life as it (arguably) begins at conception?
There are other oppressed groups in American society, but even the inclusion of these groups is misguided as it takes away the focus on specific black people as victims of distinctly American police brutality. Seeing the video of just one man, Eric Garner, being held down as he pleads with officers, "I can't breathe," is what inspired me, that very minute, to get out in the streets and march with a movement that was being described at that point as "riots” - in other words, what they call it when people of color protest. We can induce fear, anger, or empowerment so easily with just one word.
"All Lives Matter" is a bit like post-feminism. It's a universalist perspective that we're all the same and all in this together, which glosses over the struggles of the past and present, which even if we are optimistic, we can see will continue to some extent in the future.
Wtf? #WhiteTrucksMatter Photo by Christopher Ray
As a white person in America, I’ve always felt uncomfortable talking about race, like I don’t have a right to, like I couldn’t possibly understand. Yet it seems at least a partial understanding of racism in America is necessary to help alleviate it, and I’ve pushed myself to speak more openly on the topic. In college, I read about certain feminists of color and their feelings of alienation from mainstream American feminist movements, so that I became more accustomed to writing on the topic as well.
While marching in a Black Lives Matter march in my downtown Oakland neighborhood, just as I was heading home as the march passed my street, I ran into a rather cute dude who smiled at me, and who I wished I’d spoken to. But it didn’t seem like the right place for two white people to be hooking up. I’d feel similarly wrong getting a phone number at Pride (unless it were a girl’s, perhaps). Yet I felt it must be racist for me to think this way, as sensitive as I was trying to be (unless I was simply using it as a cover for my sudden shyness). After all, if it would be okay – romantic, even – for two black people to meet and fall in love via a BLM march – how could it be so wrong for two white people?
After I’d left, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I’d missed an opportunity, and the cultural implications of that moment. So I did what any good Bay area citizen would do – I posted about it on Craigslist, in the Missed Connections, describing my dilemma, with the title “White Dude at Black Lives Matter March.” The Missed Connections, of course, are more for the entertainment of Craigslist bystanders than the actual person whose connection was missed. And here are some of the replies I received from them:
*Best Ad Ever
*FUCK BLACK LIVES MATTER
ALL LIVES MATTER FUCKHEAD
*How about you meet a Black Man who will make your life matter, I will make you never want to be with anyone but me again. Are you ready?
*2 ignorant people
*No u r not racist blm only cares about black people need making every ones lives Miserable while the march not stopping people who need to be places or work
The fact that you thought it would be inappropriate to get together during their thing as in u thinking to black people finding love would be fine. U see where I'm going with this? So no I don't think you're racist but I do think it's completely double standard
*You're an idiot.
Sent from my iPhone
*I truly love bending a woman over and burying my face between your legs!
So what was the takeaway?
Besides that someone who paid nearly $1,000 for a phone thought I was the idiot…it seems to me that this ad, my thoughts, and these replies all hit upon one notion that “All Lives Matter” fails to address. That in order to make up for, as much as we can, past injustices, we must allow ourselves to see the difference in others, rather than simply claim, after the fact, that we are all the same. As long as racism and sexism exist on this earth, we will need to take into account the way others have been treated differently, and perhaps treat them a little bit differently now, to truly even the score. Through affirmative action, through being kinder than we need to, to allowing for women-only safe spaces (trans-women count here, imo), and yes for marches that only acknowledge the lives of one race, so that hopefully one day we can reach a place where we no longer need them. Where black men are not murdered by cops, where no men make “innocent” sexually harassing comments in the workplace, where we don’t simply claim to live in a meritocracy, but where everyone does in fact have an equal chance.