The Benefit of the Doubt

The Benefit of the Doubt

Note to my white self…

You did it again.

You gave the benefit of the doubt to the white person.

This is what happened. A black woman described a situation where she felt racially profiled and mistreated and, instead of acknowledging her pain and the injustice of the situation, you thought to yourself, “I wonder if the words and actions of that white person were really racist.  Maybe this person of color misunderstood the situation and the intent of that white person.”

At least you didn’t openly question the veracity of her description. I suppose that’s progress.  There was a time when you would have argued with a person of color about whether a situation which they experienced was really racist.  You would have acted like you, a person who has never been the victim of racism, were the expert and they, someone who had been the target of racism often, were the novice.  Ironically, you would have been oblivious to how your willingness to give the white person the benefit of the doubt is a clear manifestation of our prejudice and privilege.

I am glad you want to see racism ended. I appreciate your desire to work for that outcome.  But that day is not today.  And pretending that the behavior of yourself and other white people doesn’t have a racial dimension doesn’t make that day come any quicker.  Indeed, that kind of thinking postpones that day.

Today, this is the reality. Based on our track record as a white dominated nation, there are probably a 100 interactions with some racial bias or prejudice in our society for every incident where a person of color misconstrues the situation.  Are there situations where they get it wrong?  Probably, but that isn’t the behavior that deserves your scrutiny.  The more troubling question is why anyone – based on those odds – would give the white person the benefit of the doubt.

I think you know the answer to that question. You give the white person the benefit of the doubt because in exonerating them, you also free yourself of responsibility.  Though you might defend your unwillingness to condemn the behavior of another white person as withholding judgment, in actuality you have already judged the person of color.  They are deluded at best and a liar at worst.  What they claim to have experienced isn’t real.

The black comedian W. Kamau Bell points out the absurdity of this common white behavior in his comedy show. He suggests questioning the racist experiences of people of color is as crazy as a black person challenging a white person’s claim they had pizza for lunch.

“How do you know it was pizza?”

“What are you talking about?  Of course, it was pizza.  I have pizza almost every day.”

“That’s what I think is suspicious. Why are you having pizza every day?”

“Because there is pizza everywhere in the world.”

“No, I don’t see all this pizza you’re seeing. I don’t think you had pizza.  Are you sure it wasn’t pita bread with cheese on it?”

“No, it was pizza!  I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my life.  My parents ate pizza.  My grandparents ate pizza.  My great grandparents were brought to this country to make pizza.”

I think you get his point.

However, as disturbing as this behavior can be, it is your willingness to give the white people the benefit of the doubt that is most concerning. When a person of color acts violently, they are a thug.  When a white person is violent, they are mentally and emotionally disturbed.  When a person of color possesses drugs, they are a drug dealer.  When a white person has drugs, they are in need of treatment.  When a person of color is arrested, they probably did something criminal.  When a white person is charged, they are innocent until proven guilty.

Our society seldom gives the person of color the benefit of the doubt. Our police officers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they drive on our streets.  Our judges don’t give them the benefit of the doubt if they end up in our courts.  Our employers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they apply for a job.  Our store guards don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they shop.  I could go on and on.  When you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they report acts of racism, you are just as racist as the police officers, judges, employers and guards you find objectionable.

So start giving people of color the benefit of the doubt.

When your knee jerk response is to doubt their experience and defend the behavior of the white person, recognize that for what it is – evidence of your deeply embedded racism. Admit it.  You cannot control it.  You can only acknowledge and apologize for it.

Only then, can you hope to listen and learn from the experiences of people of color.

The Umbrella

The Umbrella

My beautiful black daughter, Ella, turned ten. No more single digits.  No more little girl.  She’s grown two inches since December. She’s dealing with her first pimple.  She has the beginnings of a teenager’s sarcastic wit.  This is both wonderful and frightening.  It is wonderful to watch her becoming a young woman and frightening when I remember what it means to become a black woman in America.  While I celebrate her growing maturity and independence, I also realize my ability to protect her from racism is diminishing.

Last week, she and I went on a walk. For years, this meant her walking beside me.  Now I walk and she rides her scooter, exploring her burgeoning freedom to navigate this world. Vacillating between child and young adult, sometimes she rides next to me and sometimes she ventures far ahead of me, only circling back when I call out to her.

As we walk through our white neighborhood, I notice a new dynamic. When she is beside me, the white people we encounter greet us with warm smiles, wishing us a good day.  They recognize her as my daughter or granddaughter and offer her all the entitlements of my white privilege.  But when she ventures too far ahead of me, when it isn’t obvious she is connected to me, the demeanor of the white people she encounters shifts.  No one smiles and greets her. Some stare at her, obviously disturbed by this unaccompanied black girl in their neighborhood.  Only when I call out to her to slow down or come back, do they relax.

I’m not criticizing these people. How can I?  They are like me.  Their reaction has been my reaction when I’ve encountered people of color where I did not expect them.  Discomfort.  Suspicion.  Even hostility.  Yet, as I watch the reaction of white people like me, I am also ashamed.  This is white privilege exposed.  It is not an academic abstraction, open to debate.  It is a visible manifestation of a deeply embedded inequity and cruelty.

It is as if I am carrying a large umbrella on our walk. When Ella is near me and underneath that umbrella, she is afforded all the rights and respects of my white privilege.  But, when she ventures outside my umbrella’s shadow, she immediately loses those benefits. She is judged differently. She is greeted with discomfort and suspicion. She is no longer endearing. She is a threat.

So I am finding her tenth birthday bittersweet. I am so proud of who she is becoming, of her intelligence and creativity, her passion for life, her kindness to others and her genuine outrage over injustice.  On our walk, I asked her who – in her class – she thought most likely to become the President of the United States and she replied, “Me, of course.”  I love the confidence with which she approaches her future.  I have so much to celebrate on her birthday.

But I am also aware of the forces that will do everything in their power to keep my beautiful black daughter from becoming the President of the United States. She will spend less and less of her life walking under the umbrella of my white privilege.  She is moving out into a world where she will have many opportunities to be outraged at injustice.  What she does not fully understand is how often she will be the victim of those injustices.

She is why I write these posts. I wish I had thought and written such things long ago, but I didn’t understand my complicity in racial injustice until I became her father. Without becoming her father, I would still be oblivious.  For this reason, I try to be patient with those – who in their ignorance – continue to downplay the role of racism and white privilege in our nation.  How can they understand?  They can’t see the umbrella under which they walk.

This is why I speak out even though I often irritate friends and family. Speaking out is the least I can do for Ella.  I can try to make visible what is invisible, to illustrate what seems abstract or absurd to many white people.  I write because I want my daughter to grow up in a world where the possibility of her becoming the President of the United States is neither ridiculous nor improbable, where the white people she encounters see what I see – beauty, intelligence and incredible potential.

I cannot give Ella that gift for her tenth birthday, but that is the gift she deserves.

The Pretense of Ignorance

The Pretense of Ignorance

In 1965, the United States Congress passed legislation requiring all cigarette packaging to contain the following warning – “Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema and May Complicate Pregnancy.”  While part of a larger effort to reduce smoking, there is compelling evidence that these warnings contributed to the 59% decrease in smoking that has occurred since 1965.  Millions of lives were lengthened and billions of dollars in health costs avoided because we used political force and legal regulation to destroy the pretense of ignorance.  People could continue to smoke, but they could no longer pretend they didn’t know it caused cancer.

Publicly proclaiming a truth matters.  Humans have a strong inclination to avoid negative information, especially when that information reminds us of an ugly truth.  Being repeatedly reminded of something we would rather ignore makes it difficult for us to sustain a delusion.  Indeed, studies have shown that the larger and more prominent the warnings on cigarette packaging, the greater likelihood that someone will quit smoking.  You can’t be subtle if you want societal change.  This is true whether you’re talking about smoking or racism.

Think about this for a moment. How would our country be different if we had applied the same approach to fighting and ending systemic racism as we did to reducing smoking?  What if we had used our political will to destroy the pretense of ignorance and exposed the evidence of systemic racism all around us?  What if we had publicly proclaimed the truth about systemic racism by requiring labels in the many places where it has or is occurring?

For example, we know hundreds of FHA financed housing developments were built from 1945 until the early 1970s with stipulations that people of color could not purchase or live in those homes. If you are white, there is a high likelihood your grandparents or parents purchased one of those homes and lived in one of those developments.  These policies intentionally segregated our society and forced people of color into ghettos. This is an ugly truth many of us ignore.

Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court finally prohibited these discriminatory policies with a 6-0 decision (three justices lived in such a development and recused themselves), most white Americans were oblivious. The court ruled against the practice, but did nothing to challenge the pretense of ignorance.  How would our nation be different if they had also required truth in labeling?  Imagine hundreds of suburban housing developments with these words underneath their entrance signs, “This subdivision, in violation of the US Constitution, was intentionally and maliciously created to exclude and marginalize people of color.”

Or how about the banks that refused to provide loans to people of color, even when they meet every qualification except white skin? Some white people know about redlining, but most of us have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance.  We can pretend white people are wealthier because we work harder and not because the game has been fixed in our favor.  We can argue that people of color live in certain neighborhoods because of their desire to live near each other. Imagine if every bank in the US had a large sign on their door that read, “This bank, in violation of the US Constitution, created ghettos by refusing to provide people of the color with legitimate loans for housing and business.”

Or how about the many towns that had laws on their books denying people of color permission to live, work or shop within their boundaries? It didn’t just happen in the South.  You would be hard pressed to find any organized municipality without this type of activity in its past.  Indeed, many municipalities were first organized to either exclude or remove people of color from predominantly white areas.  If your grandparents or parents lived in such communities, they probably voted for the officials who created such restrictions.  What if every single one of these towns and villages had to add these words below their welcome signs, “This community historically and shamefully denied people of color their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Or, if this labeling seems radical, how about at least acknowledging the most heinous acts of racial discrimination and hatred in our past? Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 incidents of whites lynching a black person or a white sympathizer.  What if Congress had simply required every single town where a lynching occurred to raise a monument with the words, “Never Again.” Certainly, most white people would agree that lynching was a violation of the most basic human and civil rights and should never occur again.  Wouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, unlike with smoking, our white controlled society has consistently denied, diminished, obscured and ignored our complicity in some very ugly and racist habits. We’ve done all in our power to maintain our pretense of ignorance.  We’ve refused to publicly acknowledge what our grandparents and parents intentionally and maliciously did to people of color.  We’ve sanitized our text books.  We’ve limited the truth in labeling to a few museums and plaques.

In so doing, we have done terrible damage not only to people of color, but to our national psyche. Donald Trump and his racist policies are only possible because millions of white people have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance.  Only this pretense makes it possible for a presidential candidate say “black communities are disasters, full of crime and decay” with a straight face.  Only this pretense allows mobs of white people to scream “Make America Great Again” without even a hint of shame or sarcasm.  By not acknowledging our past, we have endangered our future.

Imagine for a moment a society where the Supreme Court ruled smoking caused cancer, but didn’t require any significant changes in governmental policy or legal regulations. Imagine a society where millions of people died of lung cancer and emphysema every year, but most people continued to express puzzlement about the cause.  Imagine a society where people were outraged not by these deaths, but by any suggestion that smoking was the cause of societal ills.  Does that seem ridiculous?

It shouldn’t.

That is precisely the kind of society we have created in response to historic and systemic racism. Many white people are more outraged by the accusation of system racism than its reality. Is it really any surprise that white people resist the idea of reparations?  We haven’t even accepted and acknowledged what our grandparents and parents did.  Instead, we have chosen the pretense of ignorance.

I see this pretense all around me. I see it in politics, in the media, and in the conversations I have with friends and family.  I see it in myself and my ignorance about many historic facts.  Sadly, without some national truth in labeling, I see little hope.  As our national battle against smoking has taught us, you can’t be subtle if you want societal change.

Postscript: For those interested in being less ignorant, I would highly recommend the book, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein.  Much of my new understanding of the facts in this post come from that book.

What Are You?

What Are You?

My daughter-in-law is bi-racial. Her father was black and her mother was white. Her skin is a very light brown, making it possible to think her Latino, Asian or even Middle Eastern.  This racial ambiguity often makes white people uncomfortable.  Uncertain of how to identify her, complete strangers often ask, “What are you?” While she finds this offensive, she usually responds with, “I am a human being just like you.”

Of course, some people – either lacking certain social graces or harboring deeper prejudices – don’t get this not-so-subtle suggestion that their question is racist. They persist in their attempt to categorize her. They say, “You know what I mean.  What race are you?” To which my daughter-in-law answers proudly, “I’m half black and half white.” Sadly, many of her questioners seem only concerned about whether any part of her is black.

The lineage of another person shouldn’t be our concern.  That we are all human beings should be enough to engender respect and kindness.  If someone was really curious about my daughter-in-law’s family history, they could ask far less offensive questions.  Asking “what are you?” – with its objectifying language – is obviously focused on determining status rather than empathy and understanding.  They are asking if my daughter-in-law is due their deference or disdain. For some, any blackness is justification for disdain.

While I think such questions offensive and racist, they are far too common. All of us are repeatedly asked to identify what we are.  Indeed, our government is one of the worst culprits, demanding this information on a variety of forms.  We are offered a list of boxes with different racial and ethnic designations and asked to fit our often complicated histories into these prescribed boxes.  My daughter-in-law prefers to identify as bi-racial, but is often asked to identify as either black or white.

Sadly, while my daughter-in-law has both a black and white parent, she does not necessarily have the right to identify as white. The predominantly white culture demands those without a “pure” lineage identify with the “less pure” lineage.  People with a black ancestor are black. Though we’re given the impression we can self-identify, historically the government has carefully delineated who fits in what box.  Those who deviate have often found themselves in court or jail.

Fifty years ago, it was against the law for my son and my daughter-in-law to marry. To enforce these laws, the government established who was white and who was not.  In Virginia, 1/16th black was black.  In Florida, I/8th black was black.  In Alabama, any black ancestors made you black, regardless of how you physically appeared.  Thirty years ago, many southern states still had laws that determined how to categorize people.  These “one drop” laws were designed to defend the purity of the races, specifically the white race.

While most of these laws were repealed or found unconstitutional, the courts are still asked to rule on racial identification. When there are disagreements about “what we are,” the courts are asked to judge.  The census includes an admonition against fraud, implying that self-identification is potentially criminal if the government decides you are not who you say you are.  Indeed, for the 2020 census, the government has added a new category – Middle East/North Africa.  Many people who previously identified as white are being asked to identify themselves differently.  They are no longer white.

As complicated as racial identification has been for my daughter-in-law, it could be even more complicated for her children – my grandsons. What are they?  By appearance, they both look very white.  Yet by the old formulas, they are 1/4th black.  What box should they mark?  Should they mark the one that honors their father or the one that respects their mother?  Why should they even have to choose?  And, if they choose to apply to college as a black person, could the courts accuse them of fraud?

Such questions expose race as the cultural and political construct it has always been. Race is used to divide and categorize us.  For some, it means inclusion and all of its benefits.  For others, it creates obstacles and disadvantages.  In America, it has always been a construct designed with one primary goal – to guard white identity and power.  Within this American racial construct, identifying as white is a protected privilege.

The problem in America is not with how people of color identify themselves. The problem is that so many of us – whose genealogies are probably far more diverse that we know or acknowledge – continue to proudly wear the white label.  As long as I identify as white, I give tacit approval to the cultural and political construct that does so much damage to people of other colors.  Racism will not end with laws or constitutional amendments.  It will only end when white people abandon and deconstruct the idea of whiteness as preferable and normative.

I will not pretend this deconstruction is an easy task. White privilege was embedded in the very foundation of our nation.  Our cultural institutions were built on this foundation.  Cosmetic changes to a few laws do little damage to its underpinnings. However, I am certain who holds the responsibility for deconstruction.  It is the ancestors of those who built this ugly system.  It is white people like me.  In the months ahead, I will be wrestling with the many ways I and other white people can speed the deconstruction.

For example, how should I identify in the 2020 census? To identify as white feels like flashing my membership card to an exclusive club. Yet I also understand that demographic information has provided evidence of inequities and support to those who challenge them.  Even with this statistical evidence of great inequities, many white people resist change.  Without this demographic information, how can the courts be swayed and people shamed?

But I also realize demographics are a two edged sword. The census data of the 1930s was used to identify the Japanese who were placed in internment camps.  How will the label North Africa/Middle Eastern be used against Muslim people?  The boxes we mark give power and legitimacy to what I hate, the idea that people can be divided and valued by the color of their skin.  As much I wish, we are not at a place and time where my daughter-in-law’s response that “she is a human being just like you” is enough.

Until that day, I will use my membership card to gain entry to the club, examine all of its many security measures, exploit their weaknesses and plot its destruction. My goal is not that my white looking grandsons are assured admission. This would be no victory.  I want to tear down the building, brick by brick and stone by stone.  I want to destroy this American apartheid, to see a day when marking the box “white” has no more value than any other box.

The Walls That Divide Us

The Walls That Divide Us

When I was a boy, my parents moved our large family from a town to a farm. We went from a small house with a small yard to a house on eleven acres of fields and woods, with a small pond and a creek running through it.  For my three brothers, my sister and me, the move was magical.  Our first summer there was one of adventure and exploration.  We spent our days clearing trails through the woods and building small wooden bridges over the creek.  We also became acquainted with our neighbors, of which we had one.

Our new home shared a lane with one other house, inhabited by a young married couple with no children and a swimming pool. My siblings and I quickly decided to become fast friends with Roger and Eilene and their pool, visiting them several times each day.  We were certain they would like us and utterly devastated when – a few weeks after we arrived – Roger built a tall privacy fence between their house and ours.

When we asked my father why Roger and Eilene had built the fence, he avoided the obvious answer that young married couples don’t usually fantasize about sharing their lives and their pool with five very noisy and nosey children. Instead, he said, “There are two kinds of people in this world – people who build walls and people who build bridges.  Roger and Eilene are the wall building kind and we’re the bridge building kind.”

I’ve remembered my father’s words often throughout my life. Time and again, I’ve encountered people and situations where the dividing line has often been between wall building and bridge building.  I’ve seen this in issues of politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality.  I’ve also realized that most of us are taught to be one or the other.  Neither I nor any of my siblings have ever built a fence between our yards and those of our neighbors.  We understood that what you build is a reflection of a deeper attitude toward life.

Ironically, in my formative adult years, I watched another conservative Republican president – Ronald Reagan – spend a lot of time talking about walls. Only his mantra was “Tear down that wall.”  I vividly remember when the world celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and all that it represented.  Conservatives and progressives alike recognized that any wall that keeps poor and oppressed people from freedom and opportunity is to be hated and opposed.  Back then, it was the Communists who were chanting “Build that wall.”

I suppose that’s why I worry so much about our President’s desire to build a wall on our southern border. I fear our country is changing and not for the better, that what we want to build is a reflection of a deeper malaise, of a not so subtle shift from being a nation of bridge builders to being a nation of wall builders.  Does this desire to build a wall represent a deeper inclination to build walls between people of different politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality?  This seems a fairly easy case to make.

Early estimates for the cost of building the border wall run anywhere from $15 to $25 billion dollars, with past performance by government construction projects suggesting we error on the higher number. Other projections suggest manning, monitoring and maintaining the wall could require an additional billion dollars each year.  This would make the wall a $35 billion dollar investment for ten years of “protection” from poor and oppressed men, women and children seeking freedom and opportunity. More damning, this priority on wall building will mean the paltry $320 million dollars of foreign aid we have previously provided to Mexico will end.  In the first quarter of the Trump presidency, we gave less than $1 million dollars in assistance to battling poverty in Mexico.

As a director of a community development organization – CoCoDA – which does work in Central America, I have to wonder what would happen if – instead of a wall – we invested $35 billion dollars in schools, clinics, roads and housing in Mexico and Central America. After all, another way to eliminate illegal immigration is to eliminate its necessity.  I’d feel so much better about the use of my tax dollars if I knew they were going to building something that will enhance human lives.  But then again, I’m bridge builder.

However, in the end, it is not the financial cost of the wall that most concerns me. We are a rich nation and can afford to build a wall.  What I fear is the cost to our national psyche.  What are we teaching our children about the world and our place in it?  Will the walls we create to “protect” ourselves eventually become our prisons, keeping us from seeing, understanding and relating to the rest of the world?

When I was a boy, Roger and Eilene built a wall between their home and ours. It made it much harder for my siblings and me to visit them when they were swimming in their pool, but we persisted.  A couple of years later, they sold their home and moved.  While I don’t know how much we contributed to that decision, I suspect their wall didn’t accomplish what they hoped.  That is my experience with walls.  They seldom provide what we desire.

When Condemning Genital Mutilation Is Racist

When Condemning Genital Mutilation Is Racist

I am universally opposed to genital mutilation. It does not matter to me if your religion considers the alteration of the human sexual organs divinely ordained or your culture finds it morally defensible.  I think it should be against the law and physicians and parents who mutilate the sexual organs of their children should be punished.  I applaud the nearly universal condemnation of Jumana Nagarwala, the Muslim emergency room physician, arrested for committing female genital mutilation on several young girls.  I also think much of this public outcry is racist.  It is more about the hatred of Muslims than concern for these children.

Why would I make such an outrageous statement?

As a victim and perpetrator of religiously ordained and culturally approved genital mutilation, I find it suspect when Christian and Jewish Americans who circumcise their sons suddenly become ardent opponents of genital mutilation. If altering the sexual organs of Muslim children is so appalling, how do we justify what we do?  How are our justifications for circumcision any nobler than Muslim justifications for a clitoridectomy?  Both procedures are based on religious and cultural opinion rather than good science.  And why do we use a medical term like circumcision for what we do and a pejorative term like mutilation for what some Muslims do?  Circumcision is clearly the mutilation of the male genitalia.

Let me make this clear. I am not defending the actions of Jumana Nagarwala or the parents of the children she mutilated.   I universally oppose genital mutilation.   Therefore, I cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Christian and Jewish Americans using this incident as one more opportunity to demonize Muslim people, many of whom also oppose genital mutilation.  This is racist.  I will also oppose attempts by some Muslim people to defend genital mutilation as culturally relative and worthy of tolerance.  My opposition to their argument is not racist, if it is based on a universally applied principle.

I understand this is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one as we sort through issues of culture, privilege and racism. As a white, male American, I must be very careful of what and whom I critique.  My privileged position makes is easy to identify and condemn the flaws in others.  I must be constantly aware of how my prejudice impacts my opinions.  As I make judgments of other people, I must carefully sort out those judgments that are racist from those that are moral.

For example, when I began attending public school graduations at my children’s urban schools, I was forced to examine my judgments of the black families sitting around me. They were loud and boisterous, interrupting the proceedings with cheers and shouts.  Initially, based on my cultural preferences, I judged them rude and obnoxious.  Only later did it occur to me that high school graduation, which I had grown up seeing as normative and expected, is a cause of great celebration for a marginalized group.  My judgment of them was racist.

On the other hand, raising children in a diverse setting, I also became aware of the higher levels of the use of corporal punishment by black parents. In black culture, the physical punishment of children is often tolerated, defended and even celebrated.  Though there are some good explanations for why many black parents utilize corporal punishment, I oppose corporal punishment for children.  I oppose this behavior in parents of all races and ethnicities.

This moral position does not give me the right to target black parents for my condemnation. That would be racist. There are plenty of white parents who still whip their children.  It does, however, allow me to oppose any argument that defends corporal punishment as either a black cultural distinctive or a conservative Christian hallmark.  I don’t care what your parents, religion, or culture taught you.  Beating your child is wrong.

The problem, whether we’re dealing with genital mutilation, corporal punishment, or a variety of other human behaviors, is when we condemn another group or race for a behavior we tolerate. When we do so, we are speaking out of racial prejudice rather than moral outrage.  Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to address the acceptance and prevalence of that behavior in our own group or culture.  Looking through the windows of someone else’s house only distracts us from our own housecleaning.

This is why I find the Facebook posts calling for Jumana Nagarwala’s punishment in the ugliest terms so disturbing. It smacks of hatred and racism.  Racism is most dangerous when it wraps itself in moral indignation, focusing on another group’s imperfections rather than on our own complicity.  When Christian and Jewish American’s finally abandon our fixation on altering male genitalia, I will be less suspicious of our condemnations of Jumana Nagarwala.

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

Note to my white self…

When other white people say “all lives matter,” don’t be confused. You’ve written about white code.  You’ve talked about those terms white people use to voice racist sentiments without sounding racist.   “All lives matter” – when voiced in response to “black lives matter” – is white code.  It is not a defense of human rights.

Certainly, all lives should matter. The lives of every person, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their ethnicity, their religious faith or their sexual orientation, should matter equally. This is a noble and principled assertion, especially in a world where religious, political and economic forces don’t always affirm the universal worth of every individual.  If you’re discussing and defending human rights, stating that all lives matter is a good starting point.

Unfortunately, when the starting point is someone else saying “black lives matter,” saying “all lives matter” does not come off as noble and principled. You sound racist.  Your defense of all lives suggests a lack of sensitivity and understanding, some unacknowledged racism or perhaps both.  In responding with “all lives matter,” you imply the person saying “black lives matter” is really saying “black lives matter more” and this is simply ridiculous.

“Black lives matter” developed as a response to the lack of concern on the part of police departments, the media and the political system to situations where black people have been the victims of police brutality and even murder. It was never the assertion that “black lives matter more” than other lives. It was a desperate cry of those who were experiencing a world where “black lives matter less.”  “Black lives matter” is another way of saying “All lives don’t seem to matter equally.”

When you respond with “all lives matter,” it suggests a disconnect on your part. Maybe you don’t want to admit you live in a world where such horrible inequities exist.  Maybe you’re afraid the only way black lives can matter more is if white lives matter a little less.  Maybe you see the world as place where all lives matter at birth, but are thereafter judged worthy by other standards.  Maybe when you say “all lives matter” you mean all lives matter, but some lives matter more.  Maybe you think black people are making that claim because you look at the world that way.

Let’s be clear. If you really believe all lives matter, the proper response to “black lives matter” is simply one word – “Yes.”  Anything else is suspect.

And don’t get me started about “blue lives matter.” If claiming “all lives matter” is insensitive, then claiming “blue lives matter” is downright ugly.  It implies that when a black person and a police officer encounter one another, the life of the police officer matters more than that of the black person.  This is what people of color hear when you defend the actions of the police and disparage the character of the victim.  They know that after nearly every shooting, the white media, politicians and police departments spend tremendous energy is portraying the black person as criminal or questionable, as a life with less worth.

Sadly, people of color agree that blue lives matter more than black lives. It is their experience.  It is precisely why they’ve been arguing “black lives matter.” Indeed, they know official police policy and judicial pronouncements have consistently defended the right of a police officer to kill a black person when they feel threatened.  Notice that they have the right to do so when they ”feel” threatened.  Whether they were actually threatened is almost irrelevant.  Protecting blue lives matters more than protecting black ones.

So stop saying “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” It’s insensitive, ugly and racist.  It is not how mature people respond to expressions of pain and tragedy.

Imagine you discover you have lung cancer. You share this terrible news with your friends and family.  They respond by reminding you that “all cancers matter.”  What would you think?  How would you feel if they responded by listing all of your behaviors in the past that might have contributed to your cancer?  What if they suggested you didn’t deserve to be treated fairly by the medical system?  How angry would that make you?

If you share the news of your cancer with someone, you only want one thing – their understanding and support. If someone says “black lives matter, they are asking for the same understanding and support.  In a world where not all lives matter equally, that seems a reasonable request.