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.