To the people who say “All Lives Matter” and “race is not the issue:”
In the wake of the recent anti-black violence, the black community has outlined ways that white folks can help support #BlackLivesMatter. In my experience, however, so many white folks aren’t even close to the “how to be a black comrade” part. So many white folks argue with each other over whether racism is really even a thing in this country, and I’ve mostly taken the stance of “I’m not going to argue with you about whether racism is a thing, that’s a waste of time because you’re probably never going to change your mind.” But I’ve changed my mind, because it’s certainly not the burden of the black community to convince white people that they’re being mistreated because they’re black, and how can we fix the problem if people don’t even believe it’s a problem?
People who don’t support Black Lives Matter are the ones dividing the country
As a woman, I can say, “I don’t feel safe walking alone at night,” and people offer suggestions to always walk in groups, communities add emergency lighting and call buttons to secluded spots, and campuses implement “safe ride” escort programs (although when something does happen, you still get blamed for being out at night, but that’s another story). But when black folks say, “We don’t feel safe walking ANYWHERE at ANY time of day,” white folks go on the defense and say things like “get over yourself and stop playing the race card, nobody is out to get you” and “black people kill black people too, it doesn’t have anything to do with race.”
Why? Why can’t we just believe people who tell us they don’t feel safe because of the color of their skin?
Some (who shall remain unnamed) say Black Lives Matter is an “agenda at play to weaken America through disunity,” and “self-descriptions that put any race in front of being an American are now used to further divide our nation.” We should take pride in our unique individual heritages, cultures, and experiences—identifying as Black-American or Native-American or Jewish-American isn’t dividing us. The labels aren’t the problem. The problem is that we can’t accept our differences, acknowledge people’s unique struggles and triumphs, and admit to the ways we may have hurt other people or held them back. If we all support the movement, we will no longer be divided. #BlackLivesMatter isn’t creating a division—it’s acknowledging the division that already exists.
The racial division was systematically created by the U.S. Government
400 years ago people in the Caribbean and Africa were captured against their will, forced to work, and white people decided that they were a sub-human species. 150 years ago black people legally counted as three-fifths of a person. 100 years ago black people needed to pass a literacy test in order to vote, but white people were exempt. 50 years ago black people could only legally marry other black people, even if they only had “one drop of black blood” in them, which many people did because so many enslaved women were raped by white people (as per the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that required a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into two classifications: white and colored). And today black men are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white men (mostly for non-violent drug offenses).
“All Lives Matter” is not acceptable right now
Saying “All Lives Matter,” or that the fact black people have been killed by police at a rate two-and-a-half times that of white people in the last two years “isn’t about race” is not acceptable. It’s just not. Don’t say it. And if you think it, please do the work of finding out why it’s not acceptable. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem.
Black Lives Matter is a movement with incredible momentum right now, and the black community is screaming to be heard. We cannot choose to ignore them now, as we have always done in the past. If someone calls you out on not supporting what is probably the most important movement of our lifetime, it’s not shaming (although you may feel ashamed) and it’s not suppressing other points of view, it’s simply accepting nothing less than the truth. And while truth is a multi-layered facet of reality, we can work together to find it—but that doesn’t start by ignoring already-established truths like the fact that most every American has an implicit bias that white skin equals good/trustworthy/happy and black skin equals bad/criminal/angry. And that is something that is learned.
When I was a kid, probably 7 years old, I was in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois with my mom and grandma and saw the coolest playground. I asked if we could stop there to play, and my mom looked at the group of black kids playing and said, “This probably isn’t the safest place to stop, it’s in a black neighborhood, we’ll go find a different park.” Is my mom racist? She’ll say absolutely not—she voted for Obama! She believes black people deserve all the respect and dignity and rights that white people have, but the truth is when you see a group of young black children with their parents playing at a park and immediately think “DANGER!” that is racist, by definition. We all have those biases because that’s what we’ve been taught for generations, and we must work to undo them. We must work to acknowledge that there wasn’t any indication that park was dangerous and admit that we didn’t go to that park simply because there were black people there. And if white people can recognize that black communities are unsafe enough to not let our children play alongside theirs, then why aren’t we doing anything to help make them safer?
Scientific studies have proven that anti-black biases exist
The majority of Americans unconsciously associate black with bad and white with good. I took the implicit association test for race and have a “strong automatic preference for European Americans compared to African Americans,” which isn’t surprising given the park situation above. And I hope to figure out a way to work through those biases in a way that translates to real-life behavioral changes. Several studies suggest this implicit bias as a reason for why police kill black people at a higher rate than white people:
On the contrary, a study that just came out this year found that even though 96% of the white officers in the study had an anti-black racial bias, they were less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects in a Reverse Racism Effect. Note: this test was conducted in 2012 before the events in Ferguson, MO and the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, with officers from Spokane, WA, which is in the bottom half of state rankings for fatal police shootings, and the officers involved were significantly concerned with the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial group. Still, a racial effect exists, and if putting social pressure on people with anti-black biases is enough to influence their behavior, then I think there’s hope that maybe we can change racism in this country—although the author of the study stated she thinks the Reverse Racism Effect is detrimental to police safety: “We need to move beyond the post–Ferguson atmosphere where all use of force against a racial/ethnic minority person is considered biased and unreasonable until proven otherwise. We need to move beyond this atmosphere that leads officers to put their lives in danger to avoid the significant-to-dire consequences of using force even when it is justified.” (What are those “significant-to-dire consequences” of using force against a racial/ethnic minority even when justified? Even when it’s not justified, the consequence is almost always only temporary administrative leave). Ideally, race shouldn’t play a role in whether a person is judged “good” or “bad,” “dangerous” or “not-dangerous,” reversely or otherwise, but the truth is that it does.
I don’t know how anybody could possibly say there is no “race issue” in America or that Black Lives Matter created this divide. Yes, those earlier laws have been repealed and replaced by non-discrimination clauses, but do we really think doing that automatically changed the minds of all the white folks who participated in and benefited from their privilege for hundreds of years, and the minds of all the people who were taught that people of color are automatically untrustworthy, dangerous, unintelligent, etc.? That doesn’t just go away. We have to work at it.
Historical trauma: “The children of the traumatized have always carried their parents’ suffering under their skin.”
The origin of the black community in this country is rooted in horrific trauma. Beatings. Whippings. Forced labor. Hangings. Rapings. That doesn’t just go away either. Recent studies have found that descendants of Holocaust survivors have physical, biological marks of their ancestors’ trauma on their DNA and they may even be born less able to metabolize stress. And while “people who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules,” I wouldn’t be so quick to assume disadvantage. I think the disadvantage comes because nobody has ever helped those communities recover and are still abusing them. And while I come from two traumatized (white) parents as well (rape and violence), knowing all-too-well the effects of intergenerational trauma, I can’t imagine that suffering is comparable to the rape and violence and still current disenfranchisement the entire black community suffers collectively, especially because I was able to access healthcare and social support systems to help me recover from my trauma. And nobody is mistreating me because I’m white.
Black and white folks alike say things like “but black people are killing black people too!” And even black folks say “we need to start respecting ourselves if we expect the white folks to treat us better.” Correct me if I’m not in my lane, but I say NO. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the black community, nothing makes them less worthy of human dignity and respect and safety. Yes drugs and violence are problems. Yes criminal activity and abuse and unemployment are problems. But is that really all that surprising, given the horrible way the entire community has been treated? Given the way they’ve been forced into Projects, refused social resources, denied quality education and healthcare, and were told by federal law that they are less-than-human? After I was raped, I spent almost 10 years abusing drugs and alcohol, having run-ins with the cops, even getting arrested once—and I’m just one person, imagine a whole community getting raped? While I disdain the use of the word rape for anything other than what it is, I think it’s an appropriate comparison to make here.
#BlackLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter
Yes, “men and women of all races have been unjustly beaten, killed, silenced, disarmed, and spied on by US law enforcement and the government in general,” but not at the same rates and not for the same reasons. Poor people are unjustly treated in this country. So are Native Americans, Latinx people, trans folks, and women. But nobody but black people experience that specific brand of black disenfranchisement, and black folks deserve better than what they have been given in this country. Helping the Native American/Latinx/Trans /etc. folks isn’t going to help black people, though I hope they establish equally as powerful movements that I will undoubtedly support. I am prepared to do whatever it takes to help the people who tell me they need help, and right now it’s Black Lives Matter who gets our attention. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m going to end with a quote from Newt Gingrich (what?! it seems a little wrong, I know) who said the Black Lives Matter movement should be seen as a “corrective” and the pushback is because “initially people reject because it’s not in their world.” Because if The Newt can get it, anybody can:
It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.
Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, researching the effects of trauma on the brain and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir