‘All Lives Matter’

9 minute read


For people who think the police are thugs who are out of control, and also think “All Lives Matter.” The ground rules from before still apply. We are friends. I respect you, and you respect me at least enough to read this post. I am happy to engage either publicly or privately, and will listen with an open mind as I hope you do to me.

I’ll come out and say this now: Yes, All Lives Matter. In the strictest sense, you are correct. The fact that All Lives Matter is unalienable and we all must stand unflinching in the truth that, indeed, All Lives Matter. So, why are you being called a bigot or racist for simply saying what we all agree with: that all lives matter?

You are NOT racist for thinking “all lives matter.” It is true that the life of every person who has been innocently murdered or unjustly arrested, matters. It is true that you may be completely agnostic to people’s race — that you are kind to and treat everyone as individuals. That you, yourself, are not racist, and would NEVER treat somebody differently because of their race. Because of these things, you think that “All lives matter” is the correct thing to say, because it is true. And it hurts to be called “racist” when you have spent your whole life striving to treat individuals equally. What gives?

I’d like to try to break down why, in the current political context, the truth that “all lives matter” rings pretty tone-deaf.

Saying things like “I do not treat people differently because of their race” is a variant of “I don’t see race” or “I treat everybody equally.” This invokes an idea of Exceptionalism (specifically, White Exceptionalism). When these things are said, it wilfully refuses to acknowledge that every white person has responsibility and accountability for racism. By excluding yourself from being “racist,” you excuse yourself from your responsibility and accountability for racism. While this responsibility is personal (the one which you already practice by not actively being a dick towards people of other races), it is also global. As a white person, you have abilities that BIPOC do not: your voice is heard at PTA meetings, on city councils, and by racists. Similar to how you may have seen protestors protect each other by creating “white shields” (where white people move to the front of protests, between black folks and police), white people must be leading the charge for equal treatment because the fact of the matter is we are, demonstrably, not there yet. YOU don’t treat people differently because of their race, but that’s not an excuse, because society DOES treat people differently because of their race.

This is close, also, to the idea of “color blindness,” which is the idea that because you treat everybody equally, everybody gets a fair shot with you, so they get a fair shot with the world. While it can be great that you, personally, evaluate people as individuals, this ignores the fact that BIPOC do not get fair treatment in the world at large. Because of this, you (not racist) may “see” problematic behavior disproportionately by BIPOC. You may see crime statistics, or untreated mental illness, or “uncivilised” or “rude” behaviour and not associate the systemic obstacles to success that others face, and while you do not treat individuals differently because of their race, you can’t help but notice it’s always X folks actin’ this way. By saying that because you yourself are not racist you treat everybody equally, you excuse yourself from judging individuals through the inherently racial lens that society imposes on us. It is NOT your fault that that lens exists, but it is your problem. If you want to get back to judging people as individuals, you have to use that privilege we just talked about to help society at large judge people as individuals, too. You have to use the underlying white supremacy in society to defeat the white supremacy in society.

This touches on the idea of “White guilt.” I’m going to be completely honest and I say I have no idea what the zeitgeist is saying about white guilt right now, but I can tell you that white guilt is weaponised often: “I didn’t own slaves, I don’t benefit off the backs of black people, why should I feel guilty for something my ancestors did?” My answer, as a white person, is: you shouldn’t feel guilty, but you should sure as hell recognise the ways that you benefit from the system being set up for you to succeed NOT because it’s been easy for you, but because it’s been even harder for others. Allyship isn’t about feelings of guilt and atonement, but about being motivated by justice: It is simply, viscerally wrong that other people do not get the same treatment as I do because of the color of their skin.

Similarly, saying “All Lives Matter, because what about the other people who are murdered? What about how dangerous it is to be a cop?” is a classic distraction (Whataboutery?) which seeks to downplay the situation at hand. Yes, other people are harmed too. Yes, lifetime prison sentences are abhorrent. Yes, mental health is medically neglected. This is bad. AND it is not the issue at hand, which is that BIPOC people are subject to disproportionate violence and discrimination by police (and throughout other systems!) in the US and UK. In the words of my girl Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, “different things can be sad.”

Something that I haven’t seen explicitly in my circles but I think is worth a mention is the common theme that “I don’t want to argue, this is my opinion,” or “You’re entitled to your opinion, I’m entitled to mine.” This is an example of refusing to engage in debate and potentially acknowledge problematic behaviours, and instead getting defensive in such a way that shuts out all other opinions. Rather than reflect on your actions of beliefs, this focuses the conversation on YOUR feelings and YOUR hurt, not the facts and hands or the reasons behind your beliefs (which are likely the focal point of the conversation, anyway). This shuts down discussion and says “I am not open to learning things that may hurt my feelings.” This is also called “White fragility.”

I want to point out, this is extremely different from “can we not talk about this right now?” or “I am not ready for this discussion.” It is ok to be emotionally exhausted, mentally out-of-breath, or just straight up too tired to take things in. Changing beliefs is EXHAUSTING. It is HARD. It cannot be done quickly. Even just listening to people you love saying things that are contrary to your beliefs can be painful, and it is ok to acknowledge that you are hurting, sad, tired, and can’t take more at a particular moment. You can take time to mentally prepare for these conversations, and only engage in them when you are ready to genuinely listen with an open heart. The key here is: you can’t put this off forever. You must acknowledge that at some point, you must have this reckoning, either with yourself or your loved ones. You can delay, but it can be helpful to say “let’s talk about this next time,” and recognise the mental effort you will have preparing for a Difficult Conversation.

On a more personal note, I recognise that it can hurt to hear a lot of new, contextually-hateful or call-out language denoted around race. “White fragility,” “white guilt,” “white supremacy,” “white exceptionalism,” — it is really difficult to be pinned to these phrases despite not having a personal relationship with them, especially when they’re used to tell someone, essentially, that they’re ignorant or mis-informed. However, I think a majority of white people that I reach will probably share my experience that I’ve never had a “racial” identity before (I do have an American “cultural” identity, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). I’ve never had to. White has been the default. I’ve never been White-American, just American. Something that has helped me start to shed my defensiveness has been embracing my racial identity and the unique aspects of it, and acknowledging and sort-of internally “celebrating” my whiteness, insofar as I recognise the enormous power it gives me in certain situations, and it is an aspect of my life around which I can now learn to “control,” (I can’t change the color of my skin, but I can wield it and STFU when it’s inappropriate to say anything).

To sum it up: you’re not a racist for believing that “all lives matter.” They do. And right now, we have to rally around the lives under threat, so that all lives can continue mattering. All lives matter equally, so right now, we have to step up and make the world around us reflect that.

“All lives matter,” but that is totally not the point. Black lives matter. Let’s start acting like it. “All lives matter” is technically true, but saying that completely erases the narrative of what we’re fighting for, which is black lives, and, more generally, racial equality.