Why “Black” Makes Us Uncomfortable
Dear fellow white people, let’s have an honest talk about why we say “All Lives Matter.” First of all, notice that no one was saying “All Lives Matter” before people started saying “Black Lives Matter.” So “All Lives Matter” is a response to “Black Lives Matter.” Apparently, something about the statement “Black Lives Matter” makes us uncomfortable. Why is that?
Now some white people might say that singling out Black people’s lives as mattering somehow means that white lives don’t matter. Of course, that’s silly. If you went to a Breast Cancer Awareness event, you wouldn’t think that they were saying that other types of cancer don’t matter. And you’d be shocked if someone showed up with a sign saying “Colon Cancer Matters” or chanting “All Cancer Patients Matter.” So clearly, something else is prompting people to say “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.”
Many of the people saying “All Lives Matter” also are fond of saying “Blue Lives Matter.” If you find that the statement “Black Lives Matter” bothers you, but not “Blue Lives Matter,” then the operative word is “Black”. That should tell us something. There’s something deeply discomfiting about the word “Black.” I think it’s because it reminds us of our whiteness and challenges our notion that race doesn’t matter.
The Problem With “Colorblindness”
If you’re like me, growing up, the word “Black” was always spoken of in whispers in your family. It was like we were saying something taboo. Why was that? Because it was taboo. We might feel more comfortable saying “African-American,” but not “Black.” The reason is that we were raised to believe that “colorblindness” was the ideal for whites. We were taught that we shouldn’t “see color.” And saying the word “Black” was an acknowledgment of the fact that we did “see color.”
The problem with being “colorblind” — aside from the fact that we’re not really — is that it is really a white privilege to be able to ignore race. White people like me have the luxury of not paying attention to race — white or black. The reason is because whiteness is treated as the default in our society. Whiteness is not a problem for white people, because it blends into the cultural background.
Black people, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being “colorblind.” They live in a culture which constantly reminds them of their Black-ness, which tells them in a million large and small ways that they are not as important as white people, that their lives actually do not matter as much as white lives. Which is why saying “Black Lives Matter” is so important.
“Black Lives [Do Not] Matter”
“All Lives Matter” is a problem because it refocuses the issue away from systemic racism and Black lives. It distracts and diminishes the message that Black lives matter or that they should matter more than they do. “All Lives Matter” is really code for “White Lives Matter,” because when white people think about “all lives,” we automatically think about “all white lives.”
We need to say “Black Lives Matter,” because we’re not living it. No one is questioning whether white lives matter or whether police lives matter. But the question of whether Black lives really matter is an open question in this country. Our institutions act like Black lives do not matter. The police act like Black lives do not matter when they shoot unarmed Black people with their arms in the air and when Blacks are shot at two and a half times the rate of whites, even when whites are armed. The judicial system acts like Black lives don’t matter when Blacks are given more severe sentences than whites who commit the same crimes and are turned into chattel in a for-profit prison-industrial complex.
And white people act like Black lives do not matter when we fail to raise the appropriate level of outrage at unjustified killings of Blacks or when we respond with platitudes like “All Lives Matter.”
But we still say it. We say it because “All Lives Matter” lets us get back to feeling comfortable. “Black Lives Matter” makes us uncomfortable. Why? Because it reminds us that race exists. It reminds us that our experience as white people is very different from the experience of Black people in this country. It reminds us that racism is alive and well in the United States of America.
The New Face of Racism
Now, I just said the “R” word, so you’re probably feeling defensive at this point. You’re instinctively thinking to yourself that you are not a racist. You may be thinking that you have Black friends or that you don’t use the N-word or that you would never consciously discriminate against a Black person. But most racism today is more subtle than that. Sure, there is a lot of overt racism that still goes on. The KKK is still active and some white people do still say the N-word. But overt racism is really culturally unacceptable any more among whites today. The racism that we need to face today is much more insidious than white hoods and racial slurs. It is the racism of well-meaning people who are not consciously or intentionally racist.
The racism that we need to face is the racism of average white middle-class Americans who would never think of saying the N-word and would vociferously condemn the KKK, but nevertheless unwittingly participate in institutionalized racism. We most often participate in racism by omission, rather than commission. We participate in racism when we fail to see it where it exists. We participate in racism when we continue to act like race is a problem that only Black people have. We participate in racism when we seek comfortable responses like “All Lives Matter.”