The recent one-year anniversary of the dawning of the Black Lives Matter movement has spanwed a lot of reflection over the tumultuous year that has passed. The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and too many others have sparked and fueled a national outrage that has brought the issue of the destruction of black bodies to more American living rooms than perhaps any time since the Civil Rights Movement. But while white Americans may be more aware than ever of the central issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement, many are still confused about what “black lives matter” actually means.
That confusion often translates into anger, much of which stems from the movement’s perceived exclusivity. “So black lives matter and other lives don’t?!” an incredulous white person might ask, “That’s reverse racism! ALL lives matter!”
This is flawed thinking that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of all things racial, a mistake that is understandably easy to make when you grow up in a nearly all white community without any black people to complicate your worldview (Exhibit A: Me.) For white people, reverse racism is just like the racist shit that white people do to black people, but in reverse. For instance, if someone were to start a “White Lives Matter” movement, that would largely, and in my opinion correctly, be labeled as racist. So isn’t Black Lives Matter racist too? The answer is no, and that’s because reverse racism is not a real thing. It doesn’t exist.
To really wrap your head around why there is no such thing as “reverse racism,” it is helpful to be familiar with some textbook definitions of words like “racism,” “prejudice,” and “discrimination,” but I don’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole. Saying there’s no such thing as reverse racism is not the same thing as saying there are no black people that hate white people. There most certainly are. I could probably go find some right now if I wandered into the wrong bar on the other side of the highway. But the key difference between black hate of white people and white hate of black people is understanding where that hate comes from.
White hate for black people is historical. It comes out of a history of perceived racial superiority, of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban ghettos. Likewise, black hate for white people is historical as well, but it comes from a history of being on the receiving end of that oppression, of receiving the hate and returning it accordingly. It doesn’t necessarily excuse black hate, but it does help to explain it.
More importantly, what makes racism racism is the –ism part. The –ism suggests that there is a system at play and that that system takes sides. In other words, if you’re a white person and you hate a black person, you have the system on your side. However, if you’re a black person and you hate a white person, you don’t have that luxury. You can’t put racism in reverse.
So Black Lives Matter is not racist, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not exclusive. Certainly it is not as inclusive as the #AllLivesMatter hashtag that is used by some to mock and challenge the Black Lives Matter movement. But this gets at another fundamental misunderstanding, the idea that by saying “black lives matter” you are somehow saying that white lives do not.
The reality is the opposite. The reason that nobody says “white lives matter” is because nobody needs to say it; we already know it. We know it by the way that white lives are talked about on TV. We know it by the way that white lives are written about in the paper. People take notice when a white life is lost.
Unfortunately, with black lives, this is less likely to be the case. Lost black lives are ignored or glossed over. The deceased are often labeled as gangsters and thugs whose deaths can be chalked up to gang violence. Even in life, black people are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to receive a shitty education, more likely to go to jail…Both in life and in death, black lives continue to be undervalued compared to those of whites.
And that is why the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting. They are not fighting to have the lives of black people valued at a greater level than those of white people, they are fighting to have their lives valued at an equal level to those of white people, to receive the same privileges of respect and dignity and attention that many of us in the white community take so much for granted. When a black person dies from causes related to systemic poverty, they want people to care. When a black person is unjustly gunned down in the street, they want people to get angry. They literally just want black lives to matter. That’s what it means. Nothing more.