My fear tells me I have nothing to say as a white man living a privileged life in the United States. What if my words will make things worse? What if it’s too little, too late? Well, I don’t usually let fear stop me from speaking my mind, so now doesn’t seem like the time to start.
I have probably experienced more racial prejudice than the average white man. I spent many of my growing-up years living in Mexico City. I have distinct memories of fear. Fear of a corrupt police force. Fear that the police would stop us just for being Americans and demand bribes we couldn’t give. Fear that they would arrest one of my parents just because we were white. I have had a tiny taste, and I am still convinced I know nothing about what it feels like to experience racism in the United States. So the only option I have is to listen to people’s stories of systemic racism in our country. I don’t know what that’s like. So I am listening.
There are a lot of opinions flying around about a particular rallying cry and its use. The cry that Black Lives Matter. I’ve read a lot of pushback from people who feel that it is devaluing non-black lives. We could nitpick the word choice for being vague and allowing that interpretation. But that’s a little like listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech and questioning his diction. What I hear in “Black Lives Matter” is deep pain. The message I hear in those words is “I feel like I don’t matter because I’m black.” The cry is “I just want to matter.” If a person I know and love told me to my face “I feel like I don’t matter” should I respond “everyone matters”? While true, that is not adequately focused and would feel completely insensitive. Likewise, if I were to respond “I know exactly how you feel,” I am putting the focus on myself rather than hearing them, not to mention making a false assumption that what I have experienced is the same. I think my response would have to be “I hear you. You matter”.
Another narrative I have seen is that the system is not as corrupt as is claimed. The opinions of several well-known men of color have been touted as proof that racism is just an excuse. They say to just decide what you want and go for it, stop using racism as an excuse for personal failure. This narrative claims that people of color are playing the victim role. Is this true?
Here’s what I think this narrative is like. I am walking along and come upon a deep hole in the ground. There is a man in the hole. “Help me, I can’t get out!” he says.
In response, I say, “Naw, you could climb out. I’ve seen another man like you and he wasn’t in a hole. That hole isn’t as deep as you think. I’m pretty sure you are choosing to stay in there. Besides, how do I know you didn’t dig that hole yourself? And how do I know you won’t push me in the hole once I help you out?” Then I go about my business. There are too many assumptions made in my response. What if he was pushed in? Hell, what if he was born in the hole? I didn’t climb in to see what the hole was like. I didn’t try to climb out of it myself. In the end, I believe my moral obligation would be to listen to his plight, and help. What if I help him and he falls back in the same hole? Well then maybe we should patch the hole together so no one else falls in.
Is Black Lives Matter the best phrasing for a rallying cry? I’m not going to nitpick. Is it elevating some lives above others? No, it is asking for equity. Has the cry been raised by people who are themselves racist? Undoubtedly. Has the cry been used as a justification for wrong acts? Sure. Is the system really as corrupt as is claimed? I think that is irrelevant. Listening to other people’s stories and the pain in them does not require them to be correct about their meanings. Maybe in the end, I don’t need to judge the cry itself or who has raised it. I will just listen to the pain in the words. I will hear the suffering. I will hear the oppression. And I will choose to believe that adding my voice will make a difference. In doing so, I am not agreeing with everything the movement has done or will do. I am saying “I hear your pain, and your life matters.” Black Lives Matter. And that is all.