OK white people, this one’s for you. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a chapter based national organization based out of the United States working to promote the validity of black life. With a plan to rebuild the black liberation movement, it has evolved into an international activist movement, campaigning against violence targeted towards black people.
“This is Not a Moment, but a Movement.” - BLM
#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by neighbourhood watch member George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was acquitted of the crime, and Trayvon’s character and behaviour of the night in question were posthumously critiqued. #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the anti-black racism that permeates American society.
Last week, racially charged violence occurred across the United States claiming far too many lives. On Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two White police officers killed a black man named Alton Sterling while he sold CDs on the street. The very next day, across the country in Minnesota, a police officer shot and killed a black man named Philando Castile in his car during a routine traffic stop while his girlfriend and her young daughter watched in horror.
There are many white people in North America who want to stop passively reinforcing structural racism. They want to help spur change in their communities and see a societal shift, but they are either reluctant to speak out for fear of misspeaking or simply don’t know what to do or how to go about doing it.
It is not the responsibility of communities of colour, including BLM, to create and articulate a new societal paradigm for white people. To expect black communities to do this is an extension of the Eurocentric entitlement (read: white privilege) that creates the need for such movements in the first place.
So how can white people be a part of the solution?
- Understand that BLM is not anti-white people.
“For uninformed activists or just the general (white) public to promote the #alllivesmatter hashtag shows a fundamental not-knowingness of the historical reality that this movement is coming out of.” - Tim Hjersted
BLM is not an anti-white movement. When you read “black lives matter,” there is an unspoken but implied “too.” Black lives matter too - as well - in addition. BLM is an exclamation of inclusion, not exclusion.
It is extremely unfortunate that white people continue to misunderstand the affirmation of the value of black life as being an anti-white sentiment. This mischaracterization posits that if black lives matter, white lives do not, or in order for white lives to matter, black lives cannot. This notion is the antithesis of what the BLM Matter movement stands for: the simple idea that “black lives also matter.”
BLM works to affirm the value of black life, compelling the USA take concrete steps to improve conditions for the African American population. This includes: addressing issues of housing inequality and gentrification, fixing failed public schools, reducing the growing racial wealth gap, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. All of these endeavours are about promotion of black life, not hatred for white life.
The BLM movement is about acknowledging that the United States already treats white people with inherent value. It is admitting that society views white lives as more worthy of safety, education, and respect than black lives. This is not hatred, this is fact.
- Recognize that BLM support and police support are not mutually exclusive.
After the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, people rushed to berate police enforcement and sent prayers on behalf of their affected families. After five police officers were shot in Dallas last week, (different) people offered love and support to the families of the fallen and denounced the BLM movement.
But, why? Why are some people choosing ‘sides’? Why do they believe that in order to be pro-BLM they must be anti-police, or to support officers they must not agree with the BLM movement?
Police officers are humans, so their lives have inherent value. BLM is not an anti-people movement, thus it is not an anti-police movement. The movement recognizes that cops are ordinary citizens who are trying to do their jobs, provide for their families, and stay safe. Regardless of their intentions or personal beliefs, police are implicated in a system that criminalizes black people, perceives them as unsafe and dangerous, and trains cops to be more aggressive and less accommodating with black citizens. Officers operate in a system that consistently fails to uphold the idea that all American citizens deserve fair treatment and equal protection the under law.
BLM is not trying to make the nation less safe for police officers. Rather, the movement aims to make officers less of a threat to black communities. As such, there are some beliefs that go hand-in-hand with the BLM movement that many perceived as anti-police. This is misguided.
It is not acceptable to use military-grade weapons as policing mechanisms in any community in the United States. It is not disrespect or resistance to ask officers questions with what someone is being charged, or why someone is being stopped and/or arrested. Black people need not be ‘amicable’ when a cop is arresting them on trumped-up charges or on no grounds at all. We should not give police officers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to policing communities of colour.
- Educate yourself.
It is not the job of black people, or even black community leaders, to educate white people about BLM. They should not carry the burden of teaching you about North America’s history, the nation's systemic racism, or the roots of the movement.
As with every movement, the institutions do not change until the people who perpetuate them do. Thus, structural racism will not change until white people change.
So educate yourselves.
Read the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, watch the movie Dear White People and listen to the podcast #RealTalk that interviews DeRay McKesson. But most importantly, talk to black folks. Listen to their stories, digest their experiences, and accept their emotions.
- Work out your own racism.
You are most likely racist. I’m sorry, but it’s true. White people in North America are inherently racist. Of course there is a spectrum, with some people being much more oppressive than others, but we have grown up in a society seeped in racial inequality and this has seeped into us.
As such, check yourself. Check your privilege, check your preconceived notions and check your judgments.
Furthermore, just because you are progressive, doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. You may have voted for Obama or be on board with universal healthcare, but that doesn’t matter. Racism and progressiveness are not synonymous. Just because you have progressive politics doesn’t mean that you don’t think black people are lesser; you can still have an embedded racial analysis. You don’t get a free pass because you are progressive. You need to sort out your internal biases and prejudices if you are to be a part of the movement.
- Put your body on the street.
It is not just enough to understand the history, be privy to the movement and grasp the theoretical underpinnings. All of this does nothing to dismantle racist institutions. White people need to step up and physically put our bodies on the street alongside black people. We need to organize other white folks and take action. We need to relinquish our control over resources, sharing what we have been handed.
Our alliance, our activism, must be tangible.
- Engage with other white people.
Black people do not need to be convinced that racism exists. They know it; they’ve lived it. Structural inequity and white privilege are facts.
It is white people who have to work to discern the best ways to educate themselves and each other about racism. In fact, the demand placed on black people to educate and inform white folks on how not to be racist or on how to not be complicit in the systemic racism is itself an exercise of willful ignorance and laziness. To leave this responsibility to black people is using one’s privilege to ignore an issue.
We need to facilitate difficult conversations with other white people. And we need to live with the discomfort of these conversations, until they are no longer uncomfortable, and until they are not longer necessary.