All lives matter. It’s everywhere, this debate that it’s not just black lives that matter, but all lives. Every few hours on my Facebook feed, I see a comment to someone’s post with those three words: All lives matter, with the unwritten but inherent but before them. Usually a back-and-forth ensues, where someone then has to explain why those three words – All lives matter – are hurtful and actually part of the problem. Why saying that all lives matter right now, in this challenging and necessarily uncomfortable place where we are trying to talk about the value of black lives, is dismissive of those very black lives we are being called upon to recognize.
It’s not complicated in my mind and heart. It’s clear to me why all lives matter hurts, dismisses, ignores. Because we aren’t all the same – not in the eyes of our culture, our society; not in the eyes of each other; not in our experiences; not in our status. Even if in a perfect world we would and should all be equal, right now and for centuries leading up to this moment, we are not yet seen or treated as equal.
I am white and I have not lived as a black person. There are experiences that my black son will have that I will never know personally because of my white skin. Because my identity in the eyes of society, in the eyes of others, does not show on my skin. Because you can’t know just from looking at me that I am Jewish, that I am an immigrant, that I am bilingual because I came here from somewhere else.
So when I see all lives matter it makes me wonder, What is it that we fear?
What makes us feel threatened – as white people – when we hear that black lives matter that we should need to reply so quickly, so defensively, that our lives matter too? Are we afraid – even subconsciously, even as the good people we are – of losing our status, our importance, our value? Are we afraid of losing our privilege? Because the thing is, we do have privilege. Our privilege as white people is in the fact that it has always been a given that our lives matter. We have never had reason to doubt the value of our lives. We have not been told by the inherent messages and structures around us that we are inferior, less important, our bodies and our lives more disposable.
Black lives matter doesn’t take away from that. It never can and it never will, because in a systemically racist culture – our America, our world – white lives have always mattered more. That won’t be undone easily. And it won’t be automatically undone when black lives begin to matter, too. The thing is, all lives will truly begin to matter only when black lives begin to matter.
Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think it’s more than that. There is no such thing as color blindness. None of us is color blind, even if we are raised in the most open, loving and diverse communities, even if we are taught from the very beginning that each of us is created in the image of God, perfect and precious exactly as we are. Even my three-year-old black son has already noticed that his skin is a different color than my own, than his sister’s, than his father’s. What he doesn’t yet know is what that difference will mean in the bigger picture, to him, and as he grows up in a society larger than his immediate family.
I don’t see color, I see only humanity. We are all one. That’s a beautiful sentiment, and it isn’t untrue. I wish it were that simple. But this ignores our unique experiences. It ignores that my experience as a white person and my son’s experience as a black person will always be different because of the privilege I have that he won’t. Because of the implicit bias that is in each of us.
Two nights ago I marched with my black son and my white husband at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally in defense of the value of black lives. For blocks I walked behind someone who held a sign that read, We’re not trying to start a race war. We’re trying to end one. And that was it for me, the reason why I don’t see color, we are all one is too simple. Because racism is alive and well; it is systemic and has been for centuries. Most of these precious, powerful black people I marched with – my young black son included – have ancestors who were brought to this country as slaves. That is the race war and it isn’t new. Black and brown men and women make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population in this country – that is the race war and it isn’t new.
There was a black man walking to my right for a while who had written on the back of his jacket, Am I next? His question is not one I will ever have to ask about myself, but it is one I will have to ask about my son. Could he be next if he isn’t careful, as a black boy, as a black man? That is the race war and it isn’t new. It isn’t new, but it needs to be recognized, questioned, challenged, dismantled.
I think more than anything, each of us – whether we are saying that black lives matter or all lives matter – needs to feel seen, heard, known, valued, recognized. As humans we want to feel safe, cared for, held by our communities. We want to be a part of something rather than feel isolated or alone. We want to know that we are each important – because we are. When that is threatened, we fear invisibility, we fear our disappearance. We feel the loss of our identity. So we yell out, I matter too! And you do! We all do.
Right now, though, I am putting aside how much my life matters because it is something I just know. My importance, my value as a white person is not in danger. It’s not going anywhere and it is not something I need to worry about. But the value of my son’s life, the value of the lives of all black men and women, is at stake. So that is what I mean when I say that black lives matter. Because black lives have to begin to matter as much as all other lives. Until they do, the race war – the one that divides us and lifts some of us up by keeping others of us down – will be alive and well for decades and centuries to come.