Friday, June 19, 2020

We Need to Talk--er, Listen...

Fellow white people, we need to talk.

Actually, no; we need to listen.

...Oh, but not to me. 

Well, listen to me first; then listen to other people.

Okay, let me explain...

So I've been thinking a lot lately about why the phrase "Black lives matters" so often inspires the knee-jerk reaction of "No, ALL lives matter!" It seems clear to folks who are on (for lack of a better term) team BLM that lifting up one group of people does NOT in any way degrade any other group of people, but for some reason that idea isn't achieving the universal understanding that we hope for.

I've seen this comic shared many times in an effort to explain this: 

My understanding is that this comic was created by Kris Straub

But I recently realized that this probably isn't an accurate representation of what the All Lives Matter folks see. They don't see one house on fire and one house not on fire. They see TWO PERFECTLY FINE HOUSES, one black and one white (for the purposes of this illustration), and don't understand why so many people are fighting so hard to bring attention to the black house. 

Look at these two perfectly fine houses...
(I couldn't find an image with one black house and one white house that I liked)

In their minds, the unnecessary attention on the black house is putting their own house at risk--what happens if the white house catches on fire, but the fire department is busy focusing on the black house (which again, remember, seems perfectly fine to the white house owner)??? That's unfair and unacceptable. 

From this perspective, the response of "All Lives Matter" is absolutely reasonable. From this perspective, of course it looks like society is lifting up black lives above white lives. 

The problem is, it's not seeing the whole picture. In reality, the black house IS burning, but it's burning in a way that isn't easy to see from the outside. Only its occupants truly understand the imminent danger that they're in. Maybe it's a kitchen fire in the middle of the house; maybe their deck in the back is burning in a way that's not visible from the street. 

"HELP! MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE!"            "Looks fine to me..."

The point is, THE HOUSE IS STILL ON FIRE, whether or not the neighbors in the white houses can see it. And from THIS perspective, of course it makes sense to focus on the black house. We ALL need to help make it right, even if our house is fine, even if we didn't set the fire (of course, there are cases in which the white house owners actually WERE the ones to set the fire...but that's an entirely different blog post).

So hopefully it's pretty clear what we need to do in order to make sure the houses that need it most are the ones getting the attention. In case it's not, let me spell it out for you. 



Your personal experience is an important way that you encounter and understand the world, but it's woefully inadequate to address this situation.* If someone tells you, "Help, my house is on fire and my family is dying," don't say, "Well, it looks fine to ME, and MY house is fine, so I don't see what you're complaining about." Don't even say, "Show me where it's on fire, and once I see it, then I'll help." Say, "I'LL GET THE WATER!" and immediately start working to put the fire out. 

The saddest part about the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd's death is that it took seeing the unprovoked murder of a black with our own eyes to get so many of us to finally believe what black people have been telling us for centuries. OUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE SHOULDN'T BE THE PREREQUISITE FOR MAKING SOCIETY BETTER. 

So, in summary: shut up for a minute. Listen to what people are telling you--especially people who are directly impacted by this situation. I don't just mean, "Give them a couple of minutes to blab so that you can immediately tell them why they're wrong afterwards." I mean expand your information-gathering techniques to prioritize the perspectives of those who are in the best position to see the fire. And then, believe them. Because nothing can get better until we really understand the full picture.


*I used to be in the camp that believed racism wasn't a thing anymore, or at least it was rare. I'm ashamed to admit that I believed this most of the way through seminary. But three years in MLK Jr.'s doctorate alma mater with classmates who were determined to stand for social justice forced me to hear stories outside of my experience. And I slowly came to understand that racism is still an everyday occurrence--maybe not in the way that I imagined it (segregated water fountains and audible racial slurs) but in a way that was much more difficult for me as a white person to ever see (unprovoked encounters with security, unexplained rudeness bordering on physical altercations, denied opportunities). 

So I know what I'm talking about when I say how important it is to listen to others. It was the only way that I was able to comprehend the subtle (to me) reality of modern American racism.

But it's not about me. So I'll shut up now. 

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