Through our shared humanity, all lives matter. So why is it important to talk about Black lives mattering?
All lives should matter equally. That is the ideal, and probably most of us would agree that it’s the “right” thing. Unfortunately, though, in practice, not all lives are given equal value.
An obvious example would be what occurs in genocides. These have happened repeatedly throughout history, with the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar being a recent example. Simply because of characteristics they possess, certain lives are not seen as having worth.
For years in Canada, Indigenous women were going missing or being murdered at an alarmingly high rate. Because of systemic racism and the lasting effects of colonialism, police, the justice system, and governments treated those lives as though they didn’t matter.
Then you have Black people. Not that long ago, the life of a slave mattered only as much as the price the owner had paid for them. Later, Jim Crow laws continued to devalue Black lives on a systemic level. When Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while a handcuffed Floyd lay prone on the ground repeating “I can’t breathe,” this was not one bad apple and one Black man. This was a product of many years of history that has led to deeply entrenched racism within social institutions, and the devaluing of Black lives that has gone along with that.
This systemic racism was also highlighted last week by Amy Cooper, a white woman, when she came across Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man who was birdwatching in New York City’s Central Park. After he told her that she was violating the area’s on-leash dog rules, he recorded her outburst that ensued. This comes from CNN:
I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,” Amy Cooper is heard saying in the video. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.
At a systemic level, law enforcement responds differently to Black people, and in particular Black men. Amy Cooper was not only aware of that, she chose to use that, presumably to her own perceived advantage. Had the two still been there when police arrived, it’s disturbing to think what might have happened.
So, why do we, any of us, need to say that Black lives matter? Because, on a systemic level, Black lives are consistently and repeatedly treated as less valuable.
Should all the lives matter equally? Absolutely, 100%. But for groups that are granted greater social privilege, whatever that privilege may arise from, their (and I include myself in that) lives matter more, on a systemic level, every day. Over and over again, the actions of not just people but, more importantly, social institutions demonstrate that Black lives don’t matter.
I don’t need to remind myself, as a white person, that my life, and the lives of people who look like me, are not devalued at first sight because of our skin colour. White lives that are poor, homeless, working in the sex trade, mentally ill, and LGBTQ+, among other characteristics, are often devalued. But looking only at the immediately visible characteristic of skin colour, and looking at a systemic level that includes social institutions, white lives are treated as though they matter more than the lives of people of colour.
But unless I take the time to educate myself, it’s easy for me to assume that other lives are viewed and treated as equally important. I do try to educate myself, though, because that’s something that’s important to me, and what I see in the world around me is that, in practice, all lives do not matter equally.
I want all lives to matter equally, and that’s why I choose to stand as an ally and say that Black Lives Matter.
You may also be interested in these posts on MH@H:
- Social Privilege and the Underprivileged
- Another Way of Looking at Social Privilege
- Racism, Prejudice, and Implicit/Explicit Beliefs
- Defunding the Police: What It Could Mean for Mental Illness
A well-known essay by Peggy McIntosh called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack identifies 50 daily effects of white privilege that most of us don’t even think about.
Wikipedia has a good article on white privilege, which it describes as “societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.”
The Wikipedia article on institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, explains the difference that between individual and systemic racism.