A demonstration against racism in Cranbrook, June 4, 2020. Townsman file

Which Lives Matter?

Yme Woensdregt

Much too often, in conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, someone will say piously, “Well really, all lives matter.” And then that person will think they’ve said something profound and spiritually adept.

But they really haven’t. They have only uttered a pious truism which completely misunderstands the purpose, nature, and genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement. A statement like that ends up perpetuating the injustice and indignity which makes the Black Lives Matter movement necessary. A statement like that can only come from a position of white privilege, which is deeply ingrained in many of us.

I’m tired of it. It’s time to set the record straight.

Imagine this scenario: Your son comes home from school with a bloody nose. He has been victimized by a bully at school; he is crying and comes to you for comfort. You clean up the blood, take your son into your arms and whisper softly, “There, there, sweetheart. I’m sorry this happened to you, but honestly, all children are precious.”

What you’ve said is true. But it’s also intensely unhelpful. Your son only wants to know that he is precious to you, that he matters to you.

Or imagine a mom telling her neighbour how really sick her daughter is, and another neighbour interrupts to say, “Well, my daughter matters too!” Of course she does. The first mother wasn’t saying that the second daughter matters less, but she’s not the one who’s sick who needs healing.

When I say “Black Lives Matter”, it doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter. It simply means that the lives of black people and people of colour are in danger. This movement is pointing out that black people and people of colour are being victimized by a system which is set up to favour white people. They are helping us learn from their experience that “Black Lives Matter” in a world where black people are seen as being more expendable and less valuable than white people. That’s been true for much too long.

Of course all lives matter. Every single human being is of immense worth. But we live in a world where black people and people of colour and indigenous people are treated as if they are worth less than white people. And in the face of that kind of rampant hatred and prejudice and racism, we need to say as clearly as we possibly can, “Black Lives Matter”.

We simply cannot hide behind generalizations about the value of all life. Sometimes you have to get specific and name those who are being victimized by prejudice and persecution, those who are being marginalized. Sometimes you have to speak the uncomfortable truth that there are too many white people who think they can spout ugly racial epithets, or tell people of colour “to go back where they came from”, or treat them with less dignity and respect. We need to say clearly and eloquently and passionately, “Black Lives Matter”.

I will continue to say it unapologetically. I will not accept the response that “All lives matter”. Rather, I will try to help others understand that we cannot hide behind such a pious generalized statement, but that we need to say unambiguously that those who are victimized by racism and hostility are valued.

The sad reality is that racism is growing. Prejudice and hatred are becoming more rampant. When a synagogue is bombed, we need to say that Jewish Lives Matter. When a mosque is defaced, we need to say that Muslim Lives Matter. When black men and women are five times more likely to be stopped by police officers, we need to say Black Lives Matter. When a black man lies on the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and ends up dead, we need to say Black Lives Matter. When over 30% of the inmates in Canadian prisons are indigenous while they only make up 5% of the population, we need to say Indigenous Lives Matter.

As one protestor explained, “We said ‘Black Lives Matter’; we never said ‘Only Black Lives Matter.’ We know All Lives Matter. We just need your help with Black Lives Matter because black lives are in danger.”

And when black lives are in danger, we can’t say All Lives Matter, because that simple word “all” erases the identity of the particular people who are being victimized.

It’s interesting that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 states that “all men are created equal”. However, in a compromise to ratify the US Constitution of 1787, it was decided that enslaved blacks would only be counted as three–fifths of a person.

It seems that “all” doesn’t really mean “all” at all.

As a white man, I have never been followed by security in a department store. I have never been stopped by police for driving through a neighborhood in which I didn’t live. I have never been targeted because of the colour of my skin.

People of colour have, almost to a person, had these experiences. Some have been through incidents which were far worse. Study after study has confirmed that in equivalent situations, indigenous people and people of colour are treated with deadly force far more often than white people. Racial bias continues to exist.

I am writing about this today because I learned last week (for the first time in my life) that 186 years ago, on August 1, 1834, the Abolition of Slavery Act became law in Canada. I wish I had known about that sooner.

The Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us about our history and pointing to the possibility of a new future. Racism must be eradicated, and we need to stand against anyone who spouts racial epithets and holds racist beliefs.

Black Lives Matter. Our society is only beginning to learn that truth.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican Priest living in Cranbrook

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