By Adam J. Pearson
Why do people get offended when white people say “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter”?
For very clear and good reasons.
Of course all lives matter, we might be inclined to say, or rather, of course it would be great all lives were treated as if they equally mattered. However, our societal situation in relation to race reminds me of the famous passage from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Paraphrasing Orwell, I would say that as far as our political, socio-economic, and cultural discourse and treatment of each other are concerned, “all lives matter, but some seem to matter more than others.”
It seems very clear that white lives are often taken to “matter more” more than black lives in the United States and arguably even here in Canada in certain respects, despite the public rhetoric of the value of multiculturalism. If you think Canada is innocent, by the way, I can give you a whole series of examples of our country’s racist colonial history, not only from the past, but from the present as well. But I digress. The fact that the white mass murderer James Holmes–and most mass murderers and serial killers in American and Canadian history have been white–can shoot at the police and still be only disabled and taken into custody while unarmed black men are repeatedly shot to death by police officers says a great deal.
The uncomfortable fact is that when social problems affect white majorities, they tend to betaken seriously; when they affect black minorities, they tend to be blamed on individuals rather than seen as the exhaust of a failed system of sociocultural and socioeconomic inequality and oppression. The same is true for our treatment of the homeless and Indigenous peoples. No one has to say “white lives matter” because everyone takes that as a given. We have to say “black lives matter” and so on, because a great deal of daily experience around discrimination, racism, hate crimes, police brutality, cultural devaluation, minimalizing and demeaning of social problems in black communities, and so on suggests otherwise. I would add that we could say the same for other oppressed and marginalized groups, such as “Indigenous lives matter” and “homeless lives matter.”
At this point, the common objection that you tend to hear from white people is that “well, race is a social construction. There’s only one human race.” Biologically, this is true; however, our social relations, political rhetoric, and cultural systems still treat people who are placed into different racial categories differently. That’s the social reality. People with privilege can afford to take it for granted; people without it cannot.
To put the point differently, white people can afford to take the meanings given to race for granted because they are not disadvantaged by those meanings; people of colour cannot. They experience the impact of the meanings other people give to their skin colour on a daily basis. This is clear evidence of the social reality of racial privilege. And it’s the main reason behind the value of saying that ‘black lives matter;’ the saying brings the unconscious hierarchy of privilege into the light of consciousness, where we can work together to examine and transform it.
As psychologists say, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. If we listen open-mindedly instead of denying people of colour’s daily experience by shutting them down with “all lives matter,” we can acknowledge an enduring problem rather than deny it. And what we acknowledge, we can work together in compassionate solidarity to change.
Meditation has taught me that all human beings are not separate, that all lives exist interdependently, and that what affects any of us, affects all of us. It’s easy to carry on with life without opening our hearts and minds to the experiences of others. But this is a form of denial of our profound interconnectedness. Caring, understanding, and solidarity in action hold the power to dissolve apparent boundaries, generate action for change, and transform relationships for the better. I have hope in us, but systemic and individual change can only meaningfully happen if we work together and listen to one another.