A White Woman's Take on Black Lives Matter
Is BLM inherently racist or a necessary reaction to inherent societal racism?
Posted Jul 04, 2020
I heard today that Dr. Leslie Neal-Boylan was fired from her position as Dean of the University of Massachusetts Lowell Nursing School for writing that "Everyone's Life Matters." There's gotta be more to the story than that, I thought. Can someone be punished in our society for saying that everyone deserves dignity?
It's often heard these days that people—maybe especially white people—don't want to talk about racism. But perhaps it is getting harder for a white person to enter the conversation. That could be ultimately counterproductive. A conversation involves multiple speakers, or at least two. So let's talk.
I'll admit that when I first heard the term "Black Lives Matter" years ago I thought it sounded inherently racist, as would "Asian Lives Matter" or "Latino Lives Matter" because it's emphasizing one group of people over others. But my thinking on this has evolved over the past few years and as a white woman trying to enter the conversation, I want to explain how it evolved.
I had so many negative encounters with cops in my 20s that I began to believe my grandmother's dictum that they were just "bullies with guns." Spring break, a late '90s road trip from Baltimore to New Orleans: pulled over by a cop on the highway and made to exit the car while he leveled a shotgun at me over his car door as I slowly moved out of the driver's seat and stood with my palms open, facing him. Why was I pulled over? He told me my headlights were too bright.
Downtown Baltimore a few years later, pulled over, car searched, trunk searched, the officer called for backup, held there for a while, then sent on my way with a good faith gesture, “Don’t forget your Gatorade!” from one of them—I’d been coming home from the gym. One of them offered some explanation about my car matching the description of a stolen car in that part of the city.
Coming home from a long night in Atlantic City with a carload of college friends, pulled over on the side of the highway, told to exit the car, all of us patted down thoroughly. I asked the cop what he was looking for. "Weapons" he said. Um, okay. A bunch of scraggly-looking college kids in some lame-ass car, sleep-deprived and hungry, and definitely not packing heat. Detained there for maybe an hour.
All of these instances and more that I'm not writing about right now seemed at the time to be huge injustices.
Fast forward to now. Here’s where my thinking evolved: After hearing the stories of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Elijah McClain, so many others, and of course George Floyd, I realized that my little run-ins with the police could have been so much worse if I were a black man.
The story I heard about George Floyd is that he was trying to float a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. And somehow wound up dead. If it was indeed counterfeit, did Mr. Floyd himself know that? Was there intent to commit a crime? We don't know and we never will.
But let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say the person floating a counterfeit $20 bill was me. I ran a bunch of errands, paid for them in cash, then stopped at 7-11 to buy my son a popsicle. I give a $20 bill to the cashier, she tests it with a black marker and says, "Um, ma’am, I’m sorry, but this bill is a fake." I say, "What? Seriously?" I’m embarrassed and laugh. She says, "Can you stick around while I call the cops—they like to investigate these things to figure out where the counterfeit came from." I say sure, thinking, wow, this is weird. I talk to the cop, he writes down all my errand stops, and says, "Thanks, ma’am," and sends me on my way. I have a great story to tell my family later about using fake cash and not even knowing it.
But never in a million years do I wind up dead. Is it even conceivable? White woman begs for air while a cop kneels on her neck and she slowly and painfully dies.
I now realize that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is not inherently racist. On the contrary, it’s a response to racism against black people, calling attention to the ongoing issue of not granting the same dignity and respect to black lives. Yes, I’ve been hassled by the police for reasons I find questionable, but I didn’t think about those instances from my past in this way until BLM: many black men have died at the hands of police officers because of much less. That puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? It has for me.
I don’t think Dr. Neal-Boylan was wrong to say that everyone’s life matters; I think it came across as insensitive—as stealing BLM’s thunder as it storms ahead, poised to make real change this time. But the fact that her comment was construed as offensive suggests that we have a very long way to go. We should all want to get to a place where it’s a given that all lives matter. We have to keep listening to and learning from each other, comparing our experiences, wanting to be part of the solution, and keeping the conversation respectful.
I write this in love and respect, and I invite your comments and thoughts below.
Photo by John Lucia - https://www.flickr.com/photos/studioseiko/27950807420/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91096775