Black lives matter until…

Since the world shut down in mid-March, I had stayed home with the exception of the month I spent in Chicago with my father when he was dying and three trips I have made to the mainland for errands, including a doctor’s visit. A few days ago, I made my fourth trek to the outside world and immediately as I started walking around in town—that’s Portland, Maine—I was struck by the preponderance of Black Lives Matter signs.

I saw the same signage in Chicago after the George Floyd protests broke out during my time there. It seems that after seven years, BLM has truly gone mainstream. The problem is that these declarations of “Black Lives Matter” often ring hollow.

During my walk, I was so struck by the absurdity of seeing many of these BLM signs that I took to Instagram to vent and realized that I should probably just write a post here.

Here in Maine’s biggest city, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce launched the Standing in Solidarity initiative, which according to the local paper is a program “designed to help businesses become catalysts for change in society.” Over 300 area businesses have signed on to this initiative since the protests began nationwide in the wake of Floyd’s killing, with people realizing that they needed to take action.

I’m all for awareness and recognition, but I’m not sure there’s as much “action” in this effort as people—white people, that is—want to believe.

Look, the central theme of things like Standing in Solidarity and BLM is that black lives do matter, right? And we have the data to show that black lives aren’t actually treated like they matter—even in Maine, one of the whitest states in the country where Black people are few and far between in most of the state, they are disproportionately affected by racism in all areas of life from the criminal justice system to the educational systems and pretty much everything else, even healthcare (Black Mainers are very disproportionately affected by COVID-19, for example). So, how are programs such as Standing in Solidarity, which seem geared more toward embracing diversity  and acknowledging racial bias in workplace settings, going to change that?

How is acknowledgement or increasing the diversity of workforces or any of that going to get to the heart of attacking the white supremacist systems that are ultimately at the root of problem and are the reason why the Black Lives Matter movement was created to begin with?

While BLM was initially created as an affirmation of Black humanity and looking at ways to affirm that humanity and to demand better of white America, it has—much like so many other movements—been watered down as it has entered the mainstream. Yes, through groups like the Movement for Black Lives, I see evidence that the true work lives on somewhere. But honestly, that work is not the kind of work that most of people declaring “Black Lives Matter” are truly invested in. How many people rocking BLM signs in their yards or businesses with hastily printed 8.5×11 sheets of sporting “Black Lives Matter” in a large font are truly looking to support Black liberation?

No, Black Lives Matter too often has become a way to look like one cares when really, other than sticking up a sign, no one is doing anything to improve the lives of Black people. Generic racial equity steering committees such as the one being proposed by the city of Portland here in Maine are quick-fix reactions that aren’t likely to fix anything or do more than lightly bandage gaping racial wounds. These kinds of efforts get people working on something but they avoid the deep, messy and complicated work of realizing how deeply entrenched anti-blackness is in our culture and how to change that. They are typically distractions and feel-good measures.

Since May, we have more signs that declare that black lives matter to people, and we have seen many token efforts to appease Black folks. I mean, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have finally been retired from the grocery aisles and that was long since past time to do, but what else are these companies doing beyond their packaging? People and groups that refused to take a knee during the national anthem are finally taking a knee, but what are they doing when they stand back up? People are talking about racism more, and that’s a start. But it’s a little like exercise: If you start but you don’t stick with it and push yourself beyond your comfort level, you won’t get any results. And there is a rise in the popularity of anti-racism books, which could be a good thing, but given that the best-known anti-racist writer in this moment is a white woman, it does give one pause—as with so much else with the “embrace” of BLM, why aren’t Black people more at the center of driving efforts for change? Why isn’t the guidance, deference and authority—and money—centered on the actual Black people?

At this moment, more white people than ever think that police violence toward Black people is awful, but those same white people still want the police—they are not down with defunding the police. They don’t want a sharp decrease in the number of officers out there armed and armored. They somehow just want these racism-infused, violence-centered institutions to continue to get billions but figure they can be convinced to just stop killing Black people with such casual regularity .

In other words, “We care about you Black folks but not enough to get rid of the systems that are harmful specifically to you.” “Your lives matter, but only until the point where we have to consider leaving our comfort zones and changing the way society runs.”

I’m sorry but maybe black lives don’t really matter to you, then. Or they just don’t matter enough to envision new ways of being that don’t center whiteness and white safety (which is less about actual safety than about controlling and terrorizing Black and various other people of color so that white people feel safer).

Most of what is happening with the “embrace” of BLM right now can best be described as performative allyship. Hell, the same white folks throwing up Black Lives Matter signs and attending the occasional protest are also creating educational learning pods which only further perpetuate the educational disparities between Black kids, other kids of color and low-income kids on the one side and white kids from middle-class and above families on the other. Our true values are revealed in our personal decisions and the choices we make around our kids and our neighborhoods. And right now, most of those actions are saying that Black lives don’t really matter aside from a few bucks to a bail fund, a sign in the yard and maybe attending a protest.

If you say that you are standing in solidarity with Black lives what exactly does that mean? How does your sign in the yard or on the window or your profile pic or postings on Facebook offer real support or material resources to Black folks or further Black liberation? How does your support or your “stand” change unjust laws and conditions? Are you perhaps stealing the labor of Black folks even now in learning how to consider the possibility of standing with Black lives?

Maybe you just think that supporting Black lives means being inclusive enough to allow Black folks to enter into your system of whiteness—as long as they also follow the unspoken rules and don’t disrupt the system, which is essentially what most inclusion efforts entail. You can have a seat at the table that is upheld, affirmed and steeped in white supremacy and we will call it progress.

Ultimately the real work of making black lives truly matter in the lived reality of all Black people involves white people giving up a significant amount power, privilege and material resources, because they disproportionately control all three. Anything short of that is mere performance that benefits a few exceptions or tokens among the Black populace. Furthermore, if Black people are not centered in the work, it is also a performance.

Real change involves radical change, and white people who want to free themselves of the horror and burden of whiteness which was built upon the subjugation of Black lives need to understand that the way systems and institutions are designed now is typically rotten to the core—rotten with racism and privilege. But in choosing to make black lives matter, you open the door to your own liberation as well because that could mean shared humanity instead. But whiteness is a drug and addictions are hard to shake. Thus it is easier to perform change than it is to enact real change.

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