Commentary | Speak up, not over

The appropriation of #BlackLivesMatter

Over the past few months, images of multicultural murals of people protesting police violence across the world have flooded the media, followed by the hashtag #AllLivesMatter in the social media world. While at first glance, this could indicate some sort of rainbows-and-butterflies coming together of humanity that transcends contemporary racial divides, it’s really just more racism in the form of erasure of black voices, and the appropriation of black pain for white pleasure.

Arielle Newton, the editor-in-chief of Black Millennial Musings, sums up the main issue in her article “What You Mean By #AllLivesMatter.” “Yes, all lives matter in ideology. But all lives don’t matter in practice. Should society and history tell us, Black lives don’t matter. When the murder of an unarmed teenager goes unpunished, and is further justified, all lives don’t matter. When a white man shoots up a movie theater, kills 12 people, terrorizes a nation, and is still alive […] all lives don’t matter.”

Newton’s observation of social inequities are pretty undeniable, so why is it that there is continued dogmatic rallying around #AllLivesMatter in response to stating that #BlackLivesMatter? The reason is that if the inequities that Newton points out are admitted, the myth of having already obtained an egalitarian and inclusive society free of prejudice would be delegitimized, and revealed to be just that – a myth. So, in order to protect those who benefit from the myth, some people must respond to #BlackLivesMatter by saying #AllLivesMatter. By doing so, they are asserting that it is politically incorrect to focus our attention on the lives of only one group of people. Once #BlackLivesMatter has been silenced, the myth will be safe and sound.

“Yes, all lives matter in ideology. But all lives don’t matter in practice. Should society and history tell us, Black lives don’t matter.”

Furthermore, when the assertion that ‘black lives matter’ is deemed politically incorrect, this in turn silences discussion about why all lives seem to matter only in theory, and not practice. The absence of history from the discussion of whose lives matter, for what reasons certain lives matter, and how this has led to today’s social inequities allows neoliberalism to go even further and brand the assertion that ‘black lives matter’ as ethnocentrism, or ‘reverse-racism’ (yet another myth). This is an attempt not only to silence ‘black lives matter’ activists, and all other activists raising awareness on other issues faced by black communities, but to completely destroy the assertion by equating it with the harm that ‘the real racists’ have inflicted upon black people for centuries. Basically, the myth is claiming that when black people assert that their lives matter, they are subjecting others to the same pain as the pain felt in black communities from a history of oppression and from lived injustices. Such a claim is, of course, complete bullshit.

On the other hand, when it comes to public spectacle, we, white people (I say we, since I am also white), are more than willing to throw our hands up in ‘solidarity,’ getting the cheap thrill of putting on a mask to play the threatened black person. We then cavalierly lower our hands, and in doing so, toss away an entire history to the side – a history of black people raising their hands into the air, with no guarantee it will actually do anything to ensure their safety. We do this once we begin to simply feel threatened, even if in reality there is no such threat to our lives or even well being.

To quote Alicia Garza, one of the co-creators of #BlackLivesMatter, “If you really believe that #AllLivesMatter, you’ll fight like hell for black lives today.”

Spoken-word poet Mwende Katwiwa argues on her blog FreeQthaMighty: “I understand wanting to show up and support, but white people need to understand that this symbolic act of raising your hands in a position of surrender is meant to illustrate how black people are violently targeted by police because of their race. If you don’t experience that, you should not mimic the gesture in an attempt at ‘solidarity.’”

When we put our hands up, we are appropriating not only a history of suffering under disproportionately exerted police and state-sanctioned violence, but a contemporary reality, a living terror, that endures for humans whose very existence has been branded as a threat, no matter how high they throw their hands in the air.

In this sense, saying “all lives matter” and raising your arms send the same message: we will hold our hands up in solidarity with black people, only until it could actually compromise the safety we have as white people to move about untouched in the majority of society’s spaces. We will say that “black lives matter,” but when we start feeling scared that the spotlight is being taken off our white lives for one second, then we begin to protest that ‘All Lives Matter.’ While we try to hide our intentions behind the perceived neutrality of #AllLivesMatter, streaming the rhetoric toward the idea of ‘all’ or ‘everyone’ will inherently lead to a greater focus on white lives, due to higher value placed on white lives by the media and our society’s institutions. Once again, we are using the advantages granted to us by racial constructs that lean in our favour in order to maintain a state of constant self-preservation at the expense of human lives.

When they speak and act to remedy these wrongs, the place of white people is to do nothing more and nothing less than, first and foremost, to listen.

To quote Alicia Garza, one of the co-creators of #BlackLivesMatter, “If you really believe that #AllLivesMatter, you’ll fight like hell for black lives today.” However, when a fight is not your fight, and in fact, your history is the reason this fight exists in the first place, you probably shouldn’t be on the front lines of that fight. As YouTube star chescaleigh says in her video “5 Tips For Being an Ally”: “Speak up, not over. If the fight for equality were a girl group, the ally wouldn’t be the lead singer, or the second lead singer, they’d be Michelle [from Destiny’s Child].” So, if you go to demonstrations, don’t put your hands in the air, and, if a demonstration or event is labelled as black or people of colour (POC) only, respect that. If this still bothers you, remember that you are not being welcomed with open arms into one space for one time, as opposed to being not only actively excluded, but having your physical and mental wellbeing at risk in multiple spaces over the course of history.

Most people are horrified by anti-black police brutality, and other forms of institutionalized and individualized racism that plague our society. However, horror does not trump terror. Nor does it trump trauma; nor the loss of a brother, a mother, a lover, or a friend, to violence committed by police. Black people, and other people from communities disproportionately affected by police violence, have lived experiences and knowledge of this terror that, chances are, people outside of these communities are not going to experience. Hence, when they speak and act to remedy these wrongs, the place of white people is to do nothing more and nothing less than, first and foremost, to listen, and then to engage with our exclusionary communities in order to make way for the changes that these voices are calling for.


Margaret Gilligan is a U3 Joint Honours student in World Islamic and Middle East Studies, and Hispanic Studies. To contact her, please email margaret.gilligan@mail.mcgill.ca.


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