Growing up in the South as someone who did not judge anyone by the color of their skin, I learned all the one-liners to defend myself against racist accusations. “I have lots of black friends” or “I don’t see color” were in my back pocket, just in case I ever needed to set someone straight. I thought these were the things I was supposed to say to explain that I did not stereotype anyone based on their skin tone. And while I never proclaimed “all lives matter,” I didn’t see anything wrong with the phrase. To me it was simply in agreement with the Black Lives Matter Movement. It was saying that black lives are human lives and all human lives matter. It was a statement of inclusivity. At least in my head.
One of the first conversations I remember having here in DC was with a Global Mission Fellow alum who works in my office at Church and Society. At the time, I was reading The New Jim Crow, and I told her that I had used the line “I don’t see color” before and didn’t understand why that was wrong to say. My friend explained that, while well-intentioned, failing to see someone’s color also means we fail to acknowledge the culture and experiences that someone of color has. It means we are ignoring a component of who someone is, rather than honoring the trait as something to be proud of. I haven’t said the phrase since.
It wasn’t until May of this year that I finally understood the true meaning of “all lives matter” when used as a counter to “black lives matter.” My boss explained that “black lives matter” is so important because historically and institutionally, black lives have not been treated as if they matter. Examples of the two statements started popping up all over Facebook, and it finally clicked. “Black lives matter” is a call for justice, a demand for equity. “All lives matter,” when used as a counter-statement, is a refusal to admit that reparations are in order for our neighbors of color.
Since I have not had my eyes open to this harmful language for very long, I never imagined that I’d be asked to speak to a group of thirty people about the true meaning behind these words. And yet, I found myself giving a talk to a group of young teenagers and their adult chaperones regarding this very language. There had been much conversation with several exclamations that “all lives matter” and, being the only one available, I was tasked with explaining the meaning behind the hashtags.
I felt as if God had been preparing me for this conversation, teaching me all the things I would need to say for that moment. I have no idea if any of it sank in, but that isn’t for me to worry about. What I do know is that, as someone who recently learned all of these lessons myself, I was the perfect person to show grace to this group. I also know that, behind harmful language, there is not always harmful intent. Because I have such a great support system with patient teachers, I was able to be the same to others in a tough moment.
General Board of Church and Society
Global Mission Fellow US-2, Class of 2015-2017