Black Lives Matter: a Primer for Whites

Dear White Person (& North American),

If you’re confused or upset by the “Black Lives Matter” movement, please first try translating it in your mind into “Black Lives Should Matter As Much as White Lives.” That’s what it really means; it’s just the shorter version is catchier.

The problem is that much of our society acts as if black lives don’t matter*, unlike white lives, which clearly do matter to everyone. So the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up as a way to protest the “don’t matter” ideology (& especially the consequence-free murders of black folk).

Why?  How could 21st century Whites be so resistant to such a straightforward concept of equality?

As Michael Eric Dyson points out in his excellent book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, [I’m paraphrasing heavily here] it is hard for many whites to acknowledge that black folk are systematically disadvantaged* and mistreated (even killed with no recourse). Acknowledging that extreme disadvantage would require acknowledging the flipside, systematic white advantage (i.e., privilege), and thus our complicity in this deeply unfair system, which a prospect that some egos cannot abide.

  • Moreover, in addition to this denial of white privilege:
    • I think some whites, who are overly competitive or self-involved/defensive,  misunderstand this slogan as “Black Lives Matter More” or “Only Black Lives Matter” which gives rise to their hostility (“Hey, white lives matter too!!” they think).
    • I think other whites, who are benign but obtuse, misunderstand this as meaningless team cheerleading (“So what? Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter…,” they think). These are folks who might make jokes or T-shirt slogans riffing on the BLM slogan’s popularity (e.g., Jacked Lives Matter), without realizing the deadly serious [actually murderous] reality which underlies the BLM movement.
    • Finally, some whites (the bigot-right, a small minority, I hope) are utterly malevolent and they do understand the intended meaning and oppose it with symbols and flags of racist oppression (“No, black lives don’t matter to me and they shouldn’t matter to our society, let’s shut them down,” they think).

*I’m not going to get into the details of how our society acts as if black lives don’t matter here, other than to say there is tons of research, information and real-life stories out there showing this (see also the About page of BLM).

Disclaimer: I’m just a white person with a moderate awareness of privilege and above-average critical thinking skills, not a representative of, nor expert on, Black Lives Matter. I was inspired to write this because I recently encountered some online discussion (don’t read the comments!) by a bunch of clueless white people and I was surprised and dismayed to find such fundamental misunderstandings persisting.  Anyway, please visit or find a local chapter or representative if you want a deeper dive into what this movement is about and what it’s trying to achieve.

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