The internet is full of funny memes and articles like the one on the right here. My favorite is still my beloved Maddie’s “just because I say ‘save the forests’ doesn’t mean I think ‘fuck the oceans.’” I shared the one pictured here on my social media feed, because I thought it was funny. But then I thought, what’s funny about apologizing for Black Lives Matter? Why do we have to explain racism?
Here’s my question: why are we seeing so many versions of these memes this time around – at least I don’t remember seeing a lot of them before – and yet so many of us still don’t seem to get it? By “it” here I mean (a) why is it not intuitively obvious that calling attention to one thing doesn’t exclude the need to attend to others, and (b) why isn’t it just OK to say “black lives matter” without having to explain “we don’t mean that you don’t matter?”
I’ll tell you why: institutional racism is so ingrained that we feel the need to explain ourselves when we confront it, so as not to seem too angry. Well, not me, really. No one cares if I’m angry, because I’m a nice, upper-middle-class, educated, socially progressive, white man. It’s people of color we don’t want to be angry.
The first night I was in Dallas as part of the psychological response to the murder of 5 policemen, I walked from my hotel to the cordoned off area. It’s something I like to do to get the feel of how people are reacting to the event to which I’m responding. As I approached the barriers, I encountered a small group of young people chanting “black lives matter!” over and over. In between rounds of the chants, one or the other yelled something at the police stationed across the street, like “just stop killing black people, y’all, and everything will be all right” or just “stop killing black people!” They sounded angry, really angry.
And I felt uncomfortable. Afraid even. I thought, why are they yelling at those cops? Don’t they realize that will just make things worse? I wanted them to be more polite about their anger .
I tried to tell myself I was just being realistic. Those police weren’t the enemy, they were victims too.
I tried to tell myself that the protesters were just young and brash and politically unsophisticated. Unlike me.
That was the essence of my thinking: They are not like me.
I’ve been chided for my use of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag in my writing, and on my feeds. I’ve been “schooled” about the evils of the BLM movement, about our President’s treasonous ideas, about the naiveté of getting caught up in a movement. I had people accuse me of hating and dishonoring the policemen who died, by simultaneously arguing the justness of the BLM cause. Maddie has been called names, and told she was spreading hate.
And I felt pretty good about myself, patting myself on the back for “getting it,” for understanding that the issue is institutional racism, and not any of those smokescreens.
Until I was confronted by 5 young people who dared to still be angry about the disproportionate violence against people of color in comparison to whites accused of similar crimes and in similar circumstances.
That’s when my own well of cultural racism welled up and made me ashamed.
There is an excellent article that keeps resurfacing from time to time, titled I, Racist, that talks about how exhausting it is for a black person to keep explaining racism to white people. The main thrust of the article is that white progressives in particular defend themselves against the reality of institutionalized racism by making an argument that is personal. If I am a good person and most decidedly not racist, then racism must not exist.
I don’t know what you people are talking about. I am not a racist.
Do you see how tricky this is? I am not a racist, but it’s you people.
Or how about “you can’t blame all cops for the killing of Alton Sterling, or Philandro Castile, or … (the list is actually much, much too long), but you people involved with BLM are responsible for Micah Xavier Johnson shooting 12 white policemen, killing 5 of them?
Institutional racism happens when we fail to understand the harm we, as individuals, do when we think, you people.
It turns out I have some work to do.
Dr Les Kertay
 A friend, whom I asked to read a draft of this article, wrote this to me: “The thing I would challenge you on is, did you want them to be more polite, or did you want them to shut up? That’s the other thing we have to confront in this… it’s not whether or not the message is correct or timely, or how it is said… it’s whether we should be saying it *at all*. Not the polite Negro, but the submissive, quiet one.” In my case, I believe it really was about the way the message was being delivered, but I think the point she raised is an important one.