“Don’t White Lives Matter?”: at the Intersection of Privilege and Entitlement
By David J. Leonard | @DrDavidJLeonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Tuesday, August 2, 2016.
After a family vacation and many hours on the airplane, I was happy to be home. That is, until I was quickly reminded of the racial landscape I was returning home to.
“Don’t white lives matter?” asked the burly white homeland security officer.
Thinking he was just going to verify my passport, I was unprepared how to respond to this interrogation about my Black Lives Matter t-shirt
“What?” I quickly retorted in a haze of jetlag
“What about white lives? Don’t all lives matters?”
Frustrated by the ultimate welcome home to 2015 America, I quickly move toward customs, muttering, “Sadly, all too often, Black Lives don’t matter.” That was all I could muster. My failure to use my privilege to challenge the racist assumptions in his question, and his arrogance and entitlement was almost as frustrating as the question itself.
For days, I would talk to my friends about how they would have responded. I confessed my guilt and disappointment. I talked to my kids about what happen. No amount of dialogue and processing changed my anger about his racist question and my failure as a transformative accomplice.
I was infuriated by his abuse of power, callousness, sense of entitlement and lack of understanding about the persistent problem of American racism. For me, he represented a societal acceptance of daily report of stolen Black lives. His question was part of white America’s dodge and denial, even in the face of mounting evidence.
It was an effort to even in the face of daily death, as well as persistent inequality, micro aggressions, and hyper segregation, to center white feelings and victimhood.
I was equally frustrated by my own failures to offer him several seats, to school him into submission. I failed to use that moment to challenge his assumptions and misinformation about Black Lives Matter as organization and ethos. Despite wearing a shirt that announced, “Black Lives DO Matter,” I didn’t seize upon the opportunity to speak truth to power. I missed an opportunity to challenge his everyday racism.
My support for protests from Ferguson to New York City did not spur me into action at the Seattle Airport.
So today, I am here to respond to him, and those who daily make similar claims.
If all lives matter, Cameron Sterling would surely be preparing for a weekend of fun with his Dad rather than planning for a life without a father.
If all lives matter, Trayvon would probably be home from college chilling with Rachel;
If all lives matter, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Shelley Fry would surely be home with their friends and families, working and living toward their dreams
If all lives matter, Laquan McDonald, Samuel Dubose, Eric Garner, and Jonathan Ferrell would be soaking up yet another summer with their loved ones
If all lives matter, the first suggestion on google when typing Philando Castile would not be ‘criminal record’
If all lives matter, the media reflect upon the news of the killing Alton Sterling or Mike Brown would NOT BE as dream hamptondescribes, “to criminalize black corpses.”
If all lives matter, black athletes who use their platforms to demand justice, to demand accountability, who contribute to a movement for racial justice would not be criticized and told to ‘shut up and play’ all while white football and basketball coaches who announce their support for certain political candidates are celebrated for their courage and commended for using their first amendment rights.
BE clear, Becky’s husband, to be white in America is to be told over and over again, that our voices, desires, happiness, future and lives matter.
As with anti-black racism, the privileging of white dreams anchors America; Like anti-black racism, the exclusive legibility of white humanity is as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes “the sugar in the American cake.”
To claim “all lives matter” belies history, and these experiences. As Taylor notes, “After three hundred years, they can’t just randomly declare that the cake is now sugar free." If anything, white America continues to add sugar, calling rightful protestors over sensitive and delusional in their assessment.
And you are angry about a shirt.
While you claim not to see race, your act has whiteness written all over it. White supremacy makes it so whiteness is the ultimate pass. Whiteness is being the first one picked, the first one forgiven, and being innocent until proven innocent.
Whiteness is the ability to reach for one’s ID.
Whiteness is the ability to knock on a door in search for help.
Whiteness is the ability to read a book without being questioned.
Whiteness is never fitting a description, never being a profile.
Whiteness is the ability to play with a toy in a park or a BB gun in a store.
Whiteness is the ability to walk in a neighborhood and never be seen as an outsider.
Whiteness is the ability to be angry and to express rage.
Whiteness is freedom.
Whiteness is the ability to act like a rebellious teenager, to make mistakes, to question authority, without ever being representative, without fear of consequence, without the ultimate punishment; Whiteness is the story of my life
While white privilege is about advantage, unearned opportunities, that invisible knapsack that we can reach into anytime we need something, it is also about never needing to reach into the knapsack because we can we can walk, drive, live … and be seen as human deserved of respect, justice, and love …
The way things should be
While you claim all lives matter, you clearly don’t hear, see, or care about the experiences of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Muslims.
Instead you deny these realities, the longstanding protests, closing your eyes, plugging your ears, as YOU claim all lives matters
Do you always ignore those you claim to care about?
Instead of listening, you center your experiences, voice, and needs amid daily evidence of racial injustice; you claim to be the victim.
If all lives matter, you would be chanting Rekia Boyd #sayhername
Ayana Stanley Jones #sayhername
Natasha McKenna #sayhername
Kayla Moore #sayhername
If all lives matter, you would be marching for Mike Brown #blacklivesmatter. For Akai Gurley, #BlackLivesMatter
If all lives matter, you would have shed a tear and changed your Facebook profile, or dumped a bucket of ice on your head for Ramarley Graham, Wendell Allen, Dante Price, Jamar Clark, Bo Morrison, and Kendrec McDade.
If all lives matter, you would be fighting for justice for Trayvon, Lacquan , Alton Sterling, Freddie, Sandra, and Eric.
What about Pedro Villanueva, Anthony Nunez, Christian Taylor, Dylan Noble, Rexdale Henry, Melissa Ventura, Paul Castaway, Zachary Hammond, and Jessie Hernandez?
You fighting for them? Or too busy denying, silencing, and questioning
If you were committed to equality, justice, and a nation where racism did not stratified our lives you would be more outraged at yet another unjust killing, at the demonization of black bodies, at the efforts to blame Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and so many others for their own death.
Instead you are outraged by a shirt … a t-shirt;
You are moved to anger by a hashtag, albeit one of tremendous power, one that challenges your worldview; you are outraged by a movement demanding justice and a culture of life rather than the continued loss of life.
I know you need to go back to abusing your power, so let me ask you: why don’t you speak for and with the victims of American racism?
Why not use that energy and outrage to demand JUSTICE?
Why not commit yourself to helping build a society where black lives and black humanity are both recognized and protected?
Whiteness … privilege … racism is a hard road to climb.
But if your question was genuine and your claim that ‘All Lives Matter” meant anything, you would join the many committed freedom dreamers, those demanding more from this nation, from white America, from me and you, so that tomorrow we won’t need to mourn yet another and yet another and yet another unjust killing
David J. Leonard is Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard's latest books include After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press), African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero and Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture with C. Richard King. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon about gun violence in America. You can follow him on Twitter at @drdavidjleonard.