Signs of the Times

“Why don’t you just say all lives matter, ma’am?”

I was holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at the side of the road when the white man pulled up in front of me and rolled down his window to ask a question. I didn’t have an answer ready, but some of the other protesters did. He didn’t find them satisfying, though, and the exchange ended in mutual disgust as he drove off. We protesters commiserated with each other, and I practiced some answers for next time, as the demonstration dispersed.

As I was driving home, though, I thought about that encounter again. The man hadn’t seemed angry, initially; he’d looked disappointed, or as if he felt it wasn’t fair. Maybe he had stopped in front of me because I looked like a nice white lady — maybe I reminded him of someone that he knew. He sounded like he couldn’t understand why I would be holding a sign like that.

As I drove down the road, I tried to imagine what the world might look to someone who didn’t think it was fair for people to be saying “Black Lives Matter”, who felt left out by signs like that — and I think I caught a glimpse of it.

It’s a world that doesn’t see white.

We talk about not seeing race, or being color-blind. A lot of white people, myself included, were raised to believe that the Civil Rights Movement was successful, that racism was no longer a problem, and that it was rude to talk about race, because that’s what racism was: bringing race into something instead of treating everyone alike.

Here’s the thing, though: in that world, whiteness is so taken for granted as normative that it is completely invisible. There are black people and brown people, but they are special populations, as opposed to regular people. I’m reminded of a conversation with an older woman in the early 80s, who loved a book she had recently read because she so thoroughly identified with the protagonist, “except for the ending. It’s too bad she turned into a lesbian, instead of just being regular, like me.”

White people, who think of themselves as just regular people, conditioned all their lives to avoid talking about race and to treat everyone equally, might reasonably feel that it was unfair to single out one subgroup for special treatment: to lift up signs saying that *their* lives matter. Regular people, who don’t even have the language to describe themselves as anything else, because we were all taught not to call ourselves white.

I’ve said before that it is important to linguistically mark the majority — be they white, straight, heterosexual, cisgender, or whathaveyou — so that the normativity, the “regularness”, doesn’t slide by without comment.

But after yesterday’s exchange with this gentleman, it seems to me that this is not just a good idea: it’s a moral imperative. Because people who do not perceive a difference between “people like me” and “regular people” are thereby unable to perceive that they are implicitly marginalizing people who are “not like me.”

This inability to perceive does not itself constitute racism, but constitutes a near occasion of the sin of racism: it creates a situation in which people can very easily fall into racism. Failing to mark the majority perpetrates a deception that the members of the majority are “just regular people” — and you know who the Father of Lies is. Persons laboring under this deception are liable to see justice and equity work on behalf of a marginalized group as special treatment for that group, and thus to feel that they themselves are being mistreated, or being left out.

Who among us cannot find it in their hearts to sympathize with the feeling of being left out? It’s such a basic human thing.

It’s so, so important that we figure out how to get this right, because it can be so, so small a step from feeling mistreated because some people seem to be getting special treatment, to scapegoating those people. We, we white people who have come to affirm that black lives matter, need to meet other white people where they are, and make a path for them that leads somewhere other than white supremacy and the KKK.

So I ponder this man’s question, and try to find a response that treats it in good faith, without dismissal and without impatience. I think about my moments of conversion: of seeing Michael Brown’s body lying on the street for hours, of twelve year old Tamir Rice shot for playing with a toy gun in the park, of too many videos we’ve seen now, too many names turned into hashtags after a routine encounter with police turned lethal.

And if I had another chance to respond to this gentleman, I would look at him with compassion, and say to him with conviction,

Because when you or I, as white people, get pulled over by the police for driving a few miles above the speed limit, or because we have a tail light out, we don’t have to worry that we’re going to end up dead. But black people do.

Thank you, sir, for stopping to ask your question. I wish I’d had a better answer for you. Next time, I will.

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