A few years ago, my job assignment was accompanying Angela Davis around my city.
Prior to her visit, I read extensively about her life’s work as a scholar and activist for equal rights. Inspired by her writings and speeches, I looked forward to meeting her. The Black Lives Matter movement had just begun at the time of her visit, and much of her visit was likely to focus on that call to action.
Ms. Davis did not disappoint. The crowds of people who came to meet her were in awe of her presence and her words. Gracious and thoughtful, we worked well together during her visit, getting her to the various locations so she could speak to hundreds of people who were eager to listen to her and meet her.
For hours, she signed copies of her books for people who had waited hours to talk to her, to share a bit of their story with this icon. She was patient and kind with every person who wanted to meet her. I held her books open for her to sign while she tried giving her full attention to the person in front of her.
As I accompanied her in the car back to her hotel when the long day was over, we talked a bit. Inspired by her words, and encouraged by her openness, I asked her a question that I was afraid to ask others.
“I am frustrated that I don’t have a good response when someone says to me that all lives matter,” I told her. “What should I say back?”
She looked me right in the eyes and simply said, “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.”
That moment is frozen in time for me. It is that simple.
I felt foolish, as this icon of two centuries of fighting systemic racism had to pause and tell me the answer was right in front of me. I felt like I could see it in her eyes, thinking to herself, “Here I go again, having to explain to a white person that Black lives matter.”
But she did it again, just for me. She was patient and kind. It was more than I deserved.
The Patience Required of Change
Systemic racism is complex. It’s not just one thing, but a system of things that has fused together for hundreds of years. It is not something that is undone all at once, but we have to keep pulling at every thread to create a hole so the light can shine through.
I have been surprised at the unforgiving attitudes of many enlightened, progressive white people . Proud of their own level of understanding and wokeness, they are particularly harsh when less informed, less educated white people are trying to join their cause. On social media, it is becoming a bit of a self-congratulatory caste system of who “gets it” when it comes to fighting racism, and there is an ostracization that occurs when people who are testing the waters for the first time fail.
It makes me worry. In a world gone mad, why are we getting mad when people are trying to understand their role in the fight against racism?
Don’t we want to draw more people in as we try to defeat racism to the extent that it is possible? We need all hands on deck for this one, and I just don’t see the value in overly-criticizing those who are trying, especially those who have never voiced support publicly. People who are on the cusp of finally doing the right thing can easily be turned away if we don’t give them the space and help they need to get over this wall to the other side of enlightenment.
People are always going to say dumb, insensitive things. I have said dumb, insensitive things. You have said dumb, insensitive things.
I know that some of this comes in the form of whitewashing, where those trying to show they are not racist say or write things as “color of skin does not matter.” It is cringe-inducing. However, we must show them why such statements are not anti-racist with through teachable moments so they can see why those sentiments are flawed. Mocking them is not going to bring the change we all want.
As people struggle to find the best ways to support people of color in the fight against racism, we need to allow some space for the inevitable mistakes. As we watch people in positions of power being intentionally cruel and ruthless, it doesn’t make sense to turn on a well-intentioned person who is reaching out in a small way to come our way.
Wanting a just and kind world where all people exist in a form of harmony means that we can’t become self-righteous jerks in the process, so proud of our own “understanding” that we fail to have compassion for those who are breaking free from the mind bind of racist thoughts and actions. Isn’t that what we are fighting for is for people to change?
If Angela Davis can pause to explain to a well-intentioned, albeit ignorant white woman that all lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter, can’t we do the same?
We can’t have unity in this country if we keep changing the rules for what is considered the right way to show support in the fight against racism. We should correct when we can, but we must do it with loving kindness when we find people willing to listen and change so they can be better allies and advocates.
For some, a post on facebook that says Black Lives Matter is an act of personal act of evolution and revolution. For every proverbial argument-at-Thanksgiving-with-your-racist-uncle, you may feel like talking with that cliche is a waste of time. But maybe it is your aunt or your cousin who hears what you’re saying and is agreeing with you, and starting to change how they view their role in the fight against racism.
In this battle against racism, well-intentioned people aren’t always getting it right. Instead of criticizing them, let’s help them to become fully ani-racist Help move them toward the cause of making the abolishment of racism their life’s work. They don’t have that lived experience, but finally, finally they are paying attention like never before.
These white folks who have stood on the sidelines of life may never be woke, but many are having an awakening. As with any type of growth, it’s not a straight line from wrong to righteous. Let’s walk with them, offering support, and celebrating their willingness to understand and to change.
“Change is going to require everyone’s participation,” said President Barack Obama in his address of June 3, 2020.
Yes, change needs all of us. As the late, great Civil Rights icon John Lewis advocated, we must get into “good trouble” for the good of all of us.
I’m in and I am here to help anyone who wants to join me. And I am still listening and learning as I commit fully to being anti-racist.