I used to be oblivious to racism. Because I was privileged enough to be insulated from it.
I was ignorant enough to say things like “racism doesn’t exist anymore,” and “my home was such a melting pot of cultures, racism was never an issue for me growing up.” But I said these words from my primarily white, middle class, safe & quiet neighborhood.
I never felt unsafe wandering the streets alone at night or walking to my car.
I’ve never been pulled over for no reason, and if I was pulled over, the cops have always treated me with respect.
I have never been afraid of police, and was raised to believe that they were the “good guys.”
I never feared for my brothers’ safety if they were out late without me or my family.
My life has been saturated with privilege. And if you are a white person reading this, yours probably has been too.
Does that make you uncomfortable? Good. Lean into that discomfort and stick with me.
Privilege does not mean having a lot of money, or expensive things, or an Ivy League education. But it does mean that because I was born a white, American, middle-class woman, I have had less roadblocks placed before me than my brothers and sisters of color. I have never in my life, not for a moment, doubted that my life matters. I have never, not once, been treated badly or ignored or hurt because of the color of my skin. Which is why I don’t need to hear that “all lives matter.” I knew that already. Of course all lives matter. I value human life above all else. But you know who does need to be reminded that their lives matter? Our black brothers and sisters.
Eight years ago, I moved from transient & diverse southern Florida to South Carolina, where the racism I had been (willfully) ignorant of for most of my life hit me like a freight train. I encountered completely segregated neighborhoods, schools, colleges, and churches. I heard the “N word” used flippantly. I saw the confederate flag flying in front of our highest government building, the State House. (Which, thank God, has since been removed.) For the last eight years, my non-profit job has placed me daily in nearly 100% African American schools and neighborhoods. For many of my students, I am the only white person they know. 12 year old girls have confided in me that they expect to be arrested for just being outside after school. They fear the police, and absolutely do not see them as “the good guys.” Many of their fathers are in jail, often for decades, due to non-violent crimes. Many of my students live in crumbling housing projects that were built over 70 years ago, surrounded by extended family, trapped in a cycle of generational poverty. These kids I work with every day are smart. They have big dreams. And they deserve to know, especially in times of fear and uncertainty, that their lives matter too.
As a white person, refusing to acknowledge that systematic racial oppression exists in our country and in our communities is not making things any better. If you don’t see it, then you might just be part of the problem. No mother should have to coach her son on how to dress and what to say when interacting with a police officer in their day-to-day life for fear of their safety. No parent should worry that their baby won’t make it home alive, not because he’s off to war, but because he simply exists as a black man. We cannot put our heads in the sand any longer and ignore the pain of our brothers and sisters of color who are scared, who are hurting, and who are righteously angry. It is the place of those in privilege to lift up and speak for the oppressed. And by refuting “black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” you are not only missing the point, but missing the very heart of those who are supposed to be your neighbors.
Kimberly Poovey is a writer, speaker, wife, and over-caffeinated new mom. She runs a teen pregnancy prevention program for a nonprofit and is a founder of Pearls, an organization that serves women in the sex industry and fights human trafficking. You can find her over on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, her blog, and on Facebook.