They told white people to listen, so as a white person I did just that. Here are 7 things I learned because of Black Lives Matter.
If you’re reading this, you would probably already be well acquainted with Black Lives Matter, #BLM, All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and a number of the movements that have been sparked in response to acts of police violence over the last few decades. Most recently, the death of George Floyd recorded on camera as four police officers stood around with one holding him in a chokehold has sparked global response. Mass protests, even during times of pandemic presence and strict distancing rules with COVID-19. Police departments being completely defunded. Constant debate in the news. Harsh conversations in person and on social media followed by a lot of anger, blocking, and termination of relationships.
You really need to have been living under a rock on a different planet to have not been affected by recent events.
One of the main things some of my friends of colour and those more on the spectrum of social activism as a part of their job or interests have been doing is telling white people to listen (also a part of #BlackOutTuesday). Not to comment, not to contribute, just to hear out what’s being said.
And so, I did just that. Consider this my active listening component where I see if I’ve understood.
I am white Australian, and so I think people would assume that I originated from some noble family in the heart of England. In fact, one side of my family comes from the Seychelles, a series of islands north-east of Madagascar, and have had several of my African friends trying to convince me that makes me African (you know who you are). The other side comes from a mix of English, Scottish, and German descent, with some ancestry further back to Ireland mixed in either side.
So, like most Australians, or even most people in our increasingly globalized society, while my skin is white, I’m actually a mess of ancestry and cultures, living in a multicultural nation, struggling to come to terms with a clash of cultures and history.
As an IT professional and a thinker, I always like to find out the facts, and so I did decide to listen without inputting, contradicting, or taking an aggressive stance either way. I would like to share the things that I’ve discovered. Here are 7 things I have learned because of Black Lives Matter.
#1: Offense is inevitable
I’m not gonna lie. Even while trying to take a balanced look, what I share is going to offend someone. I’ve found that no matter which side people are on, there is someone out there who will take a statistic, an opinion, a lesson or an observation as severely offensive. Many people have a personal stake or a pivotal experience in the conversation, and so the smallest part of a sentence can severely trigger a small or a large group of people.
I think the hard part is that quite a few of the arguments on either side start with very sweeping statements that set people off before you’ve even said anything. Two of the big ones are:
- Black lives matter because all lives matter – this one has been seen to dismiss black people and/or the concerns of certain demographics in crisis
- Hey white people, you’re all inherently racist, here’s why – this seems to be a generalization of the same caliber unsurprisingly triggering the same response
Add to all this hundreds of years of irresponsible or destructive behaviour by both white and coloured people, and you have a recipe for getting triggered.
I would rather choose a tone of reconciliation, and I’m hoping in sharing my lessons in a more balanced way, this could be a voice to help us find a path forward rather than getting locked in how things have been.
#2: Everyone has their own story
The arguments for and against the Black Lives Matter movement have brought so many stories to the fore. There are people sharing amazing stories from the lifetimes of their ancestors or even from the last few years of their own lives who are opening up about incidents of cruelty that should have never happened.
For myself, I’ve actually had quite a positive experience of diversity – some may argue that alone makes me part of the problem. In my IT career, I’ve worked with many people of many races. I’ve worked in teams with more white people, I’ve worked in teams where white was the stark minority for skin colour, I’ve worked in teams where I have led people from multiple nationalities, and I have worked for many more companies and projects where my superiors have been black, Asian, Indian (which is technically Asian), and if we want to talk about another topic of division, women. I have many friends of varying descents, from Australian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Zimbabwean, Singaporean, Kenyan, Malaysian, Papuan, British, German, Scandinavian, Russian, Croatian, Latino, South African, indigenous Australian, and every combination of half caste and quarter caste you can think of, and been to birthday parties and ethnic celebrations with each culture on full display. I speak Japanese (functional at least), I love Asian pop culture, and I love living in Brisbane where we have excellent representation of everyone’s food.
I have also traveled to a number of countries where I have been the subject of racist remarks and behaviours, and have seen and addressed when I’ve seen people do it with people I know.
And yet we are all trying to find our own place in this world in the midst of where we’ve come from and where we hope to go.
And many people have opened up about incidents of racist behaviour or perceived racist behaviour in their own lives. The response has either been to extremely validate (eg. standing with people during protest, voicing empathy and solidarity, carrying out social justice), or to invalidate (eg. statements like white people can’t experience racism, that community doesn’t have it that bad, police brutality is/isn’t justified).
I think it’s hard to reconcile when dismissing the other voice is seen to be the coping strategy. Dr Henry Cloud joins other psychologists in referring to this type of behaviour as gaslighting, and we can see that with all our various experiences, it isn’t going to bring unity or forward motion.
#3: The Australian indigenous communities face a number of unique challenges
In Australia, whilst there has been a lot of support for George Floyd and the African-American community, the focus has shifted a little bit more on to the plight of our own indigenous community. I am actually grateful for this as I have been aware of a number of these sorts of issues in my country, but not to the level that current attention is drawing to these issues. So I think that’s a good thing, or at least that’s been a good thing for me.
I have been through a number of the more rural towns with higher Aboriginal populations and have seen parts of the good and the bad that a lot of people have talked about, but have never lived for an extended period of time in them besides staying a few nights here and there. As a result, it’s been very enlightening to read of the high levels of domestic violence and substance abuse (this White Ribbon article in general is one of the reasons I regularly write about anger and addressing male issues but our rural communities are really doing it tough), the current level of government funding and whether or not issues are being resolved, or perceived to be resolved. Is it a lack of funding and money not reaching where it’s supposed to go, or is it a lack of willingness or gratitude as you may find in any comment section on any current news site?
I don’t really have a clear answer on who is right or wrong on these. I do see a lot of finances apparently allocated to servicing the communities and a lot of initiatives and support that have been made available, but I also see the voices of community leaders saying it’s not working.
I guess both sides need to ask and accept the other side’s answer to the question, “What do you want?”, or find an acceptable middle ground.
#4: We’re fighting over the same statistics
I think this is the one that’s really doing my head and my heart in. We are looking at the same numbers and drawing dramatically different conclusions on them. I have seen it happen a few dozen times where one person will cite an article, and another person will cite the same article to completely disagree with them. I’ll use the Australian example as that’s the one I am most familiar with personally.
One side cites hundreds of years of oppression and an observed bias against people of colour when it comes to police treatment. The other cites higher levels of criminal behaviour and similar levels of death at police hands across all races. The most common set of divisive statistics come from the Australian Institute of Criminology and its “Indigenous Deaths in Custody” piece, as the numbers can be spun to represent both perspectives.
Both sides seem to split violently on one metric interpretation – whether or not it is important to measure numbers of incidents and deaths against the total number, or in comparison to the percentage of population that race represents. Those who argue for BLM cite a 16 times higher likelihood for Indigenous people to be arrested and/or to die in prison at one stage based on the number of indigenous people in Australia, and those who argue for All Lives Matter cite that the indigenous actually represent the smallest percentage of incidents in both cases by number of incidents. There’s also the statistics around violence towards police that draw similar analysis.
Once again, I’m not sure which is right either. I would have thought personally that it would go by number of incidents as this is a physical count of police action, but there are some very big and valid issues brought up surrounding why a higher percentage of a population may be affected and why this is important.
And in all I’ve learned because of Black Lives Matter (so far) across the various countries affected, I think that’s where the centre of the disagreement sits. From my understanding of the American case, it is this number of incidents vs. percentage of population split at the heart of the disagreements there also.
#5: Transgenerational trauma is a powerful lesson in how we handle our pain
I bit the bullet a few times over the last week and visited some links for the absolute most extreme views on either side. Both sides can be very convincing, and both sides in their most extreme form will make you feel uncomfortable. I do really remember being struck by the research and information of Creative Spirits, which is definitely more of an advocate of the BLM argument than otherwise. Quite well researched, they put forward the following statement in regards to the role the Stolen Generations continue to impact today’s experience:
“Intergenerational effects of separation from family and culture are partly to blame: parents who were themselves stolen as children are passing on this trauma to their own kids.”
In researching this notion further, there are several other authors and community activitists who believe this contributes to the plight of these communities.
And as I saw more and more comments and discussions on the topic of Black Lives Matter across people of different origins, whether Indigenous, African American, South African, Jewish, or otherwise, this seems to ring true.
It’s hard to blame anyone really for the brokenness they have experienced at the hands of other people. I always love a comparison by Dr Henry Cloud (making an appearance again here) that if a car gets smashed, you don’t blame the car for being defective. It may be the most pristine and strong car around, but if it experiences a crash, it doesn’t go back to its original shape on its own.
Likewise, all of us take damage in life, rightly or wrongly, and it takes time and effort to heal.
I actually recently wrote about the topic of patterns of dysfunction in how they affect our love lives. The things we’ve grown up with, experienced in family or community, or learned from the myriad of other voices in our world, all contribute significantly to how we live out our single, dating, and married lives.
I guess you could say that both sides of this conversation are at risk of further repeating patterns of dysfunction. In a marriage, it is very hard for two people to stay together if the trauma is continually repeated, dismissed, or undealt with. It’s impossible unless they can find the same page together. When it’s me or you more than it is about “we”, when all I can see is what you’ve done wrong, when one of us won’t change, then we start to drift apart.
Perhaps we as a nation or a world need to go through some marriage counselling and find a path forward together to prevent us becoming further divided than we already are.
#6: I still don’t understand systemic racism
Just gotta be honest here. This may be because of my own story as listed above in working with and befriending so many people of colour who seem to have done so well in life, with so much opportunity, with so much unity regardless of our skin colour. Still learning and listening on this one.
I think the definitions of “you can’t be racist to white people” and “all white people are part of a racist system” are what I struggle to grasp, as they seem similar to the sweeping statement and actions of generations past on both sides who have severely destroyed others, and I can’t seem to marry this up against the success and opportunity of people of colour I have experienced. You don’t need me to repeat the arguments here, you probably have a few of these in your immediate circles keeping people up to 3am in the morning already.
I have seen it said that “if you don’t understand systemic racism, you are part of the problem” and a lot about white privilege. I’ve actually gone through and experienced quite a bit in my life that just seems to be human rather than necessarily racial. I guess I need more clarity on whether this is true or not.
#7: I’m sorrowful for people’s anger and the increasing divide between us
I wrote about this over the weekend and it continues to be the thing that fills my heart with sorrow about our whole state of affairs. There is so much anger in our world and I think it is so hard to hear anybody when all you can see or feel is your own anger. What’s worse is we continually stoke our anger and allow it to rest in our hearts, even bringing us towards bitterness.
A house divided on itself cannot stand, and I am sad to see this in motion in multiple parts of the world, or even amongst family and friendship groups I know, where we are so eager and ready to trample people or cut people out of our lives completely because we can’t find resolution. One person asking a question turns into a witch hunt or a bash by everyone who disagrees, or we lose friends completely because we don’t, can’t, or won’t hear each other.
I think the one word summary I’m looking for in all this, and in truth in many areas of life, is reconciliation. The reuniting of people and souls after traumatic experiences.
Reconciliation is really hard. It’s hard to set aside things that have destroyed generations of families, and it’s also hard to form relationships or foster improvement when things done several generations before your birth are held against you because of the colour of your skin, whichever colour that may be. Forgiveness can be too hard to ask for, or too hard to provide.
I guess I would like to think that we represent a new generation and need to do better by all people. Our world is so divided already, and further division I fear is something we will not be able to survive.
All in all, I’m grateful that there is heightened attention on all of these issues that are happening our world today. I don’t really have a full answer on where to go from here, but I hope that a lot of the great conversations that have been happening already can continue and we can reconcile rather than repeat.
So, thank you for all the things I’ve learned because of Black Lives Matter.