By now, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag is a two-year-old symbol of resistance, created in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. It has been the grounding motto for activists in cities across the country and around the world, in response to police brutality targeted at Black people.
Unfortunately, it has not been free from the mythologizing and erasure inherent in white supremacy. Founded by three queer Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, #BlackLivesMatter is oft misappropriated by both conservatives and allies in an attempt to fit their own agendas.
As a white ally I want to draw attention to the herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and note its misuse on both the left and the right. In social justice work especially, privileged white organizers ignore Black women’s voices and co-opt their messages. Compassionate and nuanced allyship means listening to Black women for when to step in and when to stand back. It means calling out fellow white people on their casual racism and not taking up space at a Black Lives Matter event. While it is incredibly important to note the racism of conservative media, it’s just as (if not more) necessary to examine the less blatant but ever-present microaggressions within progressive communities. Allies to the Black Lives Matter movement must remain accountable for and critique the internalized racism of their own spaces as well as the spaces of those with whom they disagree.
White Protesters’ Egregious Response to #BlackLivesMatter
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#BlackLivesMatter began as a site of collective mourning, support, and community building, and evolved into the core message for Black protesters fighting against systemic racism and economic inequity. The Black Lives Matter website states the phrase is “Not a moment,” but rather it is “a movement”—a vision for a world that values and affirms Black existence. The succinct message and the national attention the Black Lives Matter movement brought to Ferguson attracted conservatives looking to redefine its message.
The right has misused the Black Lives Matter movement to redefine which lives they believe matter, and why. Conservatives reflect their racist appropriation through complete alterations of the hashtag, as well as using the original phrase to deliver an anti-choice message. One of the earliest responses to Black Lives Matter was “Blue Lives Matter,” a phrase that tries to sell itself as innocuous support of law enforcement. However, this pseudo-movement honors the police in the wake of publicized acts of anti-Black brutality, such as the death of Eric Garner. The hashtag spinoff of #BlackLivesMatter is beyond coincidental, it’s offensive. The Blue Lives Matter website doesn’t even reference the original hashtag or its creators. Blue Lives Matter marches and rallies end up being confrontational at best and inherently anti-Black at worst, by privileging the lives of an already socially privileged profession that engages in state-sanctioned violence against Black communities.
Even more appalling, if this is quantifiable, is the Southern Lives Matter sign seen at an Alabama rally supporting the Confederate flag. These all-white protesters seem to have missed the point entirely. They believe their values, and therefore their lives, are challenged because of nationwide opposition against flying a pro-slavery symbol. The Associated Press quoted one Confederate supporter as comparing his struggle to that of the Jews during the Holocaust. The issue here is clearly seeded in historical anti-Black racism and the inability to problematize white American heritage. The accusation that Southern Lives Matter makes the Black Lives Matter movement even more pertinent, for clearly these protesters are only concerned with white Southern lives.
Conservatives have also utilized the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in order to deny Black women the right to abortion. If Black lives truly matter, they argue, why are Black women seeking abortions at a higher rate than other races? Not only do these articles misrepresent facts, they rely on the irresponsible, no-agency narrative of Black womanhood in order to claim Black women as dupes of Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health organizations. In contrast, I would like to ask: If Black lives truly mattered, why wouldn’t these articles support the right of a Black woman to make her own choice, and if she does choose to raise a child, raise it without the threat of violence? In this instance, it’s clear that these anti-choice authors value the existence of a potential fetus more than that of a Black woman, or her future children. Otherwise, wouldn’t they support the right for children not to be traumatized by police at a pool party? Again and again, Black women are used as arguments for so-called moral issues without their own voices heard, or they are literally silenced. Not once is the herstory of the Black Lives Matter movement called upon in any articles condemning Black abortion. An honest support of Black lives would be to support Black Lives Matter actions and condemn anti-Black violence.
All Lives Don’t Matter, and That’s the Problem
Misguided allies in the Black Lives Matter movement commit microaggressions through appropriating the message in ways that betray the intent of its founders. Whether it is through erasing specifically Black lives from the conversation or only focusing on certain Black lives, those committed to anti-racist work through Black Lives Matter can learn best from the original goals of the hashtag.
One especially insidious misuse of the phrase is invoking “All Lives Matter.” Used as a sort of peace-keeping tactic, this phrase damages the radical work of Black Lives Matter by explicitly removing Black lives from the conversation in the name of inclusivity. Advocates for “All Lives Matter,” an essentializing argument, seem to take offense at drawing attention to Black lives over others, although Black lives are the ones most specifically targeted through racist state-sanctioned violence. It’s not the phrase that Black Lives Matter activists disagree with. Rather, it’s the method in which it’s been deployed: as a silencing tactic to try and draw attention away from anti-Black brutality.
I think that’s the biggest issue with “All Lives Matter”: the masking of its original use, to oppose the message that Black Lives Matter. And yet that has largely been forgotten, and somehow Black Lives Matter supporters are in the wrong for asserting their original statement. Conservative outlets have gleefully reported incidents of students protesting the use of “All Lives Matter” by college presidents, such as at my own school, Smith College. These critics delight in assuming Black Lives Matter supporters are oversensitive, exclusive, or “reverse racist.” Yet asserting Black lives matter is working toward the goal of holding all lives at the same value they deserve.
Folks more connected to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag are not excused from misusing the phrase, either. The privileging of Black cis men’s stories within Black Lives Matter activism denies the herstory of the movement. The queer, feminist roots of Black Lives Matter should mean that all Black lives are uplifted, not that the police killings of Black women are largely ignored. Another hashtag, #SayHerName, has spawned in order to shed light on the stories of Black women killed by police. Yet within the original movement and hashtag there should be room for all Black folks’ lives to be acknowledged and honored. This is an issue also present in activist spinoff hashtags, such as Trans Lives Matter (which has been around for some time but became more widespread after #BlackLivesMatter picked up in the media) and Muslim Lives Matter. There are, of course, Black trans people, and Black Muslim people—so the creation of discrete categories reinforces the idea that Black lives only refers to a specific dominant narrative. The compartmentalization of experience into these different adjectives, when all Black experience can fit into Black Lives Matter, dilutes the power of the message. Embracing the intersections of Black lives is more empowering than co-opting the original phrase to do separate political work.
This isn’t the first time that the ideas of Black women have been co-opted, and then erased from history, by allies. Consider reproductive justice, a framework founded by Black women and other women of color, intended to shed light on reproductive issues that specifically impact women of color. Yet the “reproductive rights” whitewashed topics of discussion that get the most attention are birth control and abortion access, which is completely insensitive toward women of color who have been and continue to be coercively sterilized.
The right to raise a child in a safe and healthy environment is a fundamental tenet of reproductive justice, and so keeping Black Lives Matter conversations in reproductive justice spaces is fundamental to its success. A true commitment to the original Black Lives Matter movement is to not only amplify, but listen to, the original words and intent of the movement. The founders of the hashtag and movement speak of it being about “Black love.” Allies to Black Lives Matter often only use the phrase to acknowledge Black deaths. Each time a police killing is reported, social media sees a spike in the hashtag’s usage. But Black lives, and the valuing of Black lives, should matter more than the “spectacle of Black death.” Twisting it to suit one’s own political agenda denies the reality of anti-Black institutional racism in the United States. Both liberal and conservative appropriations of the Black Lives Matter movement contribute to the continuing oppression and silencing of Black activists, especially Black women.