A friend on facebook pled, “I beg everyone not to use #alllivesmatter.”
If someone else had asked me not to use the hashtag, someone hateful—who didn’t believe that all lives did matter—the request would have been easy to dismiss. But because it was from a friend I trust, a wife and mother who worries about the safety of her husband and son because they walk around in brown skin, I couldn’t not pause to listen.
And I heard why #alllivesmatter stings in the ears of a lot of people I love.
Historically, “All” Hasn’t Meant “All”
Pale Americans like me want desperately to believe that “all” means “all” when we read, in our nation’s charter document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
It’s who we want to be.
So a lot of us have been willing to attribute to our founding fathers the very best of intentions. We generously reason that they probably meant well. And that times were different “back then.”
But when the Declaration of Independence was signed, “all” didn’t mean “all” and was never intended to mean “all.”
“All” didn’t include women. “All” didn’t mean the native people referenced later in the document as “merciless Indian Savages.” “All” didn’t mean African people enslaved on plantations. “All” excluded countless demographics of people who weren’t land-owning white males.
In America, “all” has never meant “all.”
Right Now, #AllLivesMatter is Dismissive
If our nation’s conscience had been pricked to confess that we’ve not honored all lives as being equal before August 9, 2014—when Mike Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri—I would be the first in line to use the hash tag.
If, prior to the Black Lives Matter movement, our nation wanted to confess our sin of dragging men, women and children across the Atlantic in chains, and own up to murdering people who thrived on this land before Europeans stole it, and admit to dehumanizing people many are trying to keep out of the land today, I’d be all in.
And if, in response to that theoretical usage, we’d sought to rectify the centuries of discrepancies—in classrooms and courtrooms, in police cars and in prisons—then #alllivesmatter might have more traction, more grip, than it does today.
But the because the hashtag arose only in response to #blacklivesmatter, it doesn’t mean what it might have five years ago. More often, in its popular usage, it’s perceived as minimizing the message that black lives matter. Even if that’s not the user’s intention. Because #alllivesmatter emerged on the heels of #blacklivesmatter—used by many, but not all, as a “corrective” to the clear call for needed systematic reform—it is heard as dismissive.
Moving Forward, #AllLivesMatter Requires Little of Us
Because it is vague, and not specific, #alllivesmatter requires little of me. I can agree, which I do, and do nothing in response. Specificity, however, has potential for real traction.
Because if I’m willing to agree that black lives matter—or native lives, or immigrant lives, or Muslim lives, or the lives of people with disabilities, or the lives of people who are transgender, or the lives of folks who are materially poor—in a society where these lives have been systematically oppressed, then I’m obliged to respond.
There’s a cost to specificity.
If black lives matter, then…
If native lives matter, then…
If Muslim lives matter, then…
Then…we need to do something differently than we’re doing right now. If black lives really matter, then its time for hearts to change and systems to change.
And there’s the risk of any hashtag: that our big-mouth convictions on social media won’t move us to action. And action is what we need right now.
My friend whose husband and son are black needs action now.
My activist friend who regularly uses #alllivesmatter and actually does work, daily, on behalf of vulnerable lives needs action now.
I need action now.
If all lives really do matter.