By Yasmina Al Ammari
Breonna Taylor, 26. Sean Reed, 21. Duncan Lemp, 21. Tamir Rice, 12. Michael Brown, 18. Philando Castile, 36. Eric Garner, 44, George Floyd, 46. All African American. All just a handful of the many lives unjustly taken by the people supposed to ‘serve and protect’ their communities. But to make that assumption, that police officers ever existed to ‘serve and protect’, is simply wishful thinking – and history can attest.
The United States is a country where race has always been incredibly salient. There is no universal ‘American’ experience, but several ‘American’ experiences determined by race. What makes the United States’ relationship with race so incredibly striking, is how successfully it has rebranded its systemic racism. Yes, it abolished slavery. Yes, it ended segregation. Yes, it is a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and identities. Yes, it is racially diverse. But when you peel back the curated mask of tolerance, diversity, democracy and freedom, you find a festering, rotting, crumbling system that has, fundamentally, not changed. Remnants of an aged settler colony that never outgrew the oppression it was built on. A system that is set on trapping people of colour (POC), especially Black people, into cycles of poverty and crime. It is a system intentionally created to oppress Black people*.
I do not need to tell you that the justice system in the US is deeply flawed. I do not need to remind you that it is blatantly and overtly unjust and was never just to begin with. It is unjust in its largest institutions and in its smallest. It is a system that, as today’s events will tell you, incapacitates and kills Black people, whether by design or not. Police officers are a means to that end – as they have proven time and time again. The African American population is suffering immensely from the racism that runs through the veins of their own system, a type of suffering that others will never be able to fully comprehend – not the most educated non-Black person of colour, and certainly not the most educated of white people.
*I say Black people here because the system in the United States has a notoriously hostile and vicious approach to the oppression of their Black population. Although there is no doubt that Native American, Latinx, Middle Eastern and Asian populations are heavily discriminated against, it would be unjust to attempt to shift the conversation away from whom it really concerns.
Black Lives Matter and its Countermovements
The murder of George Floyd has reignited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on an international scale. It has completely inundated social media, and very rightfully so. With every reignition of the BLM movement, inarguably the most tone-deaf narratives begin to resurface – the ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Blue Lives Matter’. You may have seen, amongst the influx of support for the BLM movement, Heidi Klum post a photo of hers and her Black children’s hands with the caption ‘#alllivesmatter’, or a girl posting a photo of her white police-officer father, asking whether his life mattered too.
It is important to ask when analysing the legitimacy of concerns surrounding ‘All lives matter’ and ‘Blue lives matter’ why such narratives only emerge when the BLM movement regains traction. If the concern is about whether life is valued in general, why is this not a movement in itself? Why is it so tethered to the BLM movement? It is a desperate attempt to re-shift the focus away from the oppressed and back onto the privileged. It is an attempt to erase the struggles of Black people and to pretend that their struggles are imagined. It attempts to eradicate the space Black people have created for themselves to address their grievances. The movement would be legitimate if only it existed outside the realm of the BLM movement, but it does not. Heidi Klum is the mother of Black children, Black children who will inevitably face some kind of racism in their lives. Yet, she contributes to erasing the space they need to deal with the reality of their race by saying ‘All lives matter’ at a time where it seems that all lives do matter, except Black lives.
Take this analogy. You’re sitting at dinner with your family, and everyone gets a plate of food except you. You ask for a plate, and your father simply says ‘No, everyone deserves a plate’. While it is true that everyone does deserve a plate, you still don’t have one, your complaint was dismissed and nothing was resolved. ‘All lives matter’ is the privileged saying ‘Your struggle is only as real as mine’ – when they do not struggle at all.
‘Blue lives matter’, a movement based on the belief that violence against law enforcement should be labelled as hate crimes, exists on another level of tone-deafness and insensitivity – especially when it is aroused in tandem with the BLM movement. To claim that people have to be sensitive to the people who regularly commit crimes against Black people is laughable. Simply put, this narrative is veiled racism. The ‘violence’ they face is a direct result of the values they choose to express through their work.
The BLM movement is a continuous, non-sporadic, legitimate and historically relevant battle – all ‘counter’ movements, however ‘rooted’ they are in humanitarian values of ‘preservation of life’, only serve the purpose of defending people who cower at the reality that they share some responsibility in perpetuating a system that oppresses Black people.
Racism as an American Exclusive and POC solidarity – the myths.
Another impressively audacious narrative that has emerged is the incredibly naive ‘I’m glad I’m not American’, ‘I’m so glad I live in Europe’, or even, as Tennis Coach Sascha Bajin (who would know nothing about ‘colour’ anyways) tweeted: ‘Colour isn’t an issue there [In Europe]’ (Source). This, of course, is not a new narrative, and many of you may have thought similarly. But let me remind you: The United States as we know it today belongs to the litter of several settler colonies Europe birthed in its colonial endeavours. Endeavours that reduced human lives to commodities, that looted native communities and that were, at their very core, supremacist in nature. All racist beliefs held in the United States are European in origin. But isn’t it different in our contemporary world? Aren’t European systems less racist than American ones? Let the experiences of POC in Europe speak to that.
A Black person in London is four times more likely than a white person to have force used against them by a Police Officer (Source). Many white Dutch people continue to justify wearing blackface in depicting ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Piet’, a character of notoriously racist origins. While Finland rates the highest in terms of happiness, it also rates the highest for racism in the EU with many Black Finns claiming they are invisible in Finnish society (Source). These are just a few of the countless (and I mean countless) negative experiences of European POC. I assure you that the opinion that ‘Colour isn’t an issue’ is not much of a widely accepted sentiment amongst POC in Europe.
The problem with saying ‘I’m so glad I live in Europe’ in times like these is that it erases the struggles that European POC, especially Black Europeans, face. It shifts the burden and responsibility of taking action against racism off the shoulders of Europeans and onto American shoulders. Europeans do not get to wag their fingers at Americans and condemn their blatant racism while communities in their own countries suffer from racial injustice. It is arrogant to assume that all the necessary measures to eradicate racism must be undertaken in America – as if the job in Europe is done. It is not.
Europeans are not the only ones who are guilty of this. Many, many communities around the world suffer from the same fallacy. The Middle East, in particular, tends to fall into similar traps, patting themselves on the backs for not being ‘racist like the Americans’. However, Arabs have their very own history with the horrendous treatment of Black people. Arabs had their own slave trade, having exported an estimated 17 million slaves (Source). To this day the derogatory term ‘Abeed’ (عبيد) or ‘slaves’ is used to refer to Black people. Blackface is still common in many Arab television series (Source). And, of course, racism doesn’t end with Black people, especially in the Gulf where there is heavy discrimination against people of Asian, namely South Asian, descent. It is, once again, not productive to denounce racial violence in the United States while perpetuating the racist systems in your own community.
What the example of the Middle East particularly gives rise to is the myth of POC solidarity – the assumption that all POC automatically support movements such as the BLM by mere virtue of their shared non-whiteness. This is not true. There is a difference between upholding personal anti-racist values and performative allyship. Being a person of colour does not alleviate the responsibility one has to assess their own privilege, their own racist tendencies, and the responsibility to fight racism in their community. It also does not mean that our experiences are comparable to that of Black people, and it certainly does not grant us access into the sphere that Black people have created to address their grievances.
While it is extremely important to raise awareness online, it is equally as important to make sure it’s not all just virtue signalling. We need to ask ourselves: Are we doing what needs to be done in our personal lives? Are we having the conversations about race that need to be had? Are we confronting racists around us? What can we do to fight racism in ourselves? Only when we start with ourselves are our outward efforts meaningful.
With all that being said, Justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Wendell Allen and all who have lost their lives because of racism. And, as always, Black Lives Matter.
Want to learn more?
Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel
The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching about Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know by Tema Jon Okun
The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America By Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Movies, videos and television programmes:
13th: From Slave to Criminal with One Amendment – Ava Duvernay
American Son – Kenny Leon
Clemency – Chinonye Cukwu
Dear White People
Want to donate?
George Floyd Memorial Fund: https://www.gofundme.com/f/georgefloyd
Black Visions Collective(@mnfreedomfun): https://minnesotafreedomfund.org/donate
Reclaim the Block (@reclaimtheblock): https://linktr.ee/reclaimtheblock
Campaign Zero: https://www.joincampaignzero.org/
Unicorn Riot (@unicorn.riot): https://unicornriot.ninja/
Edited by Amélie de Paepe