What does “Black Lives Matter” actually mean? To me, it used to be a message to those that turn a blind eye to white supremacy, police brutality, and a cultural devaluing of Black lives. But I’ve sought to shift my perspective this year; to de-centering white people, and instead begin focusing on my own community. With this intention came some unsteadying revelations. It occurred to me that Black Lives Matter was never meant to be a message to non-black people, it was instead a call to Black people — to start valuing our lives to a greater degree than we’ve been conditioned to. And with that revelation, I lost some of my oldest friendships.
I can count on one hand the number of Black friends I had growing up. I came to America at age eight, completely aloof to the complexities of racial dynamics in the United States. I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way, I got the message that the way I spoke, the music I listened to, and the people I hung out with were perceived to be in conflict with my skin color. All I know is that I got this message from my Black classmates. The white ones didn’t talk about race. At the time, the latter approach was more appealing to me. It allowed me the freedom to keep liking what I liked without feeling like it wasn’t okay.
I was subject to frequent micro-aggressions in those white friendships, but I didn’t see that then. The feeling was there, but not the understanding. I went through a journey with those friendships that I now see in three phases. In the first, I embraced “color-blindness” with my whole being. It made interracial friendships quite simple. How could there possibly be conflict over something that doesn’t exist? But truth demands to be acknowledged, and so too, did the reality of race. College was my first introduction to the term “white privilege”. The notion was transformative.
I imagine that for white people, becoming aware of their privilege is akin to seeing ghosts for the first time. For me as a Black woman, it was confirmation that the ghosts I’d been seeing for a long time were indeed real.
The validation it provided allowed me to put parameters on my friendships. From then on, I only invested in friendships with white people who acknowledged the reality of their privilege, however passively. That was phase two. I still felt unsettled. In the same way, color-blindness never felt quite right, I began to wonder — what was the point of my friends seeing their privilege if they were doing nothing about it? I tried to push them into action. Forcing conversations about race, mentioning things like the Tulsa Massacre and the Philadelphia MOVE bombing as soon as I learned about them, and occasionally sharing my own experiences. I took on the burden of educating them in hopes that they’d come to the realization that we were not living so far from one of those “if you were alive during slavery / the Holocaust / The Trail of Tears what would you do?” hypotheticals. I’d assumed their answers, bold declarations that they would have been abolitionists, that they would have killed Hitler. I ignored that during one of these very conversations, one of my friends admitted she would have been too scared to do anything. It was an honest but inherently privileged perspective.
It should have come as no surprise to me that when the 2020 police brutality protests began, these friends would remain silent. It wasn’t a surprise, it just suddenly became unacceptable. This was phase three. My epiphany went something like this: “Black lives matter, and not just after we’ve died… but if I truly believe my life matters, why am I okay with keeping friends that won’t lift a finger to fight for it? Why do I demand action from myself, but not from those that would face less dire consequences for speaking up?”
To be fair, this is an oversimplification of why these friendships dissipated. There was inaction from some, black squares from others. It’s possible some of these people are still in the midst of their awakening, but it didn’t matter — I’d decided I was no longer willing to wait.
As breakups tend to do, these ones compelled me to reanalyze many aspects of my life. I began thinking about the countless movies I’d watched with no one my shade of dark brown. How, even when featured, anyone who looked like me rarely got to be the protagonist. I thought of the artists I listened to who “weren’t political”, the dozens of novels I’d read set in all-white worlds, the companies I purchased from whose CEOs frequently made generous donations to the Republican Party.
I came to the realization that I’d made a habit of investing in people, media, and corporations that didn’t center Black lives. I decided for once, I wanted to be the main character.
For me, this meant restructuring my own geography — from the confines of my own apartment — by re-vetting the white influences I let into my life. If I have to question whether this person or entity would fight for me, I’ve sought to eliminate it. I no longer want to keep influences around that have yet to see the ghosts. I’ve spent my whole life feeling unseen by the same people and things I love, and it has decimated my self-esteem. It’s a bit of a challenging process, this decolonizing. It makes sense that it would be difficult to find the works of a marginalized group. But I’ve come to discover that the part of the Black community that mainstream culture presents is only the tip of the iceberg. Vegan restaurants like Souley Vegan, environmental activists like Leah Thomas, bedroom pop artists like Arlo Parks, fantasy books like Children of Blood and Bone, and even Black Girl Sunscreen have all contributed to this realization. All the things I sought outside of my community because I was told they didn’t exist — they have always been here. Racism crafts a narrative about who its targets are, and then sells them that story. Instead of trying to coexist in two worlds I only half-fit into, finding these influences have allowed me to start feeling whole.
There are many ways to be Black, and all of them are valid. White supremacy is both physical violence and psychological warfare. Tackling it not only requires a greater valuation of Black bodies, but also a dismantling of the notion that Blackness has limitations. Spoiler alert, it does not.