When Unitarian Universalists don their bright yellow shirts and start singing “Standing on the Side of Love”, none of them doubts that they also still stand for Justice and Equity. Nothing about the one phrase excludes the other concepts; it just says that we are focused on Love at the moment. Ignoring concerns about the slogan, we understand that Standing on the Side of Love isn’t about a narrower intent.
We can give an issue, a concern, or a group attention without giving up our larger message. We understand that every issue we care about has facets. Our real aim is to improve the lives of real people, each with multiple identities.
We celebrated the acknowledgement that people could marry whomever they choose regardless of gender. Still, we understood that there was more work to do towards equality in employment, housing, and how people are treated in their daily lives. We can lift up the one idea without ignoring the fuller understanding.
…or, we can some of the time…
When we say Black Lives Matter, though, some people read words that are not there. We mean the words we say, and we say them because Black folks in America do matter; they matter to us, as people and members of our communities. Nothing about this phrase disparages anyone else. There is nothing exclusionary about the statement. Some people, though, read meaning that the words as-written do not include.
Black lives are being centered in a positive way. That rarely happens in our culture. Once in a while we see it when a specific Black person achieves something. Generally, though, we do not lift up Black people and Black lives. The exception is in February, which is Black History Month; and every year there are complaints about why we have a specific month to remember the contributions of Black America to the American Story. When movies like “Hidden Figures” are still revelations to the general public we clearly have gaps in how we present history the rest of the year. Nothing about Black History Month, though, downplays or stigmatizes the legitimate contributions of White people. Nevertheless, we see annual complaints.
The anger, frustration, and discomfort felt by white people in these instances is real, but it comes from a very unhealthy place. It comes from having to confront that people like them have always been the center of the American story. The shift in focus to Black lives is enough to cause irritation because giving up privilege is uncomfortable. Even when Black History Month is already the shortest month of the calendar, focusing on non-White history feels like loss. Even though there is no doubt that White lives matter, it offends some to say that Black lives matter without making some consolation to White people. “Shouldn’t it say, ‘…too’? Shouldn’t it say, “ALL”? Why am I not part of this somehow?”
This is the culture of White Supremacy. This is the culture that says that Black people can’t even stand up and demand basic rights and acknowledgement without paying lip service to White people and their position of dominance. You don’t have to ever say that White people are superior, you certainly don’t have to wear it on a t-shirt or shout it at a rally. You do not have to be a White Supremacist. Telling Black people that their worth cannot be affirmed separately from White people is White Supremacy, and our culture does this all the time.
If All lives matter, then Black lives matter. Until all lives matter equally, we have a lot of work to do. Lifting up the people who have been marginalized is crucial to addressing the sickness of racism in our culture, nationally and as a religious movement. We can accomplish something important by getting comfortable saying “Black Lives Matter” without feeling left out just because we are sharing the focus for a while.