Join the other curious and interested readers of my Sunday letters. Sign up
Enjoy this piece? Get more like it every Sunday.Sign up

Why “#BlackLivesMatter”, and the power of a refrigerator note.

I recently had a heated exchange with a good friend I've known for years. She's good people. But the exchange really got me thinking, made me want to examine my own beliefs, and explain why “Black Lives Matter” is a really important statement.

Let's start with the facts, and the good news. Mostly, the cross-burning bigots have gotten old and died off. This is how social change happens sometimes, and it's better than nothing. We can all agree that fewer openly racist assholes is a good thing.

This has led to lots of people (including myself, at points) thinking that racism was a thing we'd conquered. That we finally, really lived in a post-racial society. I mean, we have a black president. That's post-racial as shit, right?

But then I got to looking at the numbers. On black household wealth vs white. On black kids' trouble in school vs white. On black incarceration vs white. Even black hospital care vs white. Those numbers are staggering, disturbing, and stark. They say, despite our day-to-day good feelings, that things are still drastically unequal. So what's going on here?

I found my way to a UW study on implicit bias. (It's public, and if you haven't participated, take five minutes, take the test, and come on back. It's that powerful.)

It found that people, even people who explicitly state no bias, more easily associate good things with light skin, and bad things with dark skin. I took it. Despite the yelling of my brain, and some willful trying to balance it out, I still showed bias. This really upset me, and my brain immediately yelled that clearly, the study must be flawed. I believe in equality and justice and fairness more than almost anything! What the hell's going on??

In short, it's not flawed, and we don't completely know. For some reason, maybe it's cultural, maybe it's biological, maybe it's a mix of both, we seem to have an inbuilt bias on skin color. And it's not just America. Here in Thailand, it's next-to-impossible to buy any skin care products that don't contain whitening agents. It even seeps into our language: Go toward the light, don't fall into the dark side. This is everywhere, and inescapable.

This is the context in which Ferguson and all the other incidents are happening. It's not a matter of cops are terrible people or school administrators are terrible people or bank loan agents are terrible people. These are good people. It's that, given something on the border, our brains assume the worst for someone with dark skin, and the best for someone with light skin. Even though we don't want them to.

This is the new face of racism, of inequality. It's a really, really unsettling truth:

You can do bad things, with good intentions, and not even know it.

It's not that people these days intend to have bias. We state publicly, even believe ourselves that we aren't biased. But our actions tell a different story. We act with bias even though we intend not to.

That sucks. And is scary. It means that our intentions are no longer reliable signposts.

When I was a kid, I read this quote in a Reader's Digest, and it's stuck with me ever since:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
— C. S. Lewis

That's terrifying.

Why #BlackLivesMatter

That terror, and that scary view of our society is why #blacklivesmatter, instead of #alllivesmatter. All lives absolutely matter. But the statement isn't about the sacredness of life. What it's doing is calling out that as the world sits right now, there's a significant bias against people with dark skin, and this results in them making less money, having fewer opportunities for loans or jobs, and being shot more often. And that that's fucked up.

If we didn't have to worry about catchiness or 140 character limits, it might more truthfully be:

 #blacklivesmatterasmuchaswhiteones.

I suspect that we could all agree on.

I really believe the people insisting that “all lives matter” are doing it with good intent, trying to be inclusive and affirming everyone. I also strongly suspect that they don't realize that by saying “all lives matter”, the action they're taking is to strip the statement of its recognition that people with dark skin are still second class citizens.

Worst of all, it's a microcosm of the whole problem - we're doing a bad thing and don't see it because our intentions are good.

How do I know? Because when I first engaged with the news and the narrative, one of my first thoughts was “I totally agree with black lives matter. And not only that, all lives matter”. And it came from a good place, a moral, I'm-with-you-and-then-some place. But when I went to write it, something bugged me, so I decided to look around first, googling, reading up on why people said “black lives matter” instead of “all lives matter”. I ended up here, somewhere a lot more unsettling, but that feels a lot more honest, more truthful.

“Black lives matter” is intentionally provocative by being specific and non-inclusive, by pointing out inequity, and that provocation promotes and increases conversation. And it works.

We're talking.

Some of those conversations are productive, and some of them are really messy and shouty and don't look to be doing anything but making people really angry and stressed.

But we're having conversations. Even the shouty ones. Each one, a step.

But there's also a real danger in grabbing on to the hashtag argument as a red herring. This is about a lot more than a hashtag.

Move past the hashtag. What do we do about our unequal society?

Well, fixing it is tough, but possible. Problems like these don't fix themselves naturally, in the same way that quitting smoking doesn't just happen naturally. These are habits built into our very brains, most of the time running below conscious thought. It's going to take conscious focus, effort, and discipline to fix it. It's going to take a recognition that our actions, not our intentions, are what count. And it's going to take all of that, consistently.

Racial bias falls into the same category of behavioral change as losing weight, drinking less, exercising more, or quitting smoking. It is a thing we can do. But we have to do it over the natural inclinations of our own brain's wiring.

And just like losing weight or quitting smoking, wanting it to happen doesn't work. We have to take actions. We have to do something different than what we're doing now.

What we can do, today.

One of my good friends “quit smoking” about 40 years ago. But, on her refrigerator, there was a note that said, “today, I am not smoking.” In her mind, she'd never “quit.” There was just a decision, every morning, that today, she wasn't going to smoke. Tomorrow could worry about itself.

This is also a great way to tackle racial bias. To have a small reminder that focuses us on on taking actions we believe in, today.

So, I made a refrigerator note. This is what mine says:

Today, I assert that black lives matter. Today, I accept that I have biases, even though I don't want them. Today, I will take actions that actively introduce fairness, that compensate for my biases. Today, I will judge my success by my actions, not my intent.

This is my note for today. Every today. For the rest of my life.

Genuine social change isn't easy, but it's also not impossible. And this is how we achieve it - one today stacked on another. Every one, a little bit more fair.

If you don't already have something like this, I ask you to make one. Write your own refrigerator note.

Really. Right now. Get a scrap of paper, write your note, and put in on your refrigerator.

Start today.

Nah, I hate curiousity.