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Why talking about race is necessary

Kamilia Khairul Anuar on why Black Lives Matter

Students at the University of Berkeley, California, recently took to the streets in protest against police brutality – one of many protests in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting, in which unarmed 18-year-old boy Michael Brown was gunned down by policemen.

But the messages sent by this protest have become a bit confused, and they got that way because two different hashtags have been used to draw attention to the various protests over Ferguson – the hashtag, ‘All Lives Matter’, and the hashtag ‘Black Lives Matter’.

But why does this matter? What does the difference in hashtags signify for the protests, and for what meaning people choose to attribute to the protests?

When it comes to the Ferguson protests, it’s not about police brutality, it’s about the especial impact of police brutality on the Black community in America

The significance is in the word, ‘erasure’.

The Western world likes to claim that it is ‘post-racial’. We would like to say that our lands and its opportunities are open to all regardless of ethnicity or cultural background, that as people we are all treated with equal respect – in essence, we try to say, ‘Race shouldn’t matter’.

But sometimes that idealistic vision of racial equality can manifest itself wrongly – and that happens when post-racialism leads not to an attitude of non-discrimination, but racial erasure.

The difference is often misunderstood and tends to go unnoticed. Not discriminating means you don’t take race into account in circumstances where you shouldn’t take race into account, circumstances where the fact of race would be seized upon and used as a basis for demeaning and disrespectful treatment. If you’re hiring for an Italian language schoolteacher for instance, and you specify a certain level of official qualification of Italian language fluency, you shouldn’t be tossing out someone’s application on the basis that they’re Asian and you don’t think an Asian person’s Italian could be as good as a White person’s – that would be a form of discrimination.

But racial erasure happens when you refuse to acknowledge race in circumstances where you need to be talking about race, where an undeniably important component of human identity is waved away and left unacknowledged when it is a crucial aspect of the issue. It happens when an issue is hijacked by a dominant group and the necessary racial component – the fact that it is an issue which predominantly affects a particular race – is erased.

When we insist on making ‘All Lives Matter’ instead of ‘Black Lives Matter’ the main slogan, we participate in racial erasure

Then the real core of the issue, the primary fact which makes the issue a thorny, uncomfortable and necessary one to bring to light to begin with – is drowned out by a sea of voices all claiming to have an equal stake in the same issue. The Black man’s outrage at how his people are treated by the police becomes a rhetoric co-opted by the White man who wants to make the issue about him as well; when it really isn’t about him – not to the same extent.

And this brings us back to Ferguson, to the protests, to the difference between ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. Yes, police brutality needs to be dealt with. Yes, it’s a crucial issue that affects everyone, regardless of ethnicity.

But this doesn’t mean that it affects all ethnicities, all people, equally. People are angry enough to protest about Ferguson not just because it is another incident of police brutality, but because the headlines not infrequently decorated with news of innocent, unarmed Black men unnecessarily gunned down by police. When it comes to the Ferguson protests, it’s not about police brutality, it’s about the especial impact of police brutality on the Black community in America.

And when we insist on making ‘All Lives Matter’ instead of ‘Black Lives Matter’ the main slogan, we participate in racial erasure, we participate in drowning out the voices of the people who have the largest stake in the matter at hand and we condone, in essence, that it would for instance be okay to talk about slavery in America without mentioning that the slaves were Black.

And that would be missing the whole point.

The author would like to thank Louise Tan of University of California, Berkeley for drawing her attention to this article topic.

Featured image credit: The All-Nite Images

Why talking about race is necessary Reviewed by on January 17, 2015 .

Kamilia Khairul Anuar on why Black Lives Matter

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