Understanding Why “Black Lives Matter”
Morality, Human Rights, Equality, Systemic Racism, Oprah, White Privilege & More
A White Woman Speaks Out
© Photos by Jessica Siciliano Designs
Some say that I have, “No right,” to write about the black experience. I have been told that my White voice doesn’t matter when talking about “Black Lives Matter.” Justifiably so, I do not dare to speak from a Black person’s perspective; however, I speak from my own perspective. Being a woman, I feel compelled to address issues of equality and human rights along with a strong sense of empathy and moral courage to speak up. When I witness an unarmed Black man, woman, or child murdered on video, I cannot rest without calling out these violations of morality, freedom, and basic human rights.
When these murders happen at the hands of police officers, the murders are hideous and unconscionable, since the police are supposed to protect and not murder citizens. Let me be clear that not all police officers are racist murderers. If anything, likely, most police officers are true protectors of US citizens regardless of skin color. One of my most encouraging and rewarding experiences was to watch news footage of Genesee County Sheriff, Chris Swanson, remove his riot gear and walk with protesters in Flint, MI. In contrast, to watch multiple videos of disrespect, disregard, and disdain for the lives of our Black neighbors, I feel outraged at the lack of freedom that our Black friends have to jog through a White neighborhood, play video games at home, and sleep safely in one’s bed. Horrific merely describes the racism, injustice, and hatred. Thus, we, Americans, need to reflect and self-assess on issues of morality, human rights, equality, systemic racism, and White Privilege.
None of these murders align with most Americans’ professed religious, spiritual, and moral beliefs. In accordance with Christianity and most major religions, murder is deemed morally wrong under most circumstances. Murder defies and disobeys commands to love one another. For example, Jesus Christ said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Another example, Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Also, Buddha tells us “Radiate boundless love towards the entire world.” Additionally, an example in the Quran, 49:10, says “Humanity is but a single brotherhood: So, make peace with your brethren.” Finally, in reference to God, Harriet Tubman, a heroine of the underground railroad, said, “God’s time is always near. He gave me my strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; He meant I should be free.”
Similarly, issues of equality and freedom are addressed as human rights by both the American Declaration of Independence and The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration of Independence Preamble holds these words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Likewise, contained within The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Preamble states the following statement:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,…..”
These “Barbarous,” immoral, human rights violations of killing Black human beings tie back to slavery, systemic racism, and White Privilege. You see. Within systemic racism, I see my White Privilege. Oprah was correct to call out my blinding White Privilege. By examining myself, our American history, and personal experiences, I want to acknowledge that murdering unarmed Black lives demonstrates the continuation of systemic racism, injustice, and inequality, which violate basic morality and human rights.
What is systemic racism? Let’s start with history. There are plenty of historical facts about African people being captured and involuntarily sent on slave ships across the world to America www.wesleyan.edu/mlk/posters/pdfs/slavery.pdf. But, really, if we dig deep back in time, we see that slavery existed in ancient times and was not necessarily African people until the Portuguese slave trade in the 15th century www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ac41. So, an acceptance of slavery goes way back in time. From the point of the Portuguese expansion, the African slave trade took off and ultimately landed on American soil. American slavery consisted of vast inhumane, torturous treatment of slaves. By owning slaves, slave labor contributed to the economic growth of America until The Civil War and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery on December 6, 1865. Now, imagine White slaveowners having to relinquish their “Property” and shift to treating former slaves as “equals.”
Attitudes and beliefs about former slaves and Black people being unequal did not change overnight. Hence, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and segregation were enacted as ways to oppress Black humans to reflect the beliefs and attitudes that Black people were of lesser value than White people. Here lies the long history of systemic racism, which was challenged during the Civil Rights Movement resulting in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, one hundred years literally passed between the enactment of the 13th Amendment in 1865 to the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Did racism end with the Civil Rights Act? No, racism remained alive and well. Now, I will share my witness to evidence of continued racism along with the multigenerational transmission of racist beliefs and awareness of White Privilege from the mid-1960s to the present.
Reflecting back on my life, I grew up in the Detroit area. During the summer of 1967, Detroit was literally on fire www.history.com/topics/1960s/1967-detroit-riots. Similarly, to today, riots and fires broke out in response to injustice, inequality, and police brutality. You see. Again, not much had really changed in the past 50+ years. Back then, as soon as finances allowed, my two very shiny, bright white parents fled the city for the safety of the suburbs, known as White Flight, to raise their family. Please note that I had the privilege of growing up in my safe suburban neighborhoods. Please note that I am going to share about my parents’ own racism; and please know that my parents’ views have changed over time. Similarly, to the masses, my parents felt aghast and horrified about the murder of George Floyd. But, back in the day, my highly Caucasian parents feared and looked down on Black Americans, which modelled racist views for me and my siblings, known as intergenerational transmission.
At age four years old, I vaguely recall my earliest memories of Black humans and racist views. My family was on an outing, and my mother made a comment about a little girl using “the wrong water fountain.” With my big blue eyes, I looked up to my mother and asked what she meant. My mother responded that “the little Black girl” was supposed to drink from the “Colored’s water fountain.” I felt bewildered, because I didn’t even know about “Coloreds” and separate water fountains. Please note that I had the privilege of using the “White only” water fountains, and this event was the beginning of teaching me that Black Americans were treated as unworthy or lesser than White folks.
On another occasion, I remember riding in our old, wood-side-panel station wagon, and my father pulled into a service station. A Black man stepped up to the car and spoke to my father, who partially rolled down the window for safety. The man proceeded to fill up our gas tank, wash our windshield, and collect payment from my dad. Please note my privilege of having the safety of my car, and I learned to fear Black men too.
During my first-grade year, my parents pulled me and my siblings out of our public school and enrolled us into private Catholic school even though my father’s blue-collar paycheck couldn’t cover the tuition. “Why?” I asked my parents. Quite frankly, the nuns were mean to me, and I felt miserable, so I wanted to go back to my old elementary public school. Well, my mother explained that “They were desegregating the schools” and “might bus” us (me and my siblings) to Detroit schools “with the Black kids.” My mom felt scared for our safety; she wanted to protect us. Once the danger of “bussing” passed, we returned immediately within the same school year to public schools when “bussing” didn’t happen in our school district. Please note my privilege of attending a private school. Once again, I learned the racist belief that I needed to be protected from Black Americans.
In 5th grade, two Black biologically-related sisters enrolled into our ALL WHITE elementary school. Well, I made friends with both girls. I brought the oldest sister home to play after-school and introduced my new friend to my mother. Shortly thereafter, my new Black friend felt frightened and wanted to go home; she called her grandfather from our landline to come and pick her up. My friend said that she felt “uncomfortable” around my mother, and she never came over again. My Black friends’ grandfather enrolled the girls in my elementary school, so the sisters could get a better education in the suburbs than the Detroit public schools. Please note that I had the privilege to attend good suburban schools.
Not too differently from today, in my family, fear seemed to drive the stereotypes and racism regarding Black Americans. At one point, I recall a conversation about “Bad names” for Black people at the dinner table. The conversation went like this, “Don’t call Blacks the N word, because you might get killed.” Also, I heard, “They might pull a ‘Switchblade,’ knife, on you.” Then, I learned other disparaging names, which sounded foreign to me. I felt disgust about the whole discussion and had further reinforcement that Black human beings were “Dangerous.” Please note that my parents did not teach me the origin of “The N word” nor American history regarding slavery. Also, I might note that my suburban elementary school neither taught me about slavery nor African American history. I lived in my protected, all White, neighborhood bubble with the illusion that all Black people were dangerous and to be feared.
In the 1970s and 80s, whenever, my family drove into Detroit, my parents told us (the kids) to “Roll up your windows and lock your doors,” because the “Black people lived there and were dangerous;” thus, Black families were kept out of White neighborhoods. In case you have never seen Eminem’s movie, 8 Mile, the movie shows the separation of Black Americans in Detroit from the White Americans in suburbs. Eight Mile Road literally had Black people living on the south side and White people living on the north side of the road. You can read about housing segregation and the continued effects today www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigans-segregated-past-and-present-told-9-interactive-maps. Please note that housing segregation was another piece of systemic racism. I recall talk among neighbors making promises to each other “Not to sell to a Black Family,” so “Property values stayed up,” as well. Again, I was taught to fear Black people, who needed to be kept out of White neighborhoods. Does that sound familiar? Recently, a major political leader, who is up for reelection, made a promise to White suburban residents about keeping “Low-income housing,” (that’s incognito for Black Americans) out of their neighborhoods.
In my young adult years, Black Americans became more integrated into the Detroit Metropolitan Area; however, racism and injustice continued as demonstrated by an anecdotal story of police brutality. I heard a brutal story from a male friend, who shared an anecdotal story about a suburban police officer shooting a young Black man outside of a home. As the story was told, the officer “pulled the Black man into the house to make it appear like an attempted break-in.” My friend seemed proud of the story. I felt completely horrified by the racism, police brutality, and injustice. My gut hurts even now as I write about it. Please note, again, I had the privilege of my White skin as did my White friends to safely walk in a neighborhood without being either harassed or harmed by police.
On a different note, during this time in my life, I became aware of my own racist views after I began working as a retail store manager. I hired eight (six Black and two White) employees to work for me in East Detroit. Here is my confession about my own ignorance, fear, and racist microaggressions that affected my six Black employees. After multiple complaints to my district manager from my Black employees, my employer moved me to another store in the suburbs due to my racist comments regarding my beliefs about safety issues in Detroit. Stupid, White, racist me. I didn’t understand my microaggressions at the time. In retrospect, I want to give my whole-hearted apology to my six Black employees and anyone that I may have either hurt or offended in my lifetime. I never meant to hurt you, and I was so incredibly ignorant. I thought that I was not a racist. Today, I know better. I can relate to Drew Brees’ recent education, awakening, apologies, and recantations about disrespecting the flag when Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest to racism, police brutality, and racial injustice. I know the shame of my racial ignorance and blinding White Privilege. Yes, Oprah was right to recently call out me and my fellow White Americans. With that said, underneath my own blindness, I believed and knew that racism was wrong.
As I matured and became a young mother, I wanted my children to love all people– all shades of skin color, religions, sexual orientations, etc. In my Caucasian home, the American Girl dolls bore white, black, and brown skin tones. Our children’s books ranged in diversity to include Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. At that time, I wasn’t aware of any GLBTQ+ friendly children’s books. My kids were exposed to multiculturalism. We welcomed Black, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Asian, and White friends into our home.
I spoke out against racism and the oppression of others. I stood up for GLBTQ+ family members. When my 5-year-old daughter saw a Friends’ episode with Ross’ ex-wife marrying a woman, my daughter wanted to understand how a woman could marry a woman. At the time, I stumbled over my words; but I figured out a way to explain gay marriage, which was neither widely accepted nor legal at the time. I will stop there; otherwise, I will digress into GLBTQ+ issues, which can be another message on another day. Also, as a mother, I took a very strong stance in support of woman and deemphasizing traditional gender roles as well, which is another digression. For right now, I want to keep my focus on why “Black Lives Matter.” Back then, I still didn’t know what I didn’t know, maybe similarly to many people reading this article, which was Black history, White Privilege, and systemic racism.
During my undergraduate education, I learned about Black issues in a way that I never expected in my life. While growing up, my American history textbooks in White suburban public schools did not really teach me about the Black experience and history. When I took the required undergraduate American History course, this course woke me. My Latino professor brought a humane-side to history by engaging the students in writings and true stories told by disenfranchised people including the voices of Black people.
I read from books titled, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, Voices in Black & White, Problems in American Civilization Slavery in American Society, and The Way We Lived Essays and Documents in American Social History Volumes I & II. I read about slavery from the slaves’ perspectives. I learned about the oppression of many groups of people, such as Africans, American Indians, Chinese immigrants, Mexican people native to the Southwest US, women, Japanese internment survivors, indentured servants, and members of the GLBT community. The facts about the captivity of African people, horrific conditions of slave ships, and sales of Black human beings to White human beings was a heart-wrenching, learning experience. Please know that I am neither trying to dismiss other groups’ suffering nor disregard others’ trauma. At some point in history, the US government acknowledged and “compensated” American Indians and Japanese Americans for wrongdoings. Please note that I am neither saying that the compensation was necessarily fair nor injustices were rectified by the government. Also, please know that I am not overlooking the loss of life and police brutality of other oppressed groups including the GLBTQ+ community.
When I read graphic descriptions of horrific acts towards Black human beings, I felt aghast for the slaves and slaves’ descendants. When I learned about the abolition of slavery and realized that the cruelty and oppression did not end with the civil war, I grieved for Black people and acknowledged the continued inequalities. Even today, the US government has not “compensated” for the atrocities against Black Americans. Even today, as a nation, we continue to witness systemic racism along with police brutality. How much more can the African American people take? I empathized with and began to understand African Americans’ oppression and likely anger. In contrast and simultaneously, I am in awe of the resiliency of the Black community and the buffering effects of many Black Americans’ spirituality. In spite of adversity, many Black Americans overcame the unfairness and achieved prosperity.
Nonetheless, White people have prospered and benefited in countless ways by the mere whiteness of our skin. My White Privilege spared me from suffering systemic racism and benefited me with access to safe neighborhoods, good schools, and never having to worry that the color of my skin may attract police officers to brutalize me. In one of my undergraduate courses, students were encouraged to share their thoughts about Affirmative Action programs. A Black student tried to share his perspective and was drowned out by defensive White students who had no understanding of White Privilege similarly to my own lack of awareness during my early adulthood years. I recall one White male saying, “I am not responsible for the sins of my forefathers.” “True,” I thought. And too, my White counterpart, like me, has certain advantages just by being born light-skinned. I became the lone White voice in the classroom to stand up for the importance of programs that attempted to right the hundreds of years of inequalities and injustices inflicted upon Black Americans. Well, let me say that my point did not go over well with my fellow Caucasian students. However, after class, several Black students approached and thanked me for speaking up. Today, I thank Oprah Winfrey for speaking up about White Privilege. Unfortunately, many Americans bulk at Oprah calling out White Privilege. At the same time, I do want to acknowledge that many Americans are standing up and marching with Black Americans in the protests.
In the United States, Black people have been disadvantaged for centuries in spite of changes overtime. Looking back over the last 50+ years, I see progress in American society due to the Civil Rights movement and other protests; yet, racism continues as does police brutality. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, his protest was deflected, twisted, and turned into something other than the intended true meaning. Even worse, many Americans turned against Mr. Kaepernick. Political leaders in the US government and the majority of Caucasian, male owners of the NFL teams continued the multigenerational transmission of racism, White Privilege, and oppression of Black football players’ freedom of speech. Recently, the NFL Commissioner acknowledged the NFL’s errors and vowed to work with football players to stand up against racism. Evidence from cell phone and police body-camera recordings show police brutality and deaths of unarmed Black Americans. Inequality and injustice continue, which send messages that Black people are valued less than White people. That is why, “Black Lives Matter!”
Now, there are those, who will say, “All lives matter.” I agree that the human race needs to love and honor all lives. No one is saying that other lives do not matter. Please, let’s stop trying to deflect, twist, and turn the true meaning of BLM protests into something it’s not. “Black Lives Matter,” because Black lives have traditionally not mattered to many White people in the history of this nation up to the present. At the beginning of American slavery and throughout my lifetime, messages that Black lives did not matter were sent through multigenerational transmission of racism, inequality, injustice, and police brutality. Enough is enough!
It’s time for American unity to stand up against racism. Let’s raise our voices together to shout, “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” THESE ARE HUMAN RIGHTS AND MORAL ISSUES! Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Today, many US political leaders deflect from and gaslight about the issues of racism and violations of human rights by focusing on property, riots, looting, and violence that has followed many peaceful protests. Yes, property damage, riots, looting and violence are problems, which are significantly less important issues than the murder of Black human lives. Dr. King, an advocate for peaceful protests noted, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Additionally, Dr. King stated, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence.” Thus, the use of violence against unarmed Black human beings and peaceful protesters seemingly begets violence and more violence by law enforcement/military/unnamed federal agents, which ultimately distracts and confuses the masses about the BLM movement for equality. Dr. King said, “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” For this reason, I implore all Americans to keep your focus on the underlying causes of the “…language of the unheard” and demand equality to end systemic racism once and for all. Let’s not allow another hundred plus years to pass before making permanent change for Black Americans to enjoy basic human rights and safety.
To finish, systemic racism and violations of human rights must end; morality demands the examination of our own conscience and hearts to become accountable for personal biases, values, and behaviors. Please ask yourself, when growing up, what did I learn about Black human beings? How might I have feared and harmed Black lives based on the intergenerational transmission of racist beliefs? How might White Privilege play a role in my beliefs and benefits in life? How do my religious, spiritual, and moral beliefs align with my behaviors and position on “Black Lives Matter?” What can I do to support equality, justice, and change in the United States of America? How might I stand up and support Black human rights? To end with a quote from Dr. King, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
To become woke, please check out these resources that appeal to all. For the non-social workers and therapists, when you click the link below, please scroll past the trainings to see books, movies, and internet resources.
History: Slavery: www.wesleyan.edu/mlk/postrs/pdfs/slavery.pdf
Ku Klux Klan: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/ku-klux-klan/
Civil Rights Movement: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917beyond/essays/crm.htm
Systemic Racism Housing segregation: www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigans-segregated-past-and-present-told-9-interactive-maps
Police Brutality: www.history.com/topics/1960s/1967-detroit-riots