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4 things you should do when you're told 'Black Lives Matter'

How to be a better ally in four easy steps.

This past weekend, America saw some good examples of what NOT to say in response to "Black Lives Matter."

During the annual progressive conference Netroots Nation, a group of #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName activists stormed the stage during a morning presidential town hall. The activists used the event to ask candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders about their stance on how to fight racism in the United States.


Activist Tia Oso of the Black Immigration Network takes the Netroots Nation stage. Photo by Charlie Leight/Getty Images.

When O'Malley and Sanders responded to the activists about their stance on the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement, many people were disappointed.

O'Malley ended his answer with "Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter," which got him boos from the crowd. (He later apologized.) Sanders took a different approach: He didn't answer the protester's questions, but spoke about income inequality instead.

In response, some attendees walked out of the event, and many have even gone as far to say that O'Malley and Sanders "failed" in their responses to the activists' cries.

If what they said was wrong, what might you have said instead?

If you're deeply, intimately connected to the Black Lives Matter movement in some way, the answers to those questions may seem super obvious to you, no matter your race or identity. But what if you're not? What if you support the efforts of people who are making their voices heard and taking a stand against racism, but aren't sure how to respond thoughtfully as an ally and general Good Person?

Well, I'm a member of the Black Lives Matter movement, and while I've seen plenty of long articles and speeches and really deep analysis about how to be an ally, I gotta say from all of my time tweeting and talking about it, the basics of how to respond well are actually pretty simple. So I've narrowed them down to a super short, handy dandy list.


Here are four simple things to do when someone says "Black Lives Matter."

1. Listen.

Actually pause and take a moment to really, deeply hear what they have to say. This step means you don't have to respond reflexively, awkwardly, immediately, or even at all. Your first responsibility is to actively listen. (And yes, active listening is a real skill. This article on Forbes provides a great introduction to it.)

Why listen? Because when you actually listen, you'll hear that the phrase isn't a personal attack or an accusation of being racist.

People who are working in the BLM movement (myself included) are making a statement about the value and worth of black people in the face of countless acts of racism. So just listen. This step is probably the hardest — but most important — one.

2. Don't say "All Lives Matter" or "[Insert Other Race] Lives Matter."

Now that you've listened, it's response time. And trust me, "All Lives Matter" or "[Another Race] Matters" is not the way to go. And here's why: Those responses miss the actual point (see #1) and derail the conversation.

It's also just kind of ... silly. Don't believe me? Check out this spot-on comparison from actor Matt McGorry of "Orange Is the New Black" (but pardon his French):



MoveOn.org Civic Action's Executive Director Anna Galland digs a bit deeper in the organization's official response to this weekend's action:

“Saying that 'all lives matter' or 'white lives matter' immediately after saying 'Black lives matter' minimizes and draws attention away from the specific, distinct ways in which Black lives have been devalued by our society and in which Black people have been subject to state and other violence."

There's a reason why the creators of the movement made this movement: They felt they had to. All lives matter (duh), yet thanks to institutionalized racism, the U.S. has yet to catch up on showing that. On the Black Lives Matter website, there are many statistics cited to show why there needs to be a movement focusing explicitly on justice for black people.

BLM calls for us to look specifically at how various injustices like poverty, violence, police brutality, and poor-quality education actually affect black lives. You wouldn't want to take attention away from that, would you?

3. Agree that black lives do matter.

Now for the positive part. Responding thoughtfully isn't just about what not to say. It's also about not being afraid to actually agree! Because this:

There isn't a limited amount of dignity and respect in the world.

By affirming that black people deserve these things too, you are not devaluing the lives of people of other races.

As The New Republic Senior Editor Jamil Smith tweeted in response to Saturday's action:


It really is that simple. And that's why people of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities have joined the movement as active participants. If you take a close look, you'll see that the Black Lives Matter movement is actually really diverse. Because you don't have to be black to want to support the idea of justice and equality for people who are still regularly having to fight for it.

4. Don't stop there. Take the time to learn more about the movement.

Phew! You made it this far. You listened, didn't derail the conversation, and you affirmed that you know that black people matter, too.

But the work isn't over.

You might have a lot of questions. And yes, you can always find someone to answer them. But even better is taking the time to do a little digging first. Peruse the Black Lives Matter website for better understanding about the movement. Read the numerous interviews that the Black Lives Matter co-creators have done.

Taking the time to research before asking questions is a great way to show that you care and want to help.

It can be scary to talk about such a sensitive topic if it isn't your personal #1 issue. But the way you talk about it is the only way that people will know your true intentions and your solidarity with the people who are on the front lines trying to make the country better and more just. So follow these four steps and go forth!

To learn more about demands, events, and past work, visit the official #BlackLivesMatter website.

All illustrations are provided by Soosh and used with permission.

I have plenty of space.

This article originally appeared on 04.09.16


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