Yes, all lives matter.
So why, in that case, does saying so offend so many so deeply?
Since the Black Lives Matter movement began at the hands of three powerful black women in 2013, it has been criticized for its exclusivity. “What about white lives? Asian lives? Mexican, Russian, Indigenous lives? Don’t they matter?” people say. To this, those three women, and the global network that has since grown out of their movement, would say yes, of course. All lives matter.
Okay, that’s three times so far that I’ve said “all lives matter,” but you’re not going to see me shout that from the rooftops. It’s not because I don’t believe it. I absolutely do. But you don’t need to hear me say it. You need to hear, and know, that black lives matter.
The clash between the mottoes “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” is an interesting one, because both are true, and the great majority of proponents on both sides will agree (at least on the surface level) that both statements are true. What we disagree on is which statement needs to be said.
One of the many reasons why we must teach each other to say that black lives matter is that this statement is a specific reaction to centuries of palpable injustice, while “All Lives Matter” begins and ends essentially as a rhetorical and linguistic statement. You see, the opposite of “Black Lives Matter” isn’t “All Lives Matter,” it is “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” So when you push back against someone proclaiming that the lives of an entire race are worth fighting for, it’s hard not to take it as a dismissal of black lives altogether.
Here’s another way of looking at it. There’s a reason why Alicia, Patrisse, and Opal called it Black Lives Matter in the first place and not All Lives Matter. It might sound like it would have had the same effect—equality—but it would not have. When you say “Black Lives Matter,” you’re calling attention to one specific marginalized group (and within that, the BLM founders wanted to give further attention especially to black women, and queer and transgender black people). “All Lives Matter” isn’t much of a rally cry or a call to action. It doesn’t tell us whose rights we need to fight for.
Other than the obvious, when black people say “Black Lives Matter,” they are saying “We have been victims of systemic and subconscious racism and police brutality for decades, and worse inequality for even longer. We have been criminalized and treated as if our lives are expendable for too long. But we are here and we’re saying that our lives—we—do matter.” If you hear that and still say “All Lives Matter,” then you’re shrugging off the problem that they are pleading with you to acknowledge and address. “All Lives Matter” is a denial of the racism that black Americans have faced for centuries, and to refuse that is to deny that their lives matter.
So you can believe that all lives matter. I do. We all do. But you don’t need to tell us. At least not until we have faced our problem and shown that we know that black lives matter.