There’s been a lot of discussion around whether there’s a word missing in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” There isn’t. To paraphrase a paraphrase, it says what it means and means what it says. It’s short and self-contained, and yet it’s bursting with insight that others have elucidated much better than I can. But there’s another bit that I feel I can discuss, and that’s the insight that the supposed missing words provide into our own assumptions and biases.
By now the phrase “All Lives Matter” is heard more often ironically than as a sincere response to the BLM movement (at least it appears that way, and I really hope this isn’t just my bubble talking). I imagine that’s less because most people have caught on about what “Black Lives Matter” really means and more a factor of the increasingly brief shelf-life that ‘pithy’ sayings tend to experience. Just because it’s fallen out of fashion, however, doesn’t mean that the sentiment has ebbed along with it in any real or lingering way.
But some of us liberals, in our quest to be helpful and informative, often don’t know when to leave things alone. In this case, we tried to get involved in the early days of this back-and-forth and “explain what black people really meant,” because “black people can’t do this for themselves,” more likely phrased as, “black people left out an important word that would have prevented all of this.” And shame on us, liberals. Will we ever learn? But we decided to involve ourselves in the “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter” debate because we could see where the breakdown was and we knew how to fix it.
“What they really meant,” we said, “was that black lives matter just as much as other lives matter. It’s not that they matter more, it’s that they also matter. Really, there’s a word missing, and it should be ‘Black Lives Also Matter,’ but it’s a bit late for that, so just take our word for it.” Bang up job, white people, just like always. And please understand, I include myself in this. I might as well be quoting one of my own responses to people’s Facebook posts back in 2015. I’m certainly no better.
But that’s not what they meant. They meant that black lives matter. That’s what they meant. Because that’s what they said. Sure, we can infer that ‘also’ there, and that’s great. We could even infer an ‘actually’ instead, as in: “Black Lives Actually Matter.” That might even be better than ‘also’ because it sets off the phrase as being less a statement of fact (of course black lives matter) and more an indictment of the state of affairs in our great nation. People weren’t acting like black lives mattered, so reminding everyone that they actually do makes sense.
The word ‘actually’ isn’t missing either, though. It’s just a word we can read into it, and we’re free to do that. We can fill in missing words in our own minds all we want, and we can discuss these nuances with our friends and with black people themselves (this is recommended!). But what we can’t do is say that this word, or any other, belongs as a part of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It doesn’t.
I think Michael Che put it best when he said, “We can’t even agree on ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Not ‘matters more than you,’ just ‘matters.’ Matters. Just matters. That’s where we’re starting the negotiations.” And this, of course, was in response to another attempt to infer a word in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” In this case it was the predominately white, conservative assertion that what was really meant here was “Black Lives Matter More,” or as I also heard it, “Only Black Lives Matter.” “That’s what they’re really saying!” friends of mine contended. “You have to read between the lines,” family members assured me. “Well, it’s just misguided because it sounds like they mean, ‘matter more’ if you think about it,” still others reasoned.
But they weren’t thinking about it. They weren’t trying at all to think about it. What they were doing was the same thing that liberals were doing when we said, “What they really mean is that they also matter,” and conservatives would respond with, “Well, they should have said that!” or even, “They would have said that if they’d meant it!” We were leaving black people and what they themselves said out of the conversation.
And so, as with all things, we have a spectrum. There’s the well-meaning liberal who wants to interpret black people’s movement for them and help them express themselves better, while at the same time translating for scared white people. There’s the conservative who doesn’t know what to think, wants to believe the best about everyone, but just wishes people would do things the right way. And there’s the conservative who thinks they’ve seen the light, who thinks they know the hearts of all women and men involved in BLM to be entitled and lazy and reverse-racist. None of us is off the hook, though, and none of us is listening to black people and what they have to say. We’ve heard words and then reentered our own narrative, and that says a lot about us. As I said at the beginning of this post, the words that we go on to infer can even tell us who we are.
If you hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and your first reaction is to assume that the person saying that is trying to elevate themselves above you or imply that they’re more deserving than others because of their skin color, if you infer the word ‘only’ or the word ‘more,’ that inference reveals an underlying bigotry within you. I’m sorry, but it’s true. What that assumption does is out your inner racist misgivings; it gives that voice what it’s been quietly looking for while it waits inside you: evidence that black people really are different, or that at least there’s something to the idea that skin color can play a role. If “Black Lives Matter” means to you that black people are getting ‘uppity’ and too entitled and trying to get a handout or special treatment, then that says that this is something that you already inherently believe about black people. The phrase itself is innocuous. There’s no claim of anything other than mattering. What you add to the phrase comes from within you.
And if you protest that you heard others say this first, that someone told you that when people say that black lives matter, they mean that only black lives matter, and you thought they did their research or they’re someone you usually trust or feel is a ‘pretty with-it individual,’ then those words you are inferring reveal two things about you. First, they still reveal your inner racism because you were ready to swallow that explanation when it came along, and second, they show that you’re not using your own brain to come to your own conclusions. But don’t worry, liberals aren’t off the hook either, as I’ve said.
Before we liberals and ‘allies’ start feeling haughty, those of us who inferred words on the other side of that spectrum have something to answer for as well. Sure, we had the best intentions and our inferences are a lot closer to what black people mean when they say this, but when we go so far as to imply that “Black Lives Matter” is missing something that could make it clearer, we’re showing our racism, too.
The idea that black people (who started this movement for and about black people and the idea that their lives matter) didn’t get the name right is also racist, not to mention arrogant. Sure, it seems less offensive at first, but think about it: what we’re saying is that white people know better. White people speak better or write better or come up with slogans better or organize better or even just know how to talk to other white people better. Even if the last one is sometimes true, no one asked us to be mediators. No one assigned us the role of translating the black message to the whites. To say that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” could have been clearer is to try to take ownership of black lives mattering away from black people. I know, we didn’t mean to. But really, when was that ever a valid excuse?
So no, there aren’t any missing words in that well-known phrase. It really is just “Black Lives Matter,” and that’s all it was ever supposed to be. Those extra words we think belong there, they’re cries for help from our inner selves because sometimes the voice inside of us is not our conscience and not a deeper wisdom. Sometimes it’s the voice of our deficiencies, of our weaknesses, of our insecurities, of our fears, yes, even of our hatred. We have to learn to tell the difference before we open our mouths and give air to those voices, but we’d also better make damn sure we listen closely to them, and with a critical ear, if we ever want to learn and grow. And white people, we’ve got a lot of learning and growing to do.