“What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter?'”


George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University, interviews Judith Butler, Professor of Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and asks “What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter?'”, also the title of the article. He opens the discussion of race in light of recent demonstrations in the wake of black deaths and police brutality where slogans of ‘Black Lives Matter’ were extended by non-Blacks to “All Lives Matter.”

The article is a keen exposé of Butler’s views about how bodies–black, white, gendered, or monied, all kinds of bodies–matter, though some bodies do not matter. Specifically, black bodies do not matter by reason of the continued exposure to behaviors and preconceptions about their bodies– the black body as threat, and not only to police. She says we make assumptions about people, and those assumptions affect how we act toward others, whether we avoid interaction or find them a threat.

Sometimes a mode of address is quite simply a way of speaking to or about someone. But a mode of address may also describe a general way of approaching another such that one presumes who the other is, even the meaning and value of their existence. We address each other with gesture, signs and movement, but also through media and technology. We make such assumptions all the time about who that other is when we hail someone on the street (or we do not hail them). That is someone I greet; the other is someone I avoid. That other may well be someone whose very existence makes me cross to the other side of the road.

And not only is the black body as threat assumption institutionalized and reiterated through the disproportionate incarceration numbers of blacks to whites, arrests, relegation to poverty, etc., but concomitantly, whiteness, which is not a color so much as a predisposition of privilege, is normalized.

Whiteness is not an abstraction; its claim to dominance is fortified through daily acts which may not seem racist at all precisely because they are considered “normal.” But just as certain kinds of violence and inequality get established as “normal” through the proceedings that exonerate police of the lethal use of force against unarmed black people, so whiteness, or rather its claim to privilege, can be disestablished over time. This is why there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter. The norm of whiteness that supports both violence and inequality insinuates itself into the normal and the obvious. Understood as the sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit power to define the boundaries of kinship, community and nation, whiteness inflects all those frameworks within which certain lives are made to matter less than others.

The challenge to whiteness normativity is to saturate the culture (and thus reformulate preconceptions about race) with other conceptions of what is normal: Black Lives Matter. By insisting on that concept through persistent public demonstrations and exploitation of media, black lives can be seen first in the very insistence–that they have not mattered. To say that all lives matter, though true, is to ignore this first recognition–that certain lives do not.

She is right. We cannot just sweep up the protests in good feeling and treat everyone the same–because that is not how all people are in fact treated. The article is well worth reading for mapping the deliberate process of her thinking, how she moves through her thoughts to conclusion.

7 Replies to ““What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter?'””

  1. At first it seems innocent, but it once again minimizes the African American pain and suffering through the years by putting them in a pool of others who haven’t suffered in their unique way.

  2. “All lives matter” is a fine slogan. Yet, it dilutes the issue at hand, which is that black lives matter far less. White privilege is invisible to the privileged. As a white person, I rarely have to consider the color of my skin when I go about my daily life. My husband is African American, and his skin color has to be part of his conscious navigation of his day. Change will require the privileged to step back and recognize the difference. There’s a great book “White Privilege” by Paula Rothenberg that every kid in the American school system should read. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Thank YOU for your comments. I am unfamiliar with the book but will download it.
      I remember back 25 years ago a good friend of mine telling me how often he was questioned while window shopping in his own, mostly white, affluent neighborhood. I was shocked and disturbed but awakened to that privilege of invisibility.
      I am truly fortune for the opportunity as a college instructor to attempt to open the eyes of my young students to what most of them do not know they are party to by their ignorance through enculturation and/or apathy. Change happens by awareness first.

      1. I read that book in grad school and never forgot it. It opened my eyes to the invisible and devastating influence of privilege that I was a participant in, and it profoundly influenced my perception of the issues around race. I hope you enjoy it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: