- June 12, 2020
“There is not a Black America, and a White America, and Latino America, and Asia America – there’s the United States of America! The pundits like to slice and dice our country”. — Barack Obama, 2004 DNC keynote address
When I was a kid, I lost my right eye. Suffice to say, it’s a tough world to navigate with just one eye. As a kid, it was a big source of vulnerability for me; first, physically because my blind spot could (and did) put me in harm’s way. And also, psychologically because I worried a lot about how other people perceived me. A disabled person only best understands the toll that a disability takes. I was indignant. And that’s before I got an extra lesson in Murphy’s Law at a hyped screening of 2009’s Avatar when I found out that I can’t see 3D movies. I was ready to rumble.
A couple of weeks ago, the George Floyd video appeared. Like any person who has a sliver of humanity in them, I felt a deep resentment when I saw it. It was horrific. The feeling was very familiar. It felt the same way when I heard the story of Mercy Cherono, a young lady who was dragged from the back of a policeman’s motorbike, or when Charles Mwenda was forced to sleep out in the rain alongside his dead wife’s coffin because of sadistic COVID-era policing: It was an injustice.
On the back of Floyd’s fatal oppression, a global movement coalesced under the slogan, Black Lives Matter. Somehow, the anger whipped up by the video turned conversation to race relations in America, and by extension, the perception of white domination of the races in the current global order. It’s no secret that America has a history of racially-motivated injustices, including the most inhumane type in the form of slavery, segregation and lynching.
That said, when I first saw the George Floyd video, it didn’t register with me as racist any more than it did classist or transphobic. I only thought it an abhorrent abuse of power. Now, as a non-American resident, I understand that I’m not familiar with the nuances of that society, yet, as a trained journalist, I couldn’t objectively deduce racism from any part of that deadly encounter. I hesitated to join the growing #BlackLivesMatter tribal bandwagon at the time because I thought that the conversation had snowballed into one motivated by a subjective interpretation of the video.
Indeed, if I’m wrong, and racism was truly the motive behind Floyd’s murder, then is that not a surface manifestation of a much deeper problem? Isn’t abuse of power by taxpayer-funded policemen the world over the much broader discussion we all need to have? Especially during these coronavirus enforcement times when we’ve seen dozens of equally vile footage from India, to Kenya, to Brazil, to Hong Kong.
If not now with the George Floyd video, then when do we ever address issues of police malfeasance and their high potential for corruption through power, which seems to be a cancer in the world? How do we make the Police, a vital man-made institution more humane? That’s why my chosen response to any #BlackLivesMatter social media poster is, “You’re having the wrong conversation,” or in the more Twitter-friendly newspeak, “That ain’t it.”
But, the cat is out of the bag now. Overwhelming media coverage has subsequently centred on Black Lives Matter. Racism is the talk we’re having. I thought about how in my own way I could positively contribute to a movement that, despite being rather rhetoric in its naming, carries to many people, an undoubtedly noble goal of racial equity, harmony, and most importantly justice. Any person with any sense of historic racial schisms would strive for exactly that. A lot has happened since the George Floyd video surfaced: peaceful protests, global sister rallies, but also violent riots and wanton vandalism – all happening within a common call of #BlackLivesMatter. After doing some serious thinking and scrutiny, I realised that I cannot in good conscience support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Not because it lacks implicit goodness, but because it is a fundamentally flawed rallying cry.
You only have to look at the divisiveness it has caused online. Those who support it are allies, and those who oppose it run foul of racial wokeness. It’s been a murky two weeks, to say the least. As a Kenyan (a black one, I’ll add, for purposes of making my point) who is far removed from all the murkiness of America’s socio-cultural dynamics, I’m hopefully in a position where I can scrutinize #BlackLivesMatter without a scandalous whiff.
The first obvious question I had was, “Why doesn’t Black Lives Matter sound right to me, a black man living in a predominantly black Africa?” I couldn’t figure it out. Then, it struck me: Black Lives Matter is a racially segmented slogan being used for a cause that aims to address issues of racial segmentation. Does that seem counterproductive? Think about it; what if instead of Yes We Can, Barack Obama said Yes I Can? And just why did Nelson Mandela label post-Apartheid South Africa the rainbow nation, not the black nation? The unifying wisdom which belies the choice of those very successful slogans is exactly what’s missing in Black Lives Matter. In fact, looking at most winning social calls to action in history – MLK Jr.’s We Shall Overcome, to USA for Africa’s We Are The World, and yes, even the Jubilee party’s Tuko Pamoja – they all have the overriding structural theme of unity over fragmentation. It’s unfortunate that the person who wrote Black Lives Matter may have lacked that crucial bit of historical understanding.
History teaches that All Lives Matter or any other all-encompassing slogan would have been a better choice. I’ve seen supporters argue that by saying black lives matter, they obviously don’t mean that all other lives don’t. Au contraire, I think it’s not so obvious. Case in point, this tweet from singer Justin Bieber which explicitly says: “All lives don’t matter… unless black lives matter.”
To me, a slogan which leaves room for such a cynical interpretation is no good. The fact that supporters of Black Lives Matter amplified Bieber’s off-colour tweet (no pun intended) is more disappointing.
The effect of that kind of take is now apparent. Beyond seemingly expanding the racial chasm in America, Black Lives Matter has run itself into a problem with tokenism. Exactly like we’re seeing now with the tearing down of imperialist statues, and distastefully taking the same kneeling action that killed Floyd. I’m yet to hear from one black person whose life has gotten better as a result of slave merchant Edward Colston’s sunken statue in Bristol Harbour. That’s probably because meaningful solutions, more often than not, come from an even keel and not an odd kneel.
Back to my eye. I had let the indignation fester inside me for years, most especially during my hypersensitive teenage years wherefore I was naturally inclined to be self-conscious about my appearance. For 20 years I attributed my own shame and suspicions to friends, strangers and the just about the entire world. Then one day I woke up to the realization that I am the only one who cares (in any negative sense) that I’m one-eyed. True, it was comforting to lash out, but it never made me less angry. Only when I was wise to the self-destructive nature of my resentment was I able to focus on my reality and crafting a better existence internally for myself, because obviously, I couldn’t control the thoughts of others.
While I’m hesitant to draw comparison of my own condition to that of a black person living in America, I’m also aware that I speak as a black man living in a country only 60 years removed from the horrors of colonialism. Black people should not allow themselves to be consumed by anger at their historical and contemporary victimhood, both real and perceived.
I urge anyone using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to take a step back and see the irony of how the slogan itself is antithetical to the justice movement. It has divorced the injustice of George Floyd’s torture and death from the injustice faced by Mercy Cherono, Charles Mwenda, the Hong Kong protesters, and many others around the world at the hands of policemen corrupted by power. By and by, it will push justice to the margins in favour of cross-racial rebuke. And perhaps, someone else’s ill-formed agenda (or, maybe a brilliantly concocted one – I’ll let you tell it).