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What #BlackLivesMatter Means to Me (Spoiler Alert: I'm Not Black)

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/10/2015 Isa Adney

I've tried to write this article dozens of times. There are snippets in every corner of my writing life - in small notepads, thick spiraled notebooks, Evernote, audio files on my phone, and even a few sentences in the notes app on my old iPod touch.
I never felt like I could write this article, because, well, I am not Black. I don't know what #BlackLivesMatter feels like when it so immediately affects your life, your family, your kids, your nieces, your nephews.
I don't know what it feels like to be Jessica Williams that time she walked into upscale New York shops for a segment on The Daily Show and was treated like dirt - watched, judged, assumed to be a shoplifter.
I don't know what it's like to be that Harvard professor who told us about "the talk" he and many others have to have with their sons about how to behave if and when they're pulled over by police - how to be slow, careful, to not make any sudden moves. Even the son of a Harvard professor has to be given that talk.
I don't know what it feels like to be those 7th-graders at the Sanford, Florida Boys and Girls Club that time they were talking about what happened to Trayvon Martin.
All I know is I did not have to think about things like that when I was in 7th grade. My dad never had to have that talk with me, or my brothers. I do not have store clerks stare me down like I'm about to steal something.
While I don't know what it's like, the knowledge that other people do breaks my heart into a million pieces, crushed a little more every day by the newest injustice or comment from someone who doesn't understand that #BlackLivesMatter is not about elevating some people above others but a desperate cry to be heard. Because people are dying. Children are talking about it. And it's good that we're talking about it. But it should break all of our hearts that this is what 7th-graders in Sanford, Florida talk about.
Because we have to wonder how that makes them see themselves. While I don't know what it feels like to be them, I do know how you see yourself can affect everything.
It can affect what you believe you're capable of, whether or not you think you're worthy of graduating high school, going to college. Do "people like you" get masters degrees? Start tech companies? Become doctors? Broadway dancers?
We emulate what we see around us, especially when we're young and determining how far we can go. What the media says matters, matters.
I think parents and family and community can and should override media messaging. I would guess that most of the people using #BlackLivesMatter probably have the courage and strength to fight for this because someone in their life told them that they mattered, and now they're trying to get the rest of the world to see it too, not for themselves, but for the 7th graders.
But the kids who don't have those influences in their lives - someone telling them why they matter and how to ignore the hate - are in danger of growing up to believe that "people like them" cannot [fill in the blank with their hopes and dreams here]. And that is big, and yet can seem like nothing when you think that the stakes are even higher for so many, too many - those kids who don't expect to live past the age of 18. They don't see a future, because they truly have internalized that they somehow matter less. Because they've seen the futures of so many of their young friends cut short.
And that's not okay with me.
Because, trust me, we need these Black youth here, alive. Because they're awesome. And when they are given love, compassion and opportunity to succeed they will be able to create more love and compassion and opportunities. I see it happen all the time, and I think it's one of the best things we do - this instinct to take our pain and try to create something that lessens that pain for someone else. But we cannot do that when we're dead.
For a while I didn't think I should say anything because my skin looks like my coffee does after I add soymilk. I'm half White, half Puerto Rican, which in some surveys means I have to check the "White" box. But when people look at me they ask "What are you?" I'm allowed to refer to myself as a Latina, but I don't speak Spanish so I've always felt a little off there too. I get confused and scared talking about my own identity, let alone someone else's. I didn't want to say the wrong thing. I didn't want to make things worse. I didn't want to say something unknowingly racist. I didn't want to add any more painful rhetoric to the mix. That's the last thing we need.
So I wrote down my thoughts and my grief in notebooks and phones, but decided not to put any of it out there, because I didn't think it was my place.
But then I realized that that's really messed up, and maybe part of the problem - thinking that if you can't speak from experience, if you don't know that unique grief, then you are not a part of it. In other words, if you're not Black you should probably not speak about this.
And for the most part, that's probably not a bad strategy - because I've seen a lot of really painful and hurtful things being said by people who cannot speak from experience and who have not taken the time to listen to those who can.
I started to think that the best thing for me to do was grieve in private, to not say anything or even use #BlackLivesMatter for fear of trying to own a pain and an outrage that isn't mine to own. And, if I'm being really honest, fear of experiencing all the hateful things I saw other people saying to people who used it. Fear of not getting it right for the Black people I know and love and fear of alienating the people I know and love who I know don't get this.
And then I thought of my friend's mom's funeral.
I thought of the montage - the pictures of her and her mom - her best friend - fading in and out to Taylor Swift's "Best Day." I thought of me losing it in that moment in the back of the church. Absolutely losing it. Because I hurt for my friend. Because her mom was gone because of cancer. Because I knew that the pain I was feeling in that moment was a snowflake in the avalanche of pain that was now going to be a part of my friend's life. A life without her mom.
No matter how much pain I felt for her, I knew I could never know what it was like to be her. I could never know or experience her particular pain. Even if I lost my mom I know it wouldn't make me understand. Because I am not her, losing her mom. Two different things.
And yet, did that mean I should stay at home? Not go to the funeral? Not write her a card about her mom's yellow walls or the smile they share? Did that mean I should grieve in private? That I shouldn't hug her or listen to her or cry with her? That I should do nothing? Say nothing?

Of course not.
It took me a while to realize that even though I haven't personally lived #BlackLivesMatter or know what it feels like to fight this fight every day, it doesn't mean that the pain I feel about it isn't real - and that maybe grieving only in private, in silence, is the worst thing I could do for my friends.
I don't know what it's like to be Black. I don't know what it's like to walk down a street and have people hold their purses tighter or lock their car doors. I don't know what it's like to walk in a store and have someone think you're there to shoplift. I don't know what it's like to have your friends on Facebook and Twitter proudly state their opinions on your life and its level of mattering. I don't know what it's like to have to constantly fight, stand, force your way through a society that tells you that you are less and then tells you that it's all in your head and racism is over and really, we don't think you're less at all we just think you should shut up. I don't know what it's like to walk tall in the face of that, to be that kind of brave. I'm in awe of it. I'm thankful for it.
And while I can't speak as a Black person, as a Latina and a woman, I have experienced what it's like at times to feel invisible. Patronized. To feel small and insignificant. To hear the whispers that you don't belong and shouldn't even bother, and then the louder voices that say the whispers are just in your head - they aren't real, you're making this up.
And no matter the color of your skin, I bet at some point in your life you've felt this too. There was a time you felt invisible, a time you felt like you didn't belong, like you didn't matter. Do you remember it?
If you do, you know that no matter how many privileges you have or how many things you have to be grateful for, that feeling still hurt. Really bad.
I'd like to pretend those moments don't hurt me, especially when I know how privileged I am. But they do. So much so that sometimes I can't breathe. So much so that sometimes I say in my head "I hate being a minority." So much so that every bone in my body wants to give up the fight. Wants to stop trying so hard to strive towards the places where I don't belong.
And it is in those moments lately that I think about #BlackLivesMatter. I know that those feelings I have of not belonging are not the same, just like how I know losing my grandma is not the same as my friend losing her mom. But that doesn't mean we don't still need each other, that we can't help each other, understand each other, or empathize with each other. We can be angry together, love together, and grieve together, even if our grief is not the same.
And yet lately, online anyway, all I see is the opposite.
Imagine your brother died tragically. You post about it on Facebook; you share your sadness, the funeral details. Can you imagine someone - a friend - commenting that you that you should suck it up because someone else they know lost their brother and #AllLivesMatter so you really have no right to be sad or to be writing about it or holding an event for it?
That is what is happening before our very eyes. And I can't watch quietly anymore.
People don't fight injustice because it's fun or because they're bored or because they want to start conflict or enjoy defending themselves and blocking people on Twitter who they thought were their friends. This stuff is not fun. No one wants to fight this fight. I would guess that every single person who has used #BlackLivesMatter wishes they lived in a world where they didn't have to - they would probably rather be using the internet for a million other things. They'd probably rather be laughing or talking about something wonderful and lovely and hopeful. They too are desperate to live in a world where it was as simple as #AllLivesMatter. But we don't live in that world. And the only way to begin to change that is to meet those who are fighting for their lives with love and compassion and listening, listening, listening.
Experience has taught me that if someone is saying they feel like they don't matter, it's really important to listen to what they have to say. Because it takes a lot of courage to say that out loud, knowing the backlash that's coming, knowing that some people will think you're trying to get attention, that you're making this up. Because somehow in saying you feel broken, some people think you're blaming them for breaking you and then they think they need to defend themselves because, really, they weren't trying to hurt you they were just trying to live their lives and do their best. But in most cases that defensiveness quickly turns cruel, making you feel like you matter even less, making you need to fight harder, speak louder, and the cycle begins again.
And I'm afraid of how many people have to die before that cycle breaks. The lack of compassion even now, after people were shot in a church, messes me up in my core, sends shivers up my entire body. Makes it hard to breathe.
Honestly telling someone you feel like you don't matter is one of the scariest and most painful things to do. It makes you vulnerable. You'd rather not do it. You only do it when it's really, really bad, when you're not sure you can go much further alone. The last thing you need in that moment is someone to tell you that your feelings are invalid, to pierce you with a sword when you're already turned inside out.
When someone says they feel like they don't matter they're not saying they think you don't matter or that you matter any less.They're saying that they're hurt. They're asking for your help. To listen. To walk with them. They're asking for compassion. For change.
For love.
So this is me, showing up. I'm sorry it took me so long.
I don't know what to do next. I don't know how to make this better. All I can say is what I said to my friend at her mom's funeral: I'm sorry for your loss. I know I don't know what you're going through. This sucks. I'm here for you if you need to talk. I'm here to listen. I'm here to walk with you.
But thankfully this is not a funeral - there have been too many, that's for sure - but this is not over. There is still hope for those kids in Sanford because of all the people bravely stepping out into their grief and sacrificing so much to try to make things better.
I am not the hero for showing up. The heroes are the ones like my friend who spoke through tears to give a moving eulogy, who walk with their grief every day, and who take that bold and unrequired step to mold that pain and outrage into work that helps others through the pain they know all too well.
I see a lot of that on Facebook and Twitter too, and that's what gives me hope and courage - the people who show compassion, who listen, who fight, and especially the people who share positive stories and command the spaces where they were once told they didn't belong, doing work that makes them feel happy and alive, like the BMe Community and #BlackMenLove, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the book REACH, #BlackGirlsRock, #BlackGirlsCode, Estella's Brilliant Bus, people like Trabian Shorters and Shawn Dove and Van Jones and Misty Copeland and Viola Davis and HAVE YOU SEEN THAT APPLE MUSIC COMMERCIAL AVA DUVERNAY DID?!
There are so many people on my Twitter and Facebook feed who have no idea how much I admire them, how much I respect them, how grateful I am for them.
This is for them.
Actually, that's not true. This is for me. Because I know that when people are heard, seen, and feel like they matter, they create and do incredible things; instead of fighting every day to feel like they matter they can direct their energy to doing something amazing that we can all enjoy. They don't need me. I need them.
I don't know what it's like to be Black. I don't know what it's like to see the news and know that it could be your son, your daughter. But my hope is that when people who aren't Black see #BlackLivesMatter they will not see "#OnlyBlackLivesMatter." I hope instead they'll see someone who is hurting, trying to ask for someone to listen with love and compassion. I hope they'll see bravery and have the courage to love instead of defend, to listen instead of comment, to walk with them even if they don't understand everything, even if they don't agree with everything. To say, in one way or another: "I hear you. I see you."
We've all had moments in our lives where we desperately needed someone to say that to us. And there is a movement going on where we have an opportunity to do that for someone else. Because even if it couldn't be our son or daughter, it could be our friend - our neighbor - in every sense of the word.

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