All lives matter is an idea that we human beings fundamentally hold to be true. However, as scholar-practitioners we understand that ideas and theories do not always translate into practice. Bearing that in mind, I call to attention an event that occurred on a university campus where a work of graffiti—with an affirming message to its black student population that their lives mattered was defaced. The word “all” was sprayed with red aerosol paint over the word “black” to communicate that everyone and not just black lives matter. For many us who have done coursework from kindergarten to graduate school, we understand that there is a certain connotation associated with red ink on a paper. Generally speaking, red mark ups on assignments typically mean that the answer(s) given was incorrect or served to highlight typos or grammatical errors. So what are we to make of the red markings on a mural in which black voices were invalidated? Were these students wrong in their assertion?
As educators, we should be teaching our students how to stand for something without standing over others. We should be teaching them the dangers of painting with broad strokes.
And so the defacement of the mural carries implications in environments that are supposed to be inclusive. Perhaps to the unsuspecting, it was just a wall available for public usage, but to these students, it was a sacred space where they could “exalt the narratives of black lives who had been lost to state-sanctioned violence.” The graffiti then, in this context allowed those who authored it to assert presence and to a claim space where one did not previously exist. In my estimation, the mural produced did more to begin the process of reconciling the deeply felt grief, emotional confusion, and righteous anger constructively – in a way that the sanctuary within a cultural center may not have been able to. If we explicate further, the substituting of “black” for “all” symbolized an erasure of the valid experiences of multiple black identities. Think about the various identities that you hold and then consider how it might feel to have any one of them stripped from you. I submit that’s how these students felt. Simultaneously, it represented the re-appropriation and co-optation by those who only view the black condition from a place of privilege. It’s this same sort of re-appropriation that has allowed for systemic marginalization with tools such as shaming and victim-blaming to thrive.
There are some, who would be quick to dismiss the implications of this act – citing that the wall belonged to no specific group. And because there was no violation of policy it can be summed up as an exercise of free speech. I believe that free speech for one group should not come at the silencing of another – even if the intention behind the messaging was noble in thought. I’m willing to extend the benefit of a doubt that the motive behind the rewording of the message was not done so maliciously. That it was an attempt to express support for the lives of all however, it failed to achieve the intended result. To those who would suggest that affirming black lives is racist would be wise to consider that #BlackLivesMatter is not about declaring “superiority” over others so much as it is about raising awareness of the contradictions inherent in statements affirming all of humanity. It speaks to the justice that has not yet come, the work that still needs to be done; and the unlearning of systems of oppression that must come to pass.
As we begin to reimagine a more just world, it is imperative that we take stock of ourselves and in some cases humble ourselves enough to learn from these courageous students who transformed their silence into a language that granted them the expressed permission to name their experiences in a way that was meaningful for them. We may all one day find ourselves situated in a place where the campus culture and climate forces us to suppress a part of our identities. What will your response be? And how will you tell your story?