I don’t remember the precise moment when I understood what racism was and that I was on the wrong end of it. It’s just always been that way.
It never mattered that I was half white. It didn’t matter to the people who suggested people like me should “go back to Africa” that I’m part Jamaican. To some people, it didn’t matter that I was the fastest reader in my class or that I was an honors student. There was something about me that was bad, and that was my skin color.
All of these personal realizations occurred long before Black Lives Matter started blowing up Twitter. The sudden comprehension that I was an unwanted minority came long before I started to hear about the shootings. I had been repeatedly told racism wasn’t real ages before the All Lives Matter people came around to reinforce the idea.
The moment in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, can be viewed in many ways. Some view it as the moment that sparked the heated controversy we see today. Others see it as the moment an innocent boy lost his life. Some see it as a justifiable instance of self-defense.
I remember it as the day my mother told my brother not to wear a hoodie outside when it was dark, no matter how cold he was.
Trayvon Martin’s death, and the death of countless other black people at the hands of police, served to reinforce a single realization that had been culminating over years of subtly being treated differently: black lives did not matter as much as white lives.
This realization did not come as a huge surprise. Segregation in America didn’t end 1,000 years ago. It didn’t even end 100 years ago. It was 62 years ago that a controversial Supreme Court ruling ended legal separation of black people and white people. It took years after that for black individuals to be accepted to the same schools, to be hired at the same jobs or to be accepted into the same circles as their white counterparts. In fact, the latest school district to obey the Supreme Court ruling — in Cleveland, Mississippi — did so in May of 2016.
The reason things like the Dance Theatre of Harlem, predominantly black universities and “The Wiz” began was because as little as 30 years ago black people were not accepted into their white equivalents. When white people complain they don’t have a chance to participate in these things, they should think about asking their grandparents how much they enjoyed being allowed to sit at the front of the bus.
Similarly, the reason that Black Lives Matter began was because it was universally understood by the black community that many people viewed black lives as worth less than their white counterparts.
A few days ago I was shown an article about a 13-year-old boy named Tyre King who pulled a fake gun on a police officer and was shot multiple times. The individuals around me made comments justifying the cop’s actions and lamenting the fact that the public would most likely call for him to lose his job.
It’s true the child painted a toy gun to look like a real gun and the cop felt threatened. Maybe it’s also true the cop felt his life was in danger and acted in self-defense. The issue here is I never once heard a comment about the 13-year-old boy who lost his life. Nobody said anything about a little boy, probably still in middle school, who will never get to go to school again.
That is what Black Lives Matter means. It means that a 13-year-old black boy with a toy gun is an acceptable loss while an adult rapist like Brock Turner can’t possibly have his future taken away by jail time. It means that a man in Charlotte with a book, the 173rd black individual shot by the police in the U.S. this year, is automatically guilty while men like Dylann Roof can kill nine individuals and still get the due process of law.
Of the 708 people killed by the police in 2016, 23 percent were black men. Given that black males only make up approximately 6 percent of the total population in the U.S., this statistic is wildly out of proportion. These kinds of numbers don’t seem justifiable, yet in more than half of these cases, according to the Washington Post, the officers who fired the lethal shots have been protected and their names have not been released. To those across the country who, like me, have been watching the growing death toll with fear and anxiety, this sends a clear signal that our lives do not matter.
My life matters. My little brother’s life matters. The black men, women and children who have been killed at an alarming rate this year? Their lives mattered. Don’t tell me all lives matter until you can cry about Tyre King or Trayvon Martin like you would cry about a white boy who never got to grow up. Don’t tell me all lives matter when I know you don’t mean it.
Not all cops are racist, but when the few who are racist get away with using their power against those who are innocent, it becomes clear that in this country not all lives matter. Only white lives matter.
Dominique Kent studies English. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DominiqueTrekker.