Humanism and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

“If American democracy will not insure equality of opportunity, freedom and justice to its citizens, black and white, it is a hollow mockery and belies the principles for which it is supposed to stand.” —A. Philip Randolph, “The Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense,” Black Worker (May 1941)

A few months ago, I was interviewed on The Humanist Hour podcast on issues related to U.S. race relations, social justice, and privilege. Continuing thoughts expressed during the interview, there are a few more things I’d like to mention for us all to contemplate. #BlackLivesMatter is more than a hashtag—it’s a movement. I don’t think it’s right to put it on par with the African-American civil rights movement of yesteryear due to the dissimilar sociopolitical constraints and cultural context. However, there are obvious similarities. Both movements highlight a glaring racial disparity issue. Both seek a remedy that is equitable toward all human life. Thus, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is a call to action, a plea for the populace to recognize, “There’s work yet to be done—we must own it and evolve accordingly.” Let’s short-circuit one notion out the gate—the reactive “#AllLivesMatter” retort and the sentiment behind it. Perhaps those who feel the urge to make this statement don’t recognize how it’s facile in nature. It’s “wrong” in the sense that it’s a truism, a platitude so self-evident that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Realize that, when using this counter—whether meaning to or not—you diminish the purpose of #BlackLivesMatter. This movement, which thrives despite not getting proper coverage, underscores a recurring theme within our societal narrative that sees a surplus of significance attached to certain groups of people, and a markedly deficient significance assigned to others. #AllLivesMatter attempts to hijack this conversation and “steal the thunder” that rumbles for a specific cause, which is to bring awareness to an issue that has overarching ethnocultural, political, and social implications. A challenge is levied with #BlackLivesMatter, and it is that challenge—which encroaches upon preconceived notions of “reality” (i.e., that we’re living in a post-racial era, etc.)—that certain people have a problem with. Understand that this is not a new issue whatsoever. It only seems new to those who, for whatever reason, haven’t been paying attention. The difference now is that the unevenness rendered across this nation’s social systems is coming to the forefront of concern (again). It’s always been cooking, the plate’s just been promoted from the back burner to the foreground due to exasperation. As we reflectively season this dish that is long overdue on the table, it is important that the principles of humanism guide our endeavors to be more civil, fair, and charitable with one another. We are all in this (life, existence) together, regardless of color, sex, political affiliation, level of wealth, creed, age, or sexual orientation. Coexistence marked by equitable rapport and reciprocity only makes sense, does it not? Therefore, for those who consider themselves humanists—those who promote unfettered, egalitarian human welfare; those who desire a humane society and seek to humanize all individuals through a rational philosophy—I offer the following tips on ways to be allies regarding the Black Lives Matter movement: Observe constancy – In the United States, discussion of religion and politics is considered taboo in certain settings. Still, a “hot-button” topic that’s even more uncomfortable to discuss is race. I cannot think of any issue that has ever been effectively resolved by avoiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist. Such action (rather, inaction) is counterproductive, only exacerbating the frustrations that lie beneath the surface. The only way we better comprehend the faults in present day race relations is by actively discussing them. Though the concept itself is illusory, the conversation of race isn’t some trivial “trending” subject that can be observed once or sparingly only to be tossed aside until another “big story” comes across your social media feed. We all have family, friends, and others within our social bubble with whom we discuss a wide range of topics. Allowing the out-group (the group being marginalized and othered as “not one of us”) a platform to share their perspectives regarding discrimination may deepen your level of empathy and perspective. Habitually engaging in these conversations builds awareness, works to destabilize misconceptions, and better facilitates progress. Granting a platform – If you are not part of the out-group, it’s preferable to grant a platform to those who are subject to ostracism and stigmatization. Imagine a man telling a woman about how she should ideally express her feelings relating to patriarchal tendencies or setting parameters for how women ought to voice their concerns relating to gender equality. Imagine a non-heterosexual having to endure the beliefs-presented-as-facts routine from heterosexuals who state “the real reason why” non-heterosexuals aren’t straight. Rinse and repeat this laughable approach for those who aren’t transgender, aren’t gender-queer, aren’t atheist, or are not part of some other disenfranchised group, and yet consider themselves “in-the-know” on what these groups really experience. When people fail to seek enlightenment from the out-group, they are inclined to possess uninformed and patronizing views about matters they are only tenuously familiar with by virtue of hearsay, anecdote, and disinformation presented by in-group peers, media sources, or token figures (for example, assenting to what African-American conservative media darlings Ben Carson or Stacey Dash have to say on race issues would be ill-advised). Granting a platform greatly reduces such ridiculousness, and allows for preformed beliefs to be upgraded through the eyes of those experiencing the hurt, frustrations, and dilemmas. Perspective-taking – This is interrelated with granting a platform. Perhaps you recognize there is a problem but you don’t fully “get” what’s transpiring or how it affects the lives of others. Research suggests perspective-taking increases one’s willingness to engage in contact with negatively-stereotyped out-group members. This is achieved mainly by creating social bonds—increased contact—with stereotyped people. So then, to obtain heightened awareness, I suggest counterintuitively removing yourself from your comfort zones. Make it a habit. Displace yourself within circles you don’t normally frequent by reading and intermingling with Black voices who lend insight by sharing their experiences and thoughts on this country’s racial dynamic. Findings indicate that perspective-taking can combat automatic expressions of implicit racial biases. These biases, as neuroscientists like David Amodio have researched, foster and reinforce negative stereotypes. In a 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper titled, “Perspective Taking Combats Automatic Expressions of Racial Bias,” researchers note:

Although the blatant racism of earlier eras has declined dramatically in recent decades, contemporary forms of bias continue to thwart the realization of genuine racial equality. The current research provides converging evidence for the utility of perspective taking as a strategy for combating automatic expressions of racial bias and for facilitating more favorable interracial contact experiences.

Someone who naturally “owns” these techniques is my friend Daryl Davis (referenced in “Race: Why We All Need to Talk about It”). He has single-handedly disarmed numerous members (now former members) of the Ku Klux Klan and like-minded white nationalist groups. How did he do this? By talking. No magic words or incantation. He achieved (and continues to achieve) success with the most formidable opposition by simply having discussions. Constant discussions. Luckily, most people we engage with on a regular basis aren’t extremists like the individuals Davis confronts. Many remain unaware and possess an incomplete picture of the entire race relations landscape. The painting can only better develop with a more involved observation into the particulars. This is how masterpieces are conceived. The more informed we become, the more refined our knowledge base becomes, which translates into a decrease of tactless broad strokes and ill-conceived blotches. Master painters carefully appraise their surroundings and the canvas they engage—let’s be master painters, my friends.Tags: