Recognizing the Value of Black Lives is not Controversial
In early September, a noose was found hanging on a fence at Alameda High School, then came the news about plans to end DACA. And on Sept. 6 at Back to School Night, my kids’ school joined the ranks of schools in Alameda who took unwelcoming actions against a marginalized group. A handmade sign containing the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was altered to say “All Lives Matter.”
Students and their families across our island community were feeling unsafe and unwelcome after these incidents.
To show support and promote inclusivity in our school community, a family provided Black Lives Matter yard signs and stickers for families to voluntarily take home. My kindergartener came home that night proudly wearing a sticker given to her by a classmate. My 4th grader was discussing what the phrase meant, and confessed he didn’t understand why it was a difficult message for some to comprehend. I was pleased to see the community rallying around our students of color, including placing a Black Lives Matter yard sign at the school where the now defaced sign had once been.
When I dropped off my kids at school the following day, I noticed the sign was gone. After discussing with other parents, I learned that “Black Lives Matter” signs were not allowed on school grounds unless they “were part of a student’s artwork” per the administration.
While trying to understand and find the policy that supports this, I began an email exchange with the superintendent. I’d communicated with him on previous occasions and have known him to be a compassionate person who wanted our school district to embody the “Everyone Belongs Here” motto.
He told me he was aware of the situation because another parent complained that their child came home with a sticker that was “unsolicited and unappreciated.” I was then pointed toward a policy that allowed the superintendent to ban controversial language. The exchange was backed by false equivalencies and misunderstandings. The choice to remove the sign seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to appease the feelings of the offended parent, rather than keep it and show solidarity for our students and their families. It left me feeling the district’s guiding policies diminish the affirmations of Black children in their school. This is unacceptable. While I feel the superintendent is well intentioned, I also feel that his interpretation of these policies requires further analysis and clarity.
In my experience, when folks want to change the phrase "Black Lives Matter" to "All Lives Matter," they do not do so to demean Black people. They think they are being more inclusive, or perhaps don't fully understand the message. Nor do they often consider how dismissive changing that one word can be.
Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean ONLY Black lives. It is simply acknowledging the value and contributions specifically of Black members of our society during an arguably pivotal time for race relations in our country. It is an acknowledgement that ALL people are not affected by systemic racism or bias. ALL lives are not disproportionately ending at the hands of law enforcement. Our country wasn’t built on enslaving ALL lives. ALL students are not disproportionately labeled with "behavior problems" or as "aggressive" or "threatening” due to the implicit bias of teachers and administrators.
If I saw someone wearing a "Save the Rainforest" shirt, I wouldn't go up to them and say "I just got back from Sequoia National Park, it was amazing and ALL forests matter." I would remember that these beautiful giant sequoias have the privilege of being protected in our national parks. Calling to save them would be kind of silly, because they are not in immediate danger of deforestation. Calling to save all trees would be tone deaf to the situation of the rainforest trees that face eminent threats.
In our current political climate, it is going to take voices of all shades to speak up so ALL children can truly thrive in our society. As a white woman, I know I need to listen to people who don’t look like me, and haven’t had the privilege of experiencing our country in the same way I have. It is my hope that in having more of these sometimes uncomfortable conversations, we can equip teachers, administrators, and parents with language to support children and families. We can have a dialogue and write policies that create a more empathetic and equitable learning community for students.
Recognizing the value of Black lives is not controversial. And saying “Black Lives Matter” does not imply anything about any other lives. The value of white lives has never been up for debate. All lives truly don’t matter until we acknowledge that Black lives matter.
Dede Lewis is an Alameda resident, mother of two children, and co-founder of the AUSD Support Group for Parents with students on IEPs. She serves on the AUSD Special Education Strategic Planning Group, Maya Lin Social Justice and Equity Committee, and Alameda For Black Lives.