I’m a young Black man who used to be opposed to Black Lives Matter. I used to feel that because I hadn’t personally faced blatant racism in my life, then such a thing couldn’t be part of the Black narrative in America today.
I grew up in the northern Virginia suburbs, where most of my friends were white and Asian. I didn’t have any Black friends at all until I left for college at 17, and I was unable to imagine why one would ever be skeptical of law enforcement.
I was 18 when unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown was fatally shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that helped to bring the Black Lives Matter movement to national attention. Like everybody else, I grieved for the brutally-slain boy and his family. However, I felt myself above the demonstrations and riots.
I related more in lived experience to the middle-class white suburbanites around me than to the Black protestors on tv who looked a lot more like me.
Also, I viewed Black Lives Matter through the lens of the Western Philosophy class I’d just received an A in, as merely some group seeking to promote its agenda. I’d learned about the danger of collective ideology, and that the superiority of the individual was a hallmark of Western philosophical innovation.
But as the movement gained national attention and I began to hear about both subtle and more overt mistreatment that minorities have faced in this country, I slowly came to realize that all of the reasoned and educated-sounding logic in the world could not argue with the lived experiences of those who had been marginalized. I couldn’t just debate away the merits of others’ pain.
Like many people outside the movement, I lacked Black friends to share experiences with and learn from. So I started listening more seriously to the accounts of people on the news and on the internet, which opened up a broader African American narrative for me to try and understand.
For example, I learned from many people about how manifesting oneself in typically Black ways – from wearing natural Afro hair to using certain words or mannerisms – might be perceived as improper or alienating.
We’ve all seen and denounced the horrible displays of police brutality, but so much of what caused me to open my eyes more was a deeper look into common, mundane acts of racism in the lives of many African Americans.
Now we’ve come to today, in the era of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the senseless murder of George Floyd. Lately I’ve received lots of nice messages and phone calls from concerned friends. I’d always give a heartfelt thanks and reassure everyone that I was fine amid all the chaos - never having even lifted a finger for Black lives.
I’ve benefited from all the success of reformers present and past without having had to do any of the work for the rights I now take for granted.
Previously, I felt that just because I was the same skin color as the people whom the Black Lives Matter activists were fighting for, I didn’t need to do any of the work to try and understand the general narrative of being Black in America.
I now realize that merely being Black doesn’t justify me not working to understand the plight of those facing racial injustice.
I’ve seen how easy it is to cite lack of personal experience as reason for denouncing an entire cause. I’d urge everybody to think about that one. When assessing any movement such as this, the best place to start is by listening to the experiences of the individuals who define what the movement is striving for. That’s where I had to start. That’s primarily how I went from denying the very need for systematic racial reform to now firmly being on the side of the cause.
Today, at least I can say I’ve come around in full support for Black Lives Matter, even though I’ve had to fight my own Blackness to find it.
Johanan Sowah, 24, is a computer engineer and lives in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon