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How to Turn “All Lives Matter”​ into ‘Black Lives Matter’​: A 6 Step Guide for Productive Dialogue

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” — James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”

A few weeks ago, my relatively conscious readers, and so many more of us still in the midst of self-transformation, you and I figured out with whom in discussions of justice we could most productively engage. In “How to Start Turning ‘All Lives Matter’ into ‘Black Lives Matter’”, we split ‘all lives matter’ into two camps — #ALLLIVESMATTER (#ALM) and #alllivesmatter (#alm). Realizing the issues birthed from provoking the red-herrings and white supremacy of #ALM, we turned to the less provocative #alm, whose beliefs, though flawed, situated social equality as inherently paramount. With the “who” now in hand, we move onto “how”. How do we engage #alm? In my experience, I’ve seen two approaches yield more success than others: that of the teacher and that of the peer. For our purposes, a teacher might approach #alm tenants as a comprehensive authority, while a peer approaches those same tenants looking to gain as much insight as they impart. What I would like to illustrate throughout this piece is how to start combining those two approaches and effectively embody the knowledgeable equal. To demonstrate this, I’ll show you how I helped a personal friend find small victory responding to #alm.

For context, my friend, who we’ll call Alex, found himself in dialogue with a friend of his family, who we’ll call Becca, over the outcome of Louisville local David “BBQ Man” McAtee’s death. Becca suggested in broad strokes that police and protesters were in comparable positions; that the world outside was becoming so dangerous, neither group could know for certain whether or not, upon venturing out, they would make it home. Even without knowing a whole lot about this family friend, we can deduce her likely residency under #alm. Becca isn’t attempting to derail the conversation away from social peace, and is showing a real albeit misguided care for every person’s safety. This ideology might look familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve even thought about talking with those who’ve expressed these ideas. I agree that they could be worth engaging. Let’s see how Alex responds:

“Protesters go out with almost nothing to defend themselves besides possibly goggles and ear plugs, while cops arrive armed to the teeth with guns, batons, riot shields, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, and literal surplus military vehicles and equipment. Now both sides can make mistakes in heightened situations, but [it] is exponentially more likely that a protester, journalist, bystander, medical volunteer, or even someone just feeding people gets wounded or killed when a cop makes a mistake, not the other way around. That is what happened to David. Unfortunately, sometimes these aren’t just mistakes. Cops and/or National Guard intentionally ignore protocol or misuse equipment. They tear gas citizens during a pandemic for a respiratory disease. Rubber bullets are meant to be fired (from at least 36 yards) at the ground at an angle to reduce velocity and risk of grievous bodily harm or death; Police have repeatedly been recorded firing directly at protesters’ and journalists’ faces from less than 30 yards, permanently blinding and even killing victims with so-called non-lethal weapons.”

Alright, a lot to work with here. None of the information Alex presented is blatantly false, which is a plus, but it could be pertinent to note that COVID-19 may be cardiovascular, not respiratory. David McAtee was also not a protester. He was a black chef who died outside his restaurant for breaking curfew and retaliating against city officer’s fired pepper balls, pellet-like projectiles that almost hit his niece. To Alex’s credit, those case specifics weren’t public yet, meaning his word play is sound. However, if our goal is to really engage relatives, friends, or associates like Becca, there remains a lot to improve in his response. Let’s jump right in.

1. Concede the reasonable point

Our goal is to be accessible, not argumentative. The first step to initiating that accessibility is taken by setting a norm of reciprocity from the very beginning. This is a peer technique, and will do wonders keeping discussion partners in front of defensive walls, rather than behind them. A reciprocal norm predisposes your partner to repay in kind what you have to them. So by recognizing the good in their point, they will be that much more likely to recognize the good in yours. In this case, I would suggest Alex make explicit to Becca from the get-go that her premise of “dangerous world” is not unreasonable, positioning Becca to more likely recognize the validity in Alex’s premise.

You’re right; it is dangerous. Protesters go out with almost nothing to defend themselves besides possibly goggles and ear plugs, while cops arrive armed to the teeth with guns, batons, riot shields, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, and literal surplus military vehicles and equipment…”

It’d be nice if reassessing were so easy. Sadly, alone, Alex’s new sentence doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, the following statement almost undercuts the previous thought’s intended sentiment, turning what was supposed to be an actual concession into a mocking one that would surely push our audience behind their walls. We can fix that.

2. Clarify your view

While conceding another’s reasonable point is incredibly important, so, too, is representing your own views. This step is a joint technique (meaning it’s hard to classify as “teacher” or “peer”) that probably needs little explanation. Just as a teacher explains a lesson, or a peer plans a rebuttal, you must let your discussion partner know exactly what kind of conversation needs to take place, instead of the one they may want to take place. For Alex, this means reorienting the “dangerous world” premise that Becca introduced into a premise about the “imbalance of power”.

“You’re right; it is dangerous. However, I hope you can see the imbalance of defen[sive] power between the two [groups]. Protesters go out with almost nothing to defend themselves besides possibly goggles and ear plugs, while cops arrive armed to the teeth with guns, batons, riot shields, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, and literal surplus military vehicles and equipment…”

With one more additional sentence, Alex subtly established a foundational part of the human condition — empathy — as having a prominent place in the dialogue. Notice, too, that this additional sentence has allowed Alex to successfully concede Becca’s point without compromising his values. “You’re right; it is dangerous” now reads genuinely, which keeps Becca in front of her walls, despite the following statement’s challenge to that same concession. Such explicit clarification will keep the conversation on track, giving focus to both your partner and to you.

3. Fight back, but don’t attack

I find this teaching technique the easiest one to slip on. In topics of justice among friends, passion is undoubtedly our largest ally. Yet, unchecked in novel conversation, it can serve as our greatest foe. There, our passion can be interpreted as aggression. This is fine for the sparring minds of two peers, but in the mind of a teacher, students are best taught through experience, and experiential learning is ultimately facilitated through suggestion. For our suggestions to be heard, we have to keep our partners from retreating out of earshot. Take another look at Alex’s response so far:

“…Now both sides can make mistakes in heightened situations, but [it] is exponentially more likely that a protester, journalist, bystander, medical volunteer, or even someone just feeding people gets wounded or killed when a cop makes a mistake, not the other way around. That is what happened to David. Unfortunately, sometimes these aren’t just mistakes. Cops and/or National Guard intentionally ignore protocol or misuse equipment. They tear gas citizens during a pandemic for a respiratory disease. Rubber bullets are meant to be fired (from at least 36 yards) at the ground at an angle to reduce velocity and risk of grievous bodily harm or death; Police have repeatedly been recorded firing directly at protesters’ and journalists’ faces from less than 30 yards, permanently blinding and even killing victims with so-called non-lethal weapons.

I would argue that right now, especially at the beginning of an exchange, nothing in bold elevates the accessibility of Alex’s burgeoning response. Remember, Alex’s premise in this dialogue is “imbalance of power”. What he’s done here is introduce another premise: “abuse of power”. While everything he says about this new premise is true, it is technically a separate, even if related point that will only bog down the flow of his message, overwhelm his partner, and make them that much more likely to disengage. In subsequent discussions, his “abuse of power” premise, alongside its presentable evidence, may prove useful in giving his discussion partner more food for thought. Here, however, it accomplishes little beyond indignant informational boasting, which could be misconstrued as an annoyed Alex patting himself on the back for knowing more than Becca. How does the response sound with the bold portion pinned for later and the new introduction we created tacked on:

“You’re right; it is dangerous. However, I hope you can see the imbalance of defen[sive] power between the two [groups]. Protesters go out with almost nothing to defend themselves besides possibly goggles and ear plugs, while cops arrive armed to the teeth with guns, batons, riot shields, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, and literal surplus military vehicles and equipment. Now both sides can make mistakes in heightened situations, but [it] is exponentially more likely that a protester, journalist, bystander, medical volunteer, or even someone just feeding people gets wounded or killed when a cop makes a mistake, not the other way around. That is what happened to David.”

Better. Powerful even. Still, it isn’t finished. Keeping in line with avoiding attack statements, before moving on, I would suggest Alex consider cutting the “literal” in front of “surplus military” to perfect that logic-to-emotional equilibrium.

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Photo by BP Miller on Unsplash

4. Re-concede & re-clarify

Recall in school when you were told to restate thesis in conclusion. The same applies in conversation. Your re-concession re-emphasizes the reciprocal norm, while the re-clarification keeps you and your partner out of the clouds. Especially during heavy discussions like these, this joint technique will be crucial to optimize the dialogue’s immediate impact. Let’s see how Alex decided to implement this step:

“You are right; it is dangerous. However, I hope you can see the imbalance of defens[ive] power between the two. Protesters go out with practically nothing to defend themselves, while cops arrive armed to the teeth with guns, batons, riot shields, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, and surplus military vehicles and equipment. Now, both sides can make mistakes in heightened situations, but it is exponentially more likely that someone gets wounded or killed when a cop makes a mistake. That is what happened to David. So yes, it is dangerous for everyone, but this [discussion] isn’t about the danger everyone’s in. It’s about the disproportionate harm that one group is causing the other.

If you feel so inclined, re-read Alex’s very first response at the top of the article. See how far we’ve come from where we began. Accessible discourse is a winding path. Intuitive, but winding. And if you can believe it, we’re only two steps away from our destination.

5. Highlight moral commonality

I have a small confession — I didn’t tell my friend about this step when he reached out. I honestly forgot. Worse, realizing the sheer significance of this particular peer technique leaves me very disappointed in myself. Drawing attention to shared moral values is the final buy-in, the last rallying cry that eases your discussion partner into understanding you two are on the same team. Pretend that I hadn’t neglected to tell Alex about this. What might that rallying call look like?

“You are right; it is dangerous. However, I hope you can see the imbalance of defens[ive] power between the two [groups]. Protesters go out with practically nothing to defend themselves, while cops arrive armed to the teeth with guns, batons, riot shields, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, and surplus military vehicles and equipment. Now, both sides can make mistakes in heightened situations, but it is exponentially more likely that someone gets wounded or killed when a cop makes a mistake. That is what happened to David. So yes, it is dangerous for everyone, but this [discussion] isn’t about the danger everyone’s in. It’s about the disproportionate harm that one group is causing the other. [And I know you and I don’t want any more harm.]

The key to this (hypothetical) part of the response is in Alex positioning Becca and himself as a team opposing harm. Even if Becca might be hesitant about acquiescing to Alex’s premise entirely, she can surely agree with his “no more harm” assertion because it was a fundamental part of her own “dangerous world” premise. Full circle. Can you believe that’s where we started? It’s been a journey, but that doesn’t mean Alex is done. Real dialogues are fluid. They demand adaptability. Engaging them as an informed party member proves eventually exhausting, even assuming you carry a wide bandwidth. Yet you’ve gotten here, haven’t you? You want to start engaging with those in your realm of influence. That yearning to do ‘good’ is why you are here. The coming tenacity is why you will succeed.

6. Rinse & Repeat Over Time

I want to air out a necessary consequence you will face enacting this teaching technique, and a grim reality of this work as a whole. No matter how approachable you are to others, no matter how well you approach others, your best won’t always be enough. Not every teacher reaches every student. While often the arguable consequence of a poorly prioritized educational system, sometimes small interpersonal disconnects ruin a classroom relationship. Regardless of how good you are or how righteous your intent, we are not only operating under a social system that antagonizes this kind of talk, not only trying to imperfectly manage our own topical discomfort, we are then trying to bring others out of their comfort into our discomfort buried beneath that deeply inundating antagonism. You can’t convince everyone to abandon their familiar.

And you shouldn’t try to.

The truth of your un-success isn’t a statement I write to scare you away. It is an expectation best heard now to prime you against failure, which will aid your emotional recovery and prepare you to try again. Because, very soon, you will succeed. It might take several practice rounds, a chance encounter, as well as a bit of luck, but you will break through. Believe me, I wish this process were so persuasive that all it took was one conversation and, boom, your discussion partner is immediately on board. We call this work for a reason though. A supremely effective teacher never introduces an important lesson to suddenly move on without referencing it again. In the same way those good educators are willing to reiterate that lesson to us as much as they must until we get it, difficulty be damned, you, my coming-into-conscious reader, must be ready to do the same. Even the easiest-going #alm tenants whom you engage may not be ready to understand your challenges the first time. Or the second. They may get frustrated, want to get away from the conversation, stay away from you. Choose your battles wisely. Be cautious in your pursuit. And do not give up.

We got this.

More than anything, I hope reading these words today has given you the confidence to stand tall, and the know-how to speak up, then speak-to. To non-BIPOCs, I hope I have armed you with answers you have been desperately seeking, and provided you tools to inform your evolving advocacy. To BIPOCs, I appreciate you. They are listening. I hope we can allow ourselves to sneak a few glimpses at excitement for the future. And for everyone together, strengthened in number and growing stronger, I wrap this guide with a departing thought. Every teacher was once a student, bushy-tailed, brimming with peers eager to discuss ways they’d change the world. If you can tap into those mentalities — if you can convey the energy of a peer with the patience of a teacher — you may just create a new advocate for our team. You may just turn #alllivesmatter into #blacklivesmatter.

If you or your organization would like further advice or coaching on topics of racial justice, diversity, and any of the concepts mentioned above, please contact me at jxjirard@gmail.com. I look forward to your engagement. Thank you, and stay powerful.

Harvard Graduate School of Education Alum, Artistic Performer, Black Psych Enthusiast

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