Why The ‘All Lives Matter’ Folks Have It All Wrong

Reverse “isms” do not exist because racism, sexism, and heterosexism operate with the help of something beyond prejudice: power.

Say it with me: Individual prejudice is not the same thing as structural oppression.

Say this with me too: Reverse racism does not exist.

Following the grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Kevin Hart’s “not all black people/white people/cops” tweet has gotten a lot of circulation, which makes white people feel good because Kevin Hart is black.

The same goes for pictures of Martin Luther King captioned with sentiments like “This is not what Dr. King would have wanted,” referring to his plea that people be judged by character rather than skin color.

So the clear consensus from the “I don’t see color” set is that talking about race makes someone the real racist, as evidenced by the hijacking of campaigns like Black Lives Matter by the race-erasing All Lives Matter—an echo of the Yes All Women/Not All Men battle after this summer’s shootings in California.

If we are ever to have a real conversation about race in America, and one that extends beyond the momentary outrage bursting from our goldfish memories, we must learn to differentiate between individual prejudice and structural oppression.


My home state of Maryland is a veritable platter of racial dynamics. Appalachian western Maryland generally treats whiteness as the “default” and desired state of being: I know white folks who adamantly refuse to speak to their black neighbors, parents who seem socially progressive on the surface but would personally keel over if their child dated someone of another race, and of course, there’s your friendly neighborhood KKK rally at the Antietam Battlefield.

But drive an hour east toward Baltimore and D.C. and it’s an entirely different story, as the demographics change and the racial tension runs high. Oddly enough, I’ve experienced acts of individual prejudice directed at both whites and minorities: There was the moment in college that my roommates and I were deemed white bitches for asking the girls next door to turn their music down, and there have been a handful of times when, because of my almond-shaped eyes, black and Hispanic folks have called me a chink and even shoved me on the street after mistaking me for Asian.

All of the above instances are examples of prejudice on a personal—not structural—level, though it’s important to note that the first set is influenced by the lack of diversity in rural areas while the second set is shaped by urban poverty. Which brings me to structural oppression.

If you belong to one or more groups that enjoy structural advantages in America (white people, men, heterosexuals) and are unaware of these advantages, it is easy to regard isolated incidents of prejudice toward you as “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.” Though I’ve definitely had to unfollow individual bloggers because of the hateful vitriol they’ve expelled toward men and white people, the majority of online writers are not being discriminatory for simply addressing issues that women, racial minorities, and the LGBT community face every day.

Reverse “isms” do not exist because racism, sexism, and heterosexism operate with the help of something beyond prejudice: power.

Structural advantage is a lot like the Matrix: We are ignorant of its existence until someone unplugs us, and it requires our passive—not active—presence to function.  This is why flailing your arms and insisting “but I have black friends and I’ve never touched a woman the wrong way, so racism and sexism aren’t issues” is a fallacy: It’s not about you, it’s about institutions and mentalities that operate on a much larger scale.

To better understand these insidious “systems,” reading Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is a great place to start. McIntosh, a women’s studies professor, uses the intersection of gender and race to illuminate the “denied and protected” advantages enjoyed by dominant cultures. For example, acknowledging structural oppression in my day to day life as a white woman looks something like this:

As a white person, I can walk down the street without immediately drawing suspicion. I can browse aisles in a store without being heavily monitored. I can flip on the television and guarantee that the cast of my favorite shows—Sex and the City, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, How I Met Your Mother—will be white, like me. Likewise, I can count on most of my friends to be white. Dolls, toys, and makeup generally resemble people who look like me and skin tones that match mine. I can rest assured that I am viewed as innocent until proven guilty, and not the other way around.

As a woman, however, I can’t walk down the street without receiving unwelcome remarks. I will be paid considerably less over my lifetime than my male colleagues (but also considerably more than female colleagues of color). If I get pregnant, I may be temporarily let go from my job and denied benefits; if I wish not to be pregnant, I will have trouble finding benefits that cover birth control. The vast majority of lawmakers who regulate my reproductive rights do not share my anatomy. Above all, I can’t research and write about concerns specific to my gender without being told—and this is my personal favorite—that I should “tone down the feminism if I ever want to be married.”


The results of bringing McIntosh’s essay into units on intercultural communication have been pretty amazing—my students do not conflate examining these systems with making personal attacks. Instead, they understand that while John Doe may have never harassed a woman on the street, men collectively are taught every day that this behavior is excusable and even complimentary. That Jane Doe’s admirable work as a straight ally does not negate the fact that while her gay friends cannot marry in all 50 states, she still can.

Ferguson and the on-camera homicide of Eric Garner are receiving national attention not because of an interest in “race-baiting” or “wallowing” in pre-Civil Rights Movement oppression, but because assigning unquestioned power to certain institutions clouds our ability to call out even the most obvious incidents of bad behavior. This is why most victims of sexual assault in the military fear punishment for coming forward, and citizens who report rape by college athletes and beatings by police officers are told that they should “be really careful what they say”—a familiar refrain to anyone who has ever made allegations against a person with leverage. More often than not, America’s first priority is image and brand protection.

I was recently talking to a retired federal officer about Yvette Cade, the Maryland woman whose ex-husband set her on fire after a judge trivialized her domestic abuse case. “The most important thing I’ve learned in the courts,” he said, “is that unless you are a man, you do not matter.” The point of Black Lives Matter, like Yes All Women, is that some lives have mattered all along. Others are still trying.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the mediaFind her on Twitter.

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