Here in the United States, we have started a conversation. We hear it on the nightly news, see it in the ‘breaking news’ alerts on our phones, and watch it unfold live on social media.
Tens of thousands of people are gathering in cities and towns across the country to demand justice, advocate for change, and remember those who lost their lives. They carry homemade signs of cardboard, bearing the words “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice No Peace.” They shout these words, often in unison.
They’re talking about racism. In particular, systemic racism by whites, directed toward blacks.
Showing up, carrying signs with these words, and saying these words out loud is incredibly powerful. Particularly, because it makes it difficult for anyone who is watching or listening, live or hours later, to look the other way, albeit how uncomfortable the topic. And talking about the topic of racism is uncomfortable.
It’s even more uncomfortable, but even harder to overlook, when someone we know is involved.
I am white. When I see one of my white former college classmates protesting, or when I see a post from a white high school friend chronicling an experience she had in which she was granted white privilege, I know I can no longer pretend that racial equality exists in America. I can no longer believe that we as a society exhibit fair treatment of all races, not just whites. I can no longer pretend that because there was a Civil Rights Movements decades before I was born, that our work for the fair and equal treatment of blacks is done.
The most uncomfortable, and perhaps most effective, statements is “Say Their Names.”
‘Say Their Names’ connects an actual person, someone who was living and breathing, to police brutality as a result of racism. Suddenly, the most uncomfortable outcome of racial inequality, white privilege, and racism – violence and death – becomes real.
When I hear thousands of people shouting “Say Their Names, Black Lives Matter,” followed by the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and many other black individuals who died in recent years as a result of police brutality, I experience a profound feeling of sadness. And disappointment. I am sad, albeit heartbroken, for the families of these individuals. I am devastated for their friends, for their employers, for their neighbors, for the people they passed on the street and in the grocery store. I think of the things they can no longer do, like buy lottery tickets at a convenience store, or go for a jog, or stop at a Wendy’s drive through. I realize that I, and many others who are white, can still do those things without fear. I am disappointed, but I am motivated to take action.
I’ve recently started working in suicide prevention and awareness, and I’ve witnessed the powerful effect of ‘Say Their Names’ in this space.
Years ago, I lost my brother John to suicide. John died by suicide as a result of mental illness. In 2009, when he died, this type of death was not discussed in public. His obituary, like many others, read that he “died suddenly at his residence.” While I respect the right of the family, and my family, to keep the manner of death private, I use this as an example of a topic, suicide, that is often too uncomfortable talk about, and thus too uncomfortable to connect to a name.
Suicide is an incredibly violent act. And the unknown factor of mental illness is scary, because we can’t possibly feel, so we can’t fully understand, the symptoms that someone with mental illness is experiencing. So it’s even scarier to imagine that someone would seek relief from those symptoms by taking his or her or their own life. I never wanted to believe that John would do this. So I told myself he wouldn’t. I pretended he was OK. Until it was too late.
I spent years after John’s death doing one of two things when it was natural to mention him in a conversation: 1) omitting him from the conversation, 2) saying that he died and not saying how. I did both of these things out of the fear of making others uncomfortable.
When I started working in suicide prevention, I started saying, “My brother died by suicide.” I didn’t realize until a fellow advocate told me that I wasn’t using his name.
Lately, I’ve started saying, “My brother John died by suicide.” I’ve even added more details, like the year, and his age. The more details I add, the more the audience can experience John’s story. The more real the idea becomes that anyone, even someone we know and love, can be a victim of suicide.
Since I’ve started sharing these details about John, the number of people I know, and I don’t know, who have approached me and shared their own experience with suicide, the number of conversations I’ve had, and the quality of those conversations, has increased tenfold.
We have to stop pretending that the treatment of blacks is fair and OK. We have to stop worrying about making others uncomfortable by talking about racism. We have to say their names.
The #SayTheirNames campaign was inspired by the #SayHerName campaign, which was started in 2014 by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) to bring awareness of the names and stories of black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence, and to provide support to their families.
Read more about #SayHerName here: https://aapf.org/sayhername
Learn more about Black Lives Matter here: https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
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