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How White People Can Advocate For The Black Lives Matter Movement

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Uzodinma Iweala went to a rally at Black Lives Matter protests last month, he noticed white people holding up signs - white parents for the prevention of Karens and white supremacy is the virus. Dr. Iweala - who's an author and CEO of The Africa Center - wrote in Vanity Fair that some of those signs made him feel uncomfortable. Dr. Iweala joins us from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

UZODINMA IWEALA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And what didn't you like about some of those signs?

IWEALA: Well, first, I want to start off by saying that I'm in support of people coming out to protest. And I think that what we're seeing now, this groundswell of support for Black lives, is a really positive and important thing. It's an important development. I think what made me a little bit uncomfortable was it seemed that some of those signs didn't really get to the core of why we were out there screaming. And they seemed decenter the experience of Black people and make it not about the core thing, which is Black lives and the importance of respecting and supporting Black people here in the United States, and they made it about something else. And that's what made me uncomfortable.

SIMON: They made it about themselves.

IWEALA: Yeah, I think, you know, for example, if you're looking at a sign at a protest in support of Black lives that is focused on this idea of white parents for the prevention of Karens, and that was held up by a white man who was standing next to his young daughter, that really is not a sign, in my mind, about supporting Black people. That's making a statement - a witty one, right? - about who you are. I'm grateful to people for coming out to protest and to sort of stand in solidarity. But I think you have to pay attention to the words that you're using and whether you centering yourself in this discussion or whether you're actively getting out there and saying I'm supporting Black lives.

SIMON: Recognizing that, you know, as an author, as you know, there's only so many words that'll go on to a sign, what would be better?

IWEALA: Right. I suppose that working with words is what I do. And I think that what I'm advocating for is - being out there is step one. Step two is, how do you get into really thinking very thoroughly about what it means to protest in support of Black lives? How do you think very thoroughly about what you're saying? Are you actually really applying deep thought to what it means to, say, have a sign that says defund white supremacy or, you know, white supremacy is a virus. Like - and I go into this in the article, that you have to really take a step back and think about context, think about history and think about your own positioning. When you've done that, I think you have a very different approach to the slogans and the chants and the cheers that you put together as you protest.

SIMON: How do you see that work and what do you think people have to come to realize?

IWEALA: It's work that really involves going back into the history of this country and the narratives that have dominated discussion about Black people, about race and racism. For example, when we start talking about monuments, are people really aware when many of those monuments went up? Are people aware that those monuments were a reaction to or a rewriting of a narrative of defeat? Are we really looking at how some of the systems that exist today have been constructed to keep Black people down? And are we also paying attention to what dismantling those systems will do to the way that so many people live?

There are a lot of folks here who live with a certain sense of comfort and safety. And I would say that, you know, the white population in the United States has that comfort and safety. And to undo systems that have, for centuries, promoted the safety of one set of people over the expense of another is not an overnight proposition, nor is it a painless proposition. And I think frivolous signs, you know, - as much as they are in the energy of a moment and they're a starting point for people - don't necessarily get at that. And what I worry about sometimes is when people really take a step back and realize the intensity of the work and the duration of the work that needs to be done. Then, you know, those signs quickly find their way into the dustbin and people are like, well, this might be a little bit difficult, so let me go about my business as usual.

SIMON: We've been talking a lot about the idea of white privilege in circles of the media. As I don't have to tell you, a lot of people in America - white people - don't feel entitled. Their families are from immigrant backgrounds. They've had their own stories about fleeing persecution - even extinction stories - signs that said no Irish, no Blacks or Jews, no Chinese. How do you explain why comparing that experience to that of Black Americans might be offensive?

IWEALA: Look, what's really important to understand is that there has been a very consistent and determined undermining of the rights of Black people from the inception of this country, and that's a very specific thing. It doesn't take away from the struggles of any other group, and this is not a comparison thing. What it is to say is that when someone is talking about Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter doesn't mean other lives don't matter. But it is saying let's focus the conversation for this particular moment. And you cannot have change without a focused conversation. Again, it goes back to the signs, right? You need to be very careful and deliberate about what it is that you're saying and the message that you're putting out to people.

So focus the conversation. If we're talking about Black lives, if we're talking about injustices that Black people have experienced over centuries, if we're talking about the deliberate writing of Black people out of the development of this great nation, then you need to very specifically focus on Black people. And that doesn't mean that other people don't matter. It just means that right now we're talking about Black people and the issues of inequality that Black people have faced.

SIMON: Uzodinma Iweala, who's CEO of The Africa Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., thanks so much for being with us.

IWEALA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUPLEKITA'S "HAND IT TO THE KIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.