I remember the first time I talked about Black Lives Matter in a classroom that someone voiced “but all lives matter”. I feel like I had been coasting along, talking about the BLM movement for a couple of semesters, when one evening (because of course it was a night class at the end of a long day) one of my students said she thought the statement “All lives matter” was a better reflection of her beliefs and perspective, both as a person of faith and as a social worker to be. I was taken off guard, though I shouldn’t have been, because I know social work students (just like social workers) are not uniform in how we interpret and experience the world around us. However, I was taken off guard, and my first response, to buy me some time, was the old professor standby: asking a question to the class as a whole, of “what arguments have you all heard about why this response is or is not an appropriate response to the statement that ‘Black lives matter’?”
We had some discussion and mercifully, the end of class came. I was dissatisfied in my ability to respond to the student in a way that held space for everyone, in a way that was promoting critical thinking, and in a way that was intentionally inclusive for the (small number) of Black students in the room. So, I thought about it and came back to the class the next week with the image below and used this to lead off discussion. (This particular class meets once each week and I make an announcement a few days before the class to let students know what “the plan” for the class is, so they were clued in to the fact we would be picking up this topic again.) The original source of the image below is https://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2016/07/07/all-houses-matter-the-extended-cut/
I had also used the time between classes to think about my own honest response as to why I find the phrase “all lives matter” problematic. I shared this with the student who raised the issue in the previous class in a private email, because I wanted her to know she had helped me by asking her question, and I also wanted her to know why I was bringing the topic back up again and that it wasn’t “at” her, but that I hoped it would be a learning moment for all of us.
The use of the graphic and me sharing my thoughts in a transparent way were both helpful in “furthering the work” of the conversation. And, though I wish I had had “the best” response in the moment of the original question, coming back to it the following week also modeled for students that it is okay to not have perfect words, but that what is required is willingness to keep thinking and keep growing.
If you are looking for other creative ways to help students think through this same question, I thought this list was helpful as well: https://www.vox.com/2016/7/11/12136140/black-all-lives-matter