A few weeks ago, I was stumped. I couldn’t figure out why the Black Lives Matter protests were so different this time round.
I looked at every angle (or thought I had) for something that was new. This wasn’t the first time that black people had died at the hands of the police in the United States, nor was it the first time it had been caught on camera. None of the factors that people were attributing the momentum to were new.
I spoke with my colleagues about my frustration with the phenomenon on a group call, explaining how I kept running into a brick wall searching for what was new in this movement: it’s not social media, cable news, or young people – they’ve all been around before. The only thing I could think of was that perhaps the lockdown had eliminated some of the distractions that usually get in the way of calls for racial justice cutting through. But even this didn’t seem like a convincing enough reason for what has now been determined as the largest protest movement in US history, and arguably in the entire world.
How I changed my perspective
But then my whole perspective changed. A younger colleague got in touch with me after the call and gently challenged a view I’d been sure of: that "young people aren’t new". A certain type of young person, she said – such as herself, one of the first people of colour in her Italian high school – was new.
I didn’t need much convincing. There it was as clear as day. What was different this time – what was "new" – was that there is an entire generation of young people who, this time, are enabled to play a pivotal part in these protests in a way they were not in the past. These young people are pressing ahead. Whether it’s millennial African Americans, or second generation immigrants who, like my colleague, were some of the first black and brown people in their schools, university classes, and workplaces, they are the "new" element in the movement, and they have become a powerful driving force.
I began picking this thread and what unravelled rapidly was a story that seemed to challenge all the grim headlines about the race war apocalypse. It was right there in front of my eyes and I couldn’t see it.
We see further when we expand our frames of research
I have thought a lot about why I wasn’t able to see it until alerted to it by someone else and the answer is simple: I’m not of that generation and so I lacked all the touchstones that would have made that perspective intuitive to me.
What has served me well so far in writing about politics is following my gut. But I’m finally at an age where my instincts need to be supplemented by listening to people whose experience I don’t share. It’s an important lesson to learn; when it seems like you have no answer, it doesn’t mean there is none. It means you need to expand your frames of research outside what is familiar to you.
I finally wrote my piece on why Black Lives Matter is being received differently this time , but only after being nudged in a different direction. It will be published this Thursday. If you learn anything new from it, credit goes to Sabrina Argoub.