The One Thing I Wish My African Friends Understood About Black Lives Matter

One of the biggest realizations I have come to since moving to Ghana is the disconnect between social movements in both places. Some of my friends in Ghana are especially critical of the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in America. They have made a number of arguments/critiques about BLM that though valid on the surface, is ultimately misplaced because it is missing the nuance that experience brings.

There is one critique in particular I believe I can shed light on. That critique is any variation of this: " Black Lives Matter should focus on changing Black people's behavior because Black people do not behave well, and that is why these bad things happen them" or the reverse, "Black Lives Matter should focus on teaching Black people how to behave because if Black people behave better and stop fitting into the stereotypes, these bad happens will not happen to them". 

The Argument

First, it is important to note that the above critique is neither unique to Africans nor BLM. In fact, knowing to behave well and warning members in one's group to do so probably became a survival mechanism as soon as we organized our societies into hierarchies.

But, the phenomenon as it now exists in the Black community is called Respectability Politics. Respectability politics is "attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference".

Respectability politics becomes especially heightened during social movements and uprisings. As a matter of survival, complicity, or its own form of rebellion, members of the group tell other members to behave better, whether it means stop being angry, speaking the native tongue, or whatever form it may take during the time, to better protect themselves.

Respectability politics exists in the African American and African community, but to different ends.

Ghanaian Culture Especially Values Honor And Good Behavior

This Akan proverb speaks to the point: Animguase mfata Okanni ba. It means disgrace does not befit the child of an Akan.

Having lived in Ghana for over a year, I have become keenly aware of the fact that I do not only represent myself. I have largely understood this responsibility growing up in the African Diaspora, but never more deeply than when I moved to the continent.

Living in Ghana, I have a heightened awareness of the fact that everything I do is a reflection and representation of myself, my family, friends, grandparents, and the village I come from. I have come to carry myself with this understanding in mind.

It is from this experience that I can better understand my friends' critique of the Black Lives Matter Movement. My friends ascribe to respectability politics because it is something they ascribe to on a personal level and cultural level, and not something they wish to push on others alone. African culture says behave well and you will not have any problems with the law or get be harmed by others. My experiences in Ghana shows that this is generally true. 

Good Behavior In Black America

In America, my African Americans friends have less stringent views about familial and social expectations, but this is not to say that these expectations are entirely absent. As young Black people in America, we all largely embrace the American spirit of personal freedom and the right to self identification, creation, and expression.

Still, even absent strict familial/ tribal behavioral pressures, Black people in America navigate a reality many Africans may not be aware of, that of code switching, behaving or acting in a certain way to fit in the mainstream culture and/or to protect one's self from harm. Many Africans in the Diaspora quickly adopt this behavior when they live in America for a long time as well.

But even within this reality, good behavior and code switching does not keep Black people safe in America. Time and time again, video footage shows that Black people have not been able to protect themselves when they have done nothing wrong and have complied with the law, or behaved well.

This is true for Africans in America as well. The case of Amadou Diallo, a 22 Guinean immigrant in NYC, who was shot 41 times by cops when cops mistakenly took him pullinout his wallet for a gun is especially poignant. 

This is why BLM exists: because unlike is true in Ghana, good behavior does not guarantee one's safety in America. 

But Even If And When You Act Poorly, One's Punishment Should Not Be Death By Personal Will

And this is the one single thing argument I wish my African friends understood:  Where people do not follow laws in Ghana and Africa at large, they do so with some degree of impunity. I have seen people drink and smoke in public, loiter, litter, jaywalk, fight, over-speed, drunk drive, violate parking regulations, and commit all sorts of public nuisance activities which I know for a fact would land them in jail, if not dead, should the same be done in New York City, or the U.S. at large. Traffic violations are rampant to a frightening degree in Ghana, yet Ghanaians do not fear being shot or punished because of their violations. At the absolute worst, should a Ghanaian be caught for a public nuisance activity, she might be fined, which she can pay off immediately, and if she is put in jail, she will not die 3 days latter. 

The same is not true for Black people in America. 

The case of Sandra Bland, 28, Texas,, who was found hanged in her jail cell, began because she did not signal a lane change. 

Kalief Browder, 22, spent 3 years in jail, most of it in solitary confinement, because someone initially accused him of petty theft. 

This is why BLM exits. Above protests against single instances of good or bad behavior/ good or bad cop, I want my Ghanaian friends to understand that Black Lives Matter is a structural movement to address a biased and unfair justice and policing system that harshly punishes Black people for misdemeanors I have seen them (my Ghanaian friends) commit regularly without punishment. 

I hope the empathy this perspective demands will bring us closer than reason alone can.