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By Dr. Tonisha M. Pinckney

“I can’t breathe!” As a Black woman, I reflect on the power of those words. They are too familiar, but not just because they are a refrain locked within the last words and moments of too many dead Black men. They are a part of the lexicon of Blacks living in America. I also have uttered those words. We cannot breathe. What does that mean? It means we (Black people, humans) cannot (want to but are not allowed to) breathe (are suffocating from the strangling hold of racism). We cannot breathe!

In many of our protests, we focus on the dead. We say their names. We celebrate their lives. We hope that their deaths will bring awareness that they were once living with the pain of racism. We reflect on the fact that their last act on earth was to fight against racism — to protest their own death. Yet, we still wait. We hope that the name we last shouted during a protest, in this case George Floyd, will be the last name we mourn. Yet, we know, unfortunately, there will be more names. We know that many names are not publicized or openly grieved. We know that racism claims our lives, in many ways, every single day.

We are fighting to breathe!

“I can’t breathe” is uttered by Black men and women who have anxiety attacks at work due to racial discrimination, bias, abuse, and bullying. We are fighting to breathe when we must work twice as hard to get recognized half as much. We try to take a breath when we are passionate about advocating for our families, and we are called “angry Black women.” We try to inhale, just for a moment, when we see our non-Black counterparts purposefully exclude us from conversations and meetings. We try our very best to breathe when non-Blacks discount our education and expertise, ignore or take ownership of our opinions or suggestions, try to debase or degrade us as co-workers or leaders, and when we become the target of intraoffice jokes, rumors, and gossip. Black people are continually grasping our chest and pulling at our clothes, saying, “I can’t breathe!”

We are fighting to breathe when we must work twice as hard to get recognized half as much. We try to take a breath when we are passionate about advocating for our families, and we are called “angry Black women.” We try to inhale, just for a moment, when we see our non-Black counterparts purposefully exclude us from conversations and meetings. We try our very best to breathe when non-Blacks discount our education and expertise, ignore or take ownership of our opinions or suggestions, try to debase or degrade us as co-workers or leaders, and when we become the target of intraoffice jokes, rumors, and gossip. Black people are continually grasping our chest and pulling at our clothes, saying, “I can’t breathe!”

Black people are suffocating financially from a system that does not allow for equitable advancement — credit scores, unemployment, under-employment, employment discrimination, higher interest rates, lower rates of approval, higher housing prices, gentrification without community involvement, and more. We are choking from the stench rising from the inequitable banking and credit scoring systems.

We asphyxiate from poverty, inequitable K-12 education and materials, and significantly less access to physical and mental health care. So, yes, we stand, and we protest by shouting out, “I can’t breathe.” We will be able to breathe when we do not have to hold our breath when driving while Black anywhere in America. We will no longer feel faint from the smothering feeling of being followed in a store just because we are Black — no other reason. When we no longer have to explain to our children that even your respect will be misinterpreted as sarcasm, sassiness, or flippantly. Or when we have to instruct our children on how to protect themselves from the very law enforcement who swore to protect them.

Yes, we are gasping for air, with the knee of systemic discrimination bearing down on our necks, when we are at an individualized education plan (IEP) meeting with our children. We see they are not getting the services and resources given freely to their White or affluent classmates. Yet, there is an expectation, even encouragement, to “take it easy” and “not be so sensitive.” Can we breathe? Can we live?

We walk down the street with racism on our backs. We feel as if we are always watched, followed, and critically assessed without racists having a cause or a reason. We are trying to breathe. Not only do Black lives matter, but our livelihoods and well-being matter too.

It is hard to breathe when told that we do not care about our own lives (“Black on Black crime”) when we actually value our lives so much that we want you to stop killing us! Since crime is predominantly intraracial, and we know that offenders most often victimize people they know or are acquainted with, we can understand that Whites will more likely victimize Whites and Blacks would likely victimize Blacks. The same is true with other groups and cultures. We know that the term “Black on Black crime” gives a false narrative that we are more criminal, even savage-like when it comes to crimes and offenses within our neighborhoods and communities. We want to breathe. We are struggling every day to breathe. The knee of injustice firmly pressing down on our necks, our hands tied behind our backs, we wait while screaming for our ancestors and God to deliver us.

We walk down the street with racism on our backs. We feel as if we are always watched, followed, and critically assessed without racists having a cause or a reason. We are trying to breathe. Not only do Black lives matter, but our livelihoods and well-being matter too.

We are fighting to the death to stay alive mentally, physically (health), spiritually, emotionally, and financially. Only to have some police officer take our last breath. Only to have a privileged and entitled racist shoot us while running. Only to have a racist call the police on us for sitting, walking, breathing in a public place — because we are Black.

Only to have a SWAT team kill us in our own homes. How are we supposed to breathe? Could you breathe? Could you breathe if you were a Black police officer who was berated by your colleagues? Could you breathe knowing that if someone, anyone, harms you, the criminal justice system will likely look at your victimization as being your fault? Could you breathe if your family and friends were dying at alarming rates due to COVID-19 because there is inadequate access to health care or just plain care, empathy, and sympathy?

As Rev. Al Sharpton said during his eulogy of George Floyd, “get your knee off our necks!” We can’t breathe. We can’t live! The Black struggle extends far beyond not wanting to die — CAN WE LIVE? That is the ultimate question — can we live? We need to breathe in order to live. We need to have access in order to live. Why are we still fighting to be treated as humans? Some people and groups advocate to protect animals (as we should) and save the planet (as we must). Still, they have no problem with institutional and systemic maltreatment and abuse of Blacks (fellow humans).

Yes, I can offer to help with solutions. Yes, I am tired of reiterating the problem in so many different forms and ways. Yet, I cannot rest because we cannot live. I cannot rest because too many of us cannot rest in peace. We are in a state of racial and political unrest because you must become uncomfortable with marginalizing, dehumanizing, debasing, degrading, and disenfranchising an entire race of people. So, we fight for each breath.

The other day, I was so overwhelmed that I hugged my 21-year-old son and sobbed in his arms. I keep picturing him at a local protest lying face down, on the ground, hands behind his back, shouting, “I can’t breathe.” He was protesting, but that image is my greatest fear — that one day, my son will be another name that we must chant and march and honor in death.

My goal is not to debase myself by debasing others. Being anti-police, or anti-White, or anti-male, will not solve the problem. I am, and we must be, pro-justice, pro-human, and pro-equality. I know it is hard (for some) not to blame an entire race or group of people. As Blacks, it can be hard to remember that in doing so, we would be no different than the racists and perpetrators of otherism.

We cannot deny over 400 years of pain. We also cannot deny our progress. We, also, cannot deny that our progress is being eroded by the current political climate and those willing to accept discriminatory, divisive, and hateful acts as acceptable and common.

Silence, in this case, is consent. Silence, when it comes to race, is permission. If you remain quiet, you are giving racist individuals, groups, and systems permission to take our last breath!

Can we know what it feels like to live without a knee on our neck?

So, I ask again, CAN WE LIVE?

This piece was originally published at Medium @AskDrToni . https://medium.com/@askdrtoni/can-we-live-drtoni-c48e9edc6cf6

Dr. Tonisha M. Pinckney

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