At the Beginning, There Was the Mask

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There is a long history to be told about the links between the economy of extractivism and exhaustion, between colonialism, race, capitalism, imperialism, and breathing, which could be summarized as the “struggle against suffocation and for life.” Colonialism (slavery and post-slavery), race, and capitalism are all about un-breathing, about the toxicity of social, cultural, sexual and “natural” environments, about silencing, erasing voices, cutting tongues, forbidding speech, fabricating a deadly form of quietude, requiring mute consent to injustices and inequalities. They play on restricting human lungs and on colonizing the lungs of the planet. In their world, one no longer breathes freely, one can no longer finds her voice, one learns to whisper. It is not the whisper of underground resistance, of words circulating from mouth to mouth to signal where is the next refuge, the next sanctuary, the cache for arms, the false papers, the hidden routes of escape and marooning. It is the murmur of someone beaten and tortured until mad with pain, when breathing has become an ordeal.

When we say, “We are suffocating” or “The air has become unbreathable!” we are not just talking of polluted air but of the feeling of living in a deleterious and asphyxiating political regime, which involves social censorship and self-censorship. Fear sets in, we only speak in hushed tones. Under such a regime, political order demands civilized speech, disciplined expression; the authorized music is “national,” “military,” patriarchal, or of a reinvented tradition. The joy must be measured and the words of the songs and public speech be neutral or to the glory of the regime. The authoritarian regime may even appropriate a song of freedom as its hymn, a bitter paradox where the words of freedom are confiscated to justify oppression. The body is corseted, the voice muzzled, the lungs function faintly, they transcribe our feelings in their rhythm, accelerating or slowing down. When songs and cries of freedom nonetheless arise, defying the regime of silencing and un-breathing, they sharply shatter the feeling of physical and psychic suffocation, the feeling that words remain in our throat, that our voice cannot come out. Suddenly, we catch our breath. We respire, inhale, exhale, fill our lungs. And we reconnect  ourselves with the etymological meaning of respire: from Latin re (again) and spirare itself from Latin spiritus “a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath; breath of a god,” hence “inspiration; breath of life,” hence “life,” also “disposition, character; high spirit, vigor, courage” (Harper). Life, vigor, and courage, the breathing of the oppressed break down the politics of suffocation.

I can’t breathe” were the last words of George Floyd, not long before exhaling his last breath. When across the world, during 2020, people were shouting in many languages, “I can’t breathe” using all their breath, they were, by the thousands, making their voices heard, rupturing the silencing of racism. “I can’t breathe” became a breathing cry. Breathing became resistance. Singing collectively was breathing together. The song soars from thousands of breasts. The human voice, alone or collective carries an emotional force within it, vibrates sensually. But one may say, this has been, and can still be, the expression of fascism, of toxic masculinity and lynching mobs. When is breathing a revolutionary practice then? When we retrace the racial history of suffocation and breathing, of the colonial/ imperialist military noise vs. songs of freedom, of breathing as a politics toward humanizing the world. In other words, when we show how polluted air and noise are central elements in racial and gendered exploitation and how the antiracist struggle against pollution and suffocation is a struggle against racial capitalism. When we learn that recent medical research links air pollution to delayed cognitive development, stunted growth, and reduced lung capacity in children, we understand that the pretense of the universal right to childhood is a lie. Racism condemns Black, Indigenous and Brown children to premature death. According to the World Health Organization, more people are dying every year of polluted air than of any other cause. The role of air pollution in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, in conditions such as asthma and a whole host of heart and lung diseases, known to medicine for decades, shows that the right to breathe is not a universal right. It is not equally distributed. Death by suffocation is not only caused by police violence, political repression and censorship, but by historical-environmental design. Exploitation is suffocation, colonialism is asphyxiation, imperialism is strangulation, racism is snuffing.

The noise of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism that takes so many forms–radio and TV, military music, exploding bombs, guns, shouted police orders, screams against prisoners, white noise, machines in factories, mines, and malls, the constant humming of mammoth computers digesting billions of data points, the noise of drones, police sirens—this endless background, this ceaseless drumming of contradictory injunctions, is there to create deep fatigue, exhaustion and insensitivity of feelings. Racial gendered capitalism builds a hostile and toxic environment to Black, Indigenous and Brown lives through air pollution, police violence, stress, and exhaustion, and a permanent state of war that leaves behind ruins and pollution whose consequences linger for generations. Minamata mercury catastrophy,1The name corresponds to the name of the Minamata Bay in Kumamoto prefecture where the disease was first identified. During 1932-1968 local residents, especially fisher families have been suffering from a variety of symptoms. The cause (recognized in 1958) was the release of methylmercury in the industrial waste by Chisso Corporation Factory over a period of 36 years. The disease was caused by the consumption of heavy metals which the victims ingested through contaminated fish. Fishermen demanded compensation for fishing families to damage to fishing grounds. Fishermen demanded ¥100.000.000 but they only received ¥35.000.000 (less than $100,000). On 2 November 1959 the fishermen stormed the Chisso factory, destroying machinery. The riot police arrested them (Torrente). Agent Orange in Operation Ranch Hand,2The codename for the spray of more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971, Agent Orange, which contained the deadly chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used herbicide. It was later proven to cause serious health issues—including cancer, birth defects, rashes and severe psychological and neurological problems. Union Carbide Factory leak in Bhopal,3The Bhopal catastrophe was caused by a toxic industrial chemical leakage accident from a chemical factory situated in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in India in 1984. It is still regarded as the worst industrial disaster in the world. Methyl isocyanate (MIC), a pesticide raw material with a greater inhalational toxicity than phosgene, leaked from a storage tank in a Union Carbide factory making pesticides. The total death toll was 14,410 people. The number injured in both short and long-term has been said to be 200,000 to 300,000 people in a population of 800,000 in Bhopal (see Baia Mare Cyanide Spill,4Baia Mare, Romania. January 2000: 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-contaminated waste leaked out from a dam, releasing in large quantities 100 tons of cyanide into the Somes, Tisza and Danube rivers. There was enormous loss of aquatic life. Abundant numbers of aquatic plants and fish died and up to about 100 people were admitted into hospital for poisoning-related cases after consuming contaminated fish. Tests found cyanide levels between 300 and 700 times beyond pollution standards. nuclear tests in the Pacific, pesticides in banana and sugar plantations, burning fossils, toxicities caused by conditions in agro-business in slaughterhouses and mega-farms, toxic waste facilities situated in communities of color as the intentional result of local and state land-use policies, musculoskeletal pains and the effects of stress, sexual and racial violence on cleaners, cashiers, in all the “essential” underpaid and under-qualified jobs, mines opening veins across the planet, militarization and privatization of seas to facilitate extraction and exploitation, all this (and the list is far from complete) shows that the environment is racialized. Meanwhile, for the privileged and lucky few, neoliberal racial capitalism creates green and quiet spaces cleaned and serviced by the many who are sent back to polluted neighborhoods. It offers spaces for meditation and quietness where the neoliberal white body can replenish herself, calm neighborhoods where she hears birds and children’s carefree laughs or the reassuring sound of a lawn mower. Breathing for the few is made possible by the suffocation of the many, by covering the planet with the waste of consumption of the white world, waste that contributes to suffocation and must be hidden from the white gaze.

The history of progress in breathing was predicated upon externalizing un-breathing. If life was shortened for workers in the West during the Industrial Revolution, because of the release of high levels of nitrogen oxides, soot, and sulfur dioxide, and the disposal of toxic waste in rivers, post-slavery imperialism brought some reforms and racial capitalism learned to better dissimulate the consequences of the toxic environment it builds. Capitalism being the production of waste, it produces the suffocation of land, water, soil, subsoil, seas. The mining industry, “which has played an important role in improving the economic aspect of a country,” has become a major cause of death and disease in the world (Mishra and Das; Chepkemoi; Bellinger), its discharge of millions of gallons of water every day to adjacent water courses causing water pollution problems in and around the mining areas. Mine water discharge also forms the main source of various water supplies in the thickly populated coal fields. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic elements are often present in the air, soil and water of these environments. These pollutants can damage the health of people living near the mining site, and diseases of the respiratory system and allergies can be triggered by the inhalation of airborne particles. Though countries in the Global South and in the Global North and communities of color remain the most affected by air pollution, racial capitalism is so hungry for energy that even white communities are more and more affected in eastern European countries where western countries are dumping all kinds of waste to be burned or used as fuel in factories (Barberá). Add to all the industries that provoke asthma, diseases, and shortened lives (mining, clothes, food, chemical, cleaning, caring…), the war industry which is a great polluter and a death machine that is never satiated. It is not that violence is new but that the colonial/racial model of extraction, exhaustion, and suffocation has been extended over the planet. Making the air irrespirable is not just a matter of polluted air, it is also a political strategy against peoples of color. “I can’t breathe” brings to light the objectives of the neoliberal, racist politics of imminent death. Levels upon levels of waste, racism, neoliberalism, imperialism, are asphyxiating the planet, animals, plants, seas, oceans, rivers, and peoples. They are creating a planet as hot and deserted as Mars, which may explain the fascination that this planet exercises on billionaires.

At the beginning, there was the mask…

At the beginning, there was the mask that the white owner forced on the enslaved. It was a tool of torture that covered the mouth, hindering breathing and speaking, and forbidding eating. It was “composed of a bit, placed inside the mouth of the Black subject, clamped between the tongue and the jaw, and fixed behind the head with two strings: one surrounding the chin and the second surrounding the nose and the forehead. Formally, the mask was used by white masters to prevent enslaved Africans from eating sugar cane or cocoa beans, while working on the plantations, but its primary function was to implement a sense of speechlessness and fear, inasmuch as the mouth was at the same time a place of muteness and a place of torture” (Kilomba; emphasis added). It was a sign of possession, Grada Kilomba remarks and she adds, “One can (only) speak, when one’s voice is listened [to]. Within this dialect, those who are listened [to], are also those who ‘belong.’And those who are not listened [to], become those who ‘do not belong.’ The mask re-creates this project of silencing, it controls the possibility that the colonized might one day be listened [to] and consequently might belong to the center” (emphasis added). The mask was put on women and men alike, the European binary of gender not operating as rigidly for the enslaved, Black women being worked, punished and tortured as harshly as Black men.

Could we then extend the meaning of the mask of slavery to describe the racial and class politics of suffocation? It is to torture by muting and to mute through torture; it is the current legitimized practice of waterboarding, whereby an interrogator straps a prisoner to a board, places a wet rag in her/his mouth, and by pouring water through the rag induces controlled drowning;5See Borger; Rosenberg. it is a fabricated toxic environment that attacks non-white lungs; it is the result of the economy of extraction-increased droughts, desertification, privatization and commodification of water (a human being does not survive long if deprived of water; drinking and breathing are related), climate vulnerability, extension of sacrifice zones.

The struggle for a universal right to breathe is a revolutionary, feminist, queer, Indigenous, Black struggle. Only the dismantling of the racial/patriarchal regime under which we have been living for centuries will guarantee that right. Green capitalism will ameliorate breathing for a little more than the few but as long as brutal extractivism–of resources, of the life force of humans, and all the living–as long as silencing founds the social order, unbreathing will continue to distribute unevenly the right to open one’s lungs and fill them with pure air. For now, the solidarity with those who are fighting against polluting industries and any project that leads to increased poverty and environmental devastation, against the imperialist wars and colonial occupation, and for the unveiling of industries’ lies and dissimulations, testifies to the long history of fighting for the right of the oppressed to breathe. The struggles of the wretched of the earth nourish the breath of liberation for all and with all.

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