Learning to Breathe | FiveFragments Against Racism

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For Dr. JLW, for all Black academics and students

1. Air Hunger

I know you, Derek Chauvin. You may think that we first met on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. I was called George Perry Floyd. For you, I was just another Black man, a potential criminal. For me, you were not a police officer, but the knee that stands for racism. You kneeled on my windpipe for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Those were neither my first nor my last memories.

You may choose not to recognize me, as you always have. But I do. I recognize every bone, muscle, tendon, pointy curve of the cap, every contour of your strong, heavy, determined, calculating, conniving knee that presses on my windpipe with a false sense of racist superiority. 9 minutes and 29 seconds. As often as you can.

We have a history. You have never missed the opportunity of kneeling on my windpipe. You hauled me into your slave ships from various African ports along the Atlantic, then you kneeled on my windpipe all over your cotton and tobacco plantations in the Americas. We met again on schooners from Indian shores journeying across the Indian and Pacific oceans. With slavery banned in the British empire, you turned me into an indentured laborer. You made me put my thumb imprint on a document you created, in a script I could not read, of a language I could not speak. Then you threw me thousands of miles away in Mauritius, Fiji, and numerous Caribbean islands, pressing on my windpipe on sugarcane plantations. My wife, children, sisters, mothers, aunts, brothers, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, we all have lived through those fatal 9 minutes and 29 seconds: on water and land. Repeatedly. Consistently. Incessantly.

You want specific dates? April 8, 1857, Barrackpore, Northern India. My name was Mangal Pandey, you called me a Sepoy. You hanged me for standing up against my subjugation by your British East India Company. Against your rule over my land and my people. With your many titles and names: Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, Lieutenant-General Sir Colin Campbell, Brigadier-General Charles Windham, you rampaged through the streets of Delhi, Meerut, Lucknow, killing anyone in your way so I could be a jewel in Victoria’s crown. January 29, 1863, Bear River, Idaho. I was one among the Shoshone of Bia Ogoi, you were Colonel Patrick Connor. You came to us on a frigid morning and killed us by the hundreds. November 15, 1884, the Congo Conference, Berlin. You were called Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and were acting at the behest of sharecropping interests of King Leopold the Second. Your name for me was a “savage.” You set up a society to civilize me while you plundered my bounty. You started drawing lines through land, rivers, mountains, deserts. For you, it was the Scramble for Africa. For me, bloody murder. You knelt on my windpipe, smoking a pipe with tobacco my people had grown. April 13, 1919, Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. You were called Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. For you, I was just a troublemaking native disrupting the civilized business of the Empire. You surrounded our peaceful gathering in Amritsar and opened fire. Your Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling claimed that “you did your duty as you saw fit.” By killing us in thousands until the bullets ran out. Rikki Tikki Tavi. May 31, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Inspired by Jim Crow, your knees came running to us in mobs to massacre us. October 19, 1926, Imperial Conference, London. Your name was Field Marshall the Right Honorable Jan Christian Smuts. For you, I was one among the many “colored” subjects from the Cape Colony. You spoke vehemently against mixing my people with your people. Eloquently, I was told, in favor of apartheid.

You know very well, Chauvin, that our acquaintance neither begins in 1857 nor ends in 1926. I could take you on a grand tour of the world and give you all the dates when you appeared in different forms. Your self-induced conviction of racial supremacy over me remained the same. May 10, 1933, Berlin. In the name of Adolf Hitler, you collected my entire library and burned all my books in a public pyre in front of the Faculty of Law of Humboldt University. According to you, my books and those of my ilk were “unerwünscht.” Then you sent me to concentration camps and killed six million of us. Then on August 11, 2017, you showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia. Your great leader wanted to make America great again. By taking America back from me. On February 19, 1942, you sent me to an American Japanese internment camp. On June 21, 2018, you visited me with the great leader’s wife in a detention camp in McAllen, Texas. On May 23, 1914, hundreds of us Sikhs were on the Japanese ship Komagata Maru, trying to get into Vancouver. You wouldn’t let us step foot on land. On August 5, 2012, you entered our Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire.

In the last seventy years we have met in many places: from Korea to Nicaragua, from Vietnam to Venezuela. Wherever you were breathing fresh winds of democracy down people’s necks, I was there. We met in Baghdad on April 10, 2003, the day my museum was looted. You tried teaching me that democracy is messy. We have met in Afghanistan surrounded by Soviet tanks and NATO fighter jets; then again at the Kabul airport on August 15, 2021. I just wanted my family to be safe. You denied my need for asylum by saying, “first we invade, then we are invaded.”

I remember all the names under which I have been shot on US soil: McKenzie Cochran, Eric Garner, Tanisha N. Anderson, Chad Robertson, Philando Castile, Stephon Alonzo Clark, Chinedu Okobi, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brent Charles Ramos, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, George Perry Floyd, and many thereafter and counting. Did all of us die in friendly fire? While jogging in our neighborhoods, walking through parks, sitting in our living rooms taking care of our loved ones?

Whether I am Mangal Pandey in 1857 or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, whether I am Sophie Magdalena Scholl in 1943 distributing pamphlets against the Nazis in Munich or Carol Jenkins in 1968 selling encyclopedias in Martinsville, Indiana, I have been killed many times. I am all of them.

2. Choking

You think you kill me off every time. You think that only moments before my death hurt: those 9 minutes and 29 seconds of lynching, hanging, shooting, badgering me with clubs, or simply kneeling on my windpipe. It’s simply not true. Do you know where your lingering, ongoing, shape-shifting racism really hurts?

Racism hurts on my skin. On the entire range of my beautiful complexion: wheat, almond, cocoa, coffee bean, black cumin (kala zeera). You roast my skin with your intense heat of hatred. Racism spreads on my Brown or Black skin, smoldering and creeping like lava flowing through rocks, like the forward thrusting line of a forest fire, incinerating every single follicle, every single cell, every pore, every body hair on its way, sizzling and hissing and trying to purposefully destroy me. I feel the entire casing of my body on fire, the heat inching shamelessly toward my muscles, tendons, nerves, joints, bones, marrow. And since your civilizing mission has hammered into my head that the knee only exists in my head and nowhere in the fair, democratic society that prides itself in its meritocracy, I lie on the pavement ashamed, telling myself that it is my fault that knee which comes with the force of a pot full of hot, boiling oil fell on me and is on my windpipe now. That I am responsible for the state of my own damage and disarray.

Racism hurts in my mouth. On my tongue, through my gums, breaking my jaws steadily, with the purposefulness of a hammer, while burning into my throat, threatening my first languages that I am so proud of. Your racism makes my languages nervous, smothering them in my windpipe. Whether, Arabic, Black or Indian English, Farsi, Gullah, Hindi, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Ojibwe, Punjabi, Shona, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Yiddish, or Xhosa. Your knee sends signals to my brain that the words that come out of my mouth in my language are unacceptable, and my accent in your language, which I have painstakingly acquired, is laughable. Kneeling on my windpipe, you tell me that the sounds that come of out of my mouth are not human, that they are more like cries of a beast gone mad than the sophisticated timbre of an educated, White, civilized human. That sounds from my first languages from far away, or next door, or my regiolect or ethnolect or sociolect, that surreptitiously inflect my vowels and consonants when I speak your language, have no business to be heard.

Racism hurts in my head. Your knee on my windpipe shakes my confidence in the ability of my brain, my ONE powerful weapon against the armada of your discrimination. Every surety or guarantee I had tried to give myself—by struggling against every single odd, every obstacle, climbing mountains and hills high and low, jumping across ravines that were propped up just to test the gumption of my wheat, almond, cocoa, coffee bean, black cumin skin—shakes in fear when your racism hits my intellect, my will power, my ability to survive, my adaptability and negotiating power of MY IDEAS in YOUR LANGUAGE! My belief in myself and my dignity burns as every inflammable cell of my body hisses, cracks, and lets out smoke. I feel as if someone took long, burning hot, sharp needles engraved in nasty words, and poked them deep into my ears and eyes and nose and made them reach the lobes of my brain, like they did to pharaohs when they were being mummified, and my brain fluid disintegrates and dances on those needles like morning dew on leaves and petals, and the hooks of those needles start pulling on my brain, breaking my cranium all at the same time.

Your words of indignation: whether whispered softly, masked in sophisticated vocabularies of equitable treatment for all, no special treatment for anyone, no safe spaces, no minority appeasement, etc. Or talked down to me: always asking for extra papers, credentials, Professional Activities Reports, raising the bar before I could blink an eye, not recognizing the higher bar I may have set, whether I were a gymnast or cleaning person or a professor. Or shouted at me: calling me hysterical, unhinged, disgruntled, telling me explicitly I do not belong, that I am unwanted, a strain on the budget, “unerwünscht” as the Nazis called it, that I am “unprofessional” because I asked hard questions of you. Telling me that I am replaceable, dispensable, my life is no more worth than a not, not: an ungeheures Ungeziefer—the emblematic Gregor Samsa turned into an insect—your words make my brain hurt.

All of these sensations of burning, sizzling, getting smoked alive start in my lungs. Dyspnea, the medical term for shortness of breath. Yes, as the Mayo Clinic entry states, “Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air.” Symptoms: “intense tightening in the chest, air hunger, difficulty breathing, breathlessness or a feeling of suffocation.” The very long list of causes of dyspnea range from Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) to Myasthenia Gravis (a condition causing muscle weakness).

Racism is not listed as a cause for intense tightening in the chest. Discrimination is not listed as a cause of air hunger. Social inequities are not listed as a cause for difficulty breathing. Militant display of supremacy of a society or nation’s racial or religious majority is not listed as a cause of breathlessness. Repeated assaults on human dignity by those drunk on power are not listed as reasons that might lead to a feeling of suffocation. That’s how I always die. That has been the cause of my death for centuries.

3. Wheezing

You ruled over kingdoms, empires, and East or West India Companies. And made offices or ministries of “Overseas Subjects” or “Race Relations” responsible for governing me. Now you rule through republics and corporate titles and shove me under “Minority Affairs” and “Offices of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” You used to come with grand titles: Brigadier General, Colonel, The Right Honorable, Lord, Viceroy, Emperor, Empress. Now you come with democratically elected titles: Governor, Prime Minister, President. Or corporate titles: CEO, Vice President, Associate Manager, Assistant Sales Supervisor, Corporate Diversity Liaison, Associate Dean, Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs.

You used to build “Civil Lines” along Kingsway Camp in colonies to stay away from me. Or forcibly displace me through treaties in the name of your manifest destiny. Or confine me to reservations or “tribal areas.” Now you redline me through the real estate market, telling me which house or condo or apartment “won’t quite work out” for me, directing me to mixed, urban, or “diverse” neighborhoods. Once you used my pictures in my traditional outfits to show the richness of the Commonwealth, an empire on which the sun never set. Now that the sun has set, you photoshop me onto brochures to show the richness and diversity of a nation, organization, or institution. Once you used to publish statements of appreciation for members of the Commonwealth or the empire. Now you post diversity statements and tell everyone how I enrich you through my presence. Once your title for me was simply native or colored staff. Now you call me diversity hire. I was #DiscountDiversity then…

NO. NOT ANYMORE. I am NOT the African figurine you bought online, the rug you acquired on your trip to Turkey, the sombrero you bought on a bacchanalian weekend in Mexico, that cheap replica of the Taj Mahal on your desk. I refuse to be your sanitized version of “Go Limp,” that famous Nina Simone song you listen to when you pour yourself some bourbon at the end of the day you spent kneeling on my windpipe. I AM NOT YOUR DISCOUNT DIVERSITY!

4. Gasping

What George Floyd experienced, that heavy, tyrannical knee that was placed on his windpipe as his face rubbed the pavement, that knee and Floyd’s screams, “I can’t breathe,” were just the visible and audible causes of his murder in broader daylight.

We all know that behind that knee was an America that had to be made great again. That America, a regime of knees, wanted to shut air supply in windpipes of all Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Black and Brown Americans. Migrants and refugees belonging to non-white races and religions have felt that America of authoritarian knees on our windpipes everywhere: on immigration counters, in supermarkets, on the streets as we drive, in our boardroom or executive committee meetings, during interviews in person, phone, or Zoom. That all-powerful regime of knees belonging to a great America that tells us that customers of our sort are not welcome and will be followed in stores, that knee that appears in front of our cars in uniform or rolls down its window while taking a break from texting while driving and screams: “Go back to where you came from!”

That powerful racist knee doesn’t just belong to a Derek Chauvin in uniform. It appears in universities, those revered temples of higher education, which at least in the US, have been accused of being the last bastions of left-liberal thought. Years ago, Chauvin’s knee manifested itself in simply not admitting qualified Black students or giving jobs to talented Black faculty. Now it appears hidden behind the thin veil of not one, but several diversity and solidarity statements, anti-racism trainings, commemorative plaques, climate surveys, and festive atmosphere of faculty-of-color receptions. Chauvin’s knee in the academe is always self-congratulatory, always self-satisfied, and self-confident that the statement on diversity or solidarity was drafted and posted, the DEI committee is up and running, the needed lip-service is done. Meanwhile, the unspoken, unwritten policy categorically stipulates suppressing and containing voices that resist racism and discrimination.

Chauvin’s knee hides behind degrees from prestigious institutions, which apparently take away its knee-ness and turn it into a gentle, caring hand. A person of color knows that the hand will suddenly appear in a search committee with a big can of racist kerosene and matchstick, and long, hot needles, engraved with phrases such as “good fit,” “quality control,” “diversity of ideas,” “program needs,” or (at least in European Studies) unachievable standards of “native or near-native proficiency in X-European language,” or “subfield-Y in discipline-Z, pre-1900.” That very knee outsources humanistic inquiry on colonialism, race, migration, and refuge to Departments of Native American, Asian American, African American Studies, completely convinced that there are “Core” and “Peripheral” European Literary studies, a superior and an inferior “diversified” canon, that “excellence” and “diversity” are mutually exclusive, and never the twain shall meet.

The same Derek Chauvin’s knee pounces on a person of color to kneel on their windpipe for questioning disciplinary or institutional status quo. That same knee—for the lack of a better expression—”Karens” a person of color: like an arsonist neighbor calling the fire brigade after setting someone’s body and house on fire. The same knee accuses persons of color of hostile and intimidating behavior when they speak up for their rights, banning the use of expressions such as “speaking as a person of color” because it is an “unsubstantiated accusation of racism.” It’s Derek Chauvin’s knee that “Hidden Figures” a faculty of color’s stellar contributions to scholarship and teaching. It’s the same knee that willfully renders faculty and students of color invisible and unheard.

5. Inhaling, Exhaling

I am writing this to come to terms with your murder, George Perry Floyd. The murder of many African Americans through police brutality, and assaults on Asian Americans during the pandemic, have triggered many painful memories. I did not know you before May 25, 2020. I got to know you the day you died from a video that went viral in an already viral world. Your face had been pushed to the ground, and a heavy knee, the heaviest knee ever was brutally placed on your neck, as you kept saying, “I can’t breathe.”

I knew, the whole world knew, that your air hunger, choking, wheezing, and gasping, was all because of racism. A very special kind of racism that exists only for people with dark, or darker, skins. Or some other kind of bodily feature outside the norm. I am alive to inhale and exhale today. You, unfortunately, are gone.

Bodies always become the instrument of racism. And racism always returns to wreak havoc on bodies. You knew it. Many of us knew it. That is what was happening in Minneapolis, on a fine day toward the end of May, at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. The shortness of your breath was not caused because you were born on October 14, 1973, or that circumstances led you to move from Texas to Minnesota. Circumstances force people to migrate or make mistakes. But some people’s migrations are welcome, and their mistakes overlooked. Others are declared guilty before proven innocent, and severely punished. Sometimes through attempts to assassinate their character, integrity, dignity, and identity. Other times through plain and simple assassination.

Unlike police reports, lawyers’ statements, journalistic articles, erudite analyses, and pithy tweets, I do not have a full-fledged story or an anti-racist theory. All I have is vigilance and remembrance, vigilance through remembrance.

What I have offered are some fragments, shards, malformed scars, twisted scabs of old wounds covered with little pieces of paper with notes written on them. I carry them on my migrant body, invisible to all, hidden carefully under my clothes, on my almond-cocoa skin with which I was born. And this is how I step out of my home. Not with vengeance, but vigilance and remembrance. With a smile on my face and a friendly greeting ready be delivered in my accent from far away. Chin up, I am ready to use my windpipe of color to foster tolerance, acceptance, and underscore justice. Justice for you, justice for us all.

Please consider these fragments my tribute to you, my humble attempt at honoring your memory. Your breathlessness was of a very special kind. It has recommitted me to fight against racism no matter what.

As long as I live, those 9 minutes and 29 seconds of your suffering will remind me of the real cause of your death: racism, inequality, differential treatment due to majoritarian supremacy, and assault on human dignity. As long as I live, I will make sure to speak up, no matter what obstacles are thrown on my path. As long as I live, I will use my windpipe, so no other Derek Chauvin kneels on necks of people of color.

I am learning to speak even louder. With every sob and sigh with which I have mourned for your and countless other precious lives, I am getting stronger. For a kinder future, a better tomorrow for everyone: White, Black, Brown. I am learning to breathe.

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