The Air We Breathe

Christina Utley
Nov 10, 2018 · 6 min read
Image by Samara Doole

I may be from St. Louis, but my living experience was more that of an upper-middle-class suburb than that of an urban area.

I grew up with money, though I didn’t understand how much. My parents taught me how to be frugal. Third grade Christina saved up for so long to buy a Furby! Using what I learned from my family and what I saw in my community, I forged my own views on money: informed spending over proactive earning. Tighten the budget until your bank account feels like your belt is cutting off circulation…and then, if absolutely necessary, hustle for more revenue streams. Before we dedicate much more time to financial strategy though, let me say that’s not why I shared.

The only reason we have a name for oxygen is because there are spaces in which we cannot breathe.

I grew up with an advantage that felt so normal I did not know to name it until I no longer had it. There was no language to describe its presence until I felt its absence.

Let’s think about oxygen for a moment.

The only reason we have a name for oxygen is because there are spaces in which we cannot breathe. If we could breathe underwater, or the atmosphere of the moon, we wouldn’t have to consider the concept of breath. Literally every environment would be conducive to filling our lungs, meaning the lack of oxygen that previously limited our exploration of the universe would not impede us anymore. We learned to define oxygen by encountering the lack of it.

Likewise, my understanding of money had become so second nature, that it wasn’t until a tap from a friend and a wheezing bank account that I believed I needed a new perspective.

The framework for where I grew up informed my tendencies, and the only way to accomplish a mind shift involved asking questions.

What were my default responses? Why did I do those things? Where could I go to improve? And had I subconsciously begun to believe that I deserved special treatmentthat I was entitled?

Like I said earlier, I only knew how to name what I had once it was gone.

But how do we name the advantages we have while we still have them?

I, as a straight, cis-gendered White woman, can “breathe” in a lot of spaces that are inhospitable to people who aren’t straight, cis-gendered or White. When I say “inhospitable,” I mean it in the same way we describe outer space or the deep sea — that these spaces do not support human life. On some level, we’ve all experienced the sensation of being submerged in a social setting, holding our breath, wondering how much longer we can take it as our heartbeat grows louder and louder until we “surface” and feel we can finally breathe again. When I’m with someone in the water, the need for oxygen is shared which makes the need obvious. But what if I’m not? I have to look beyond myself to see who is struggling for air.

A little over a year ago, my friend and I were talking about intentional nonverbals we give off if we’re in public. I mentioned that those of my friends who walk with a vibe of uncertainty or insecurity tend to end up delayed by more strangers than the ones who strive to appear confident in where they’re going. My friend hadn’t considered this phenomenon and asked if I truly thought that people in our city look for signs of “weakness” to exploit. I responded that while most people don’t, I want to be alert the moment I shut my front door behind me. When I hear the door click, I push my shoulders back and lift my head, fixing my gaze straight forward. After a brief moment, my friend conceded that he, as a personal trainer and a member of the Army Reserves, probably doesn’t get approached by people on the street with an interest in shenanigans.

He asked himself why his experience was different and acknowledged his unspoken advantage, which validated my experience. He gave me space to breathe where I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath.

When we are silent about our advantages, our silence reads as contentment in things as they are — that everyone deserves their circumstances (positive and negative). Then people think of us as content with the status quo, and it’s natural to assume we are 1) prejudiced against the marginalized and 2) entitled.

How do we press into conversation with those who don’t see their own advantages?

A few months ago, I was speaking with a man about narratives that influence law enforcement. While the law doesn’t explicitly state social hierarchies of our nation, the present-day reality is that if someone calls the cops on me, a White woman, I don’t need to fear for my life when the police arrive. If I call the cops on a person of color (especially a Black person), that person doesn’t know if they will live through their encounter with the police. The man I was speaking with countered by saying that maybe that reality is true of where I live in New York City, but he doesn’t see it happening in the Midwest.

This is the point where a lot of productive conversations die — where my lived experience conflicts with yours. How do I keep myself from flipping a table through the phone if I hear someone trying to compartmentalize an already widespread plague? How do we talk through symptoms when we haven’t seen, heard, or felt them locally?

If I am a White, cisgender woman, and the majority of the people who…

  • Live on my block
  • Shop at my local grocery store
  • cc me on emails

…are also White, cisgender, or women, those within my local sphere have far fewer issues relating, and thus believing, my experiences — which in turn, shapes a shared reality for that sphere.

These shared realities express limited truth about norms for a specific demographic, so that relatable experiences become more real to us inside the sphere than the ones that we don’t live through — especially when exposed to a news source distanced from our present location.

We are the masters of our personal experiences and how we choose to use them directly affects the ways in which we relate to others.

Personal experience can act as a wall against other people’s realities, but can also act as a gateway to sympathy or empathy for those whose lives contrast our own.

If I’m watching sports on tv with my guy friends, and a man on the screen gets hit in the crotch, I can almost guarantee my friends will flinch (at the very least). They won’t ask if the injured player’s response was necessary, or question the validity of pausing the game until the player is standing up straight; my friends are familiar with the pain and will waste no time in expressing solidarity.

These same men might use their personal experience to sympathize with those of us whose uteruses rip themselves out of our bodies once a month. Do these men know what it feels like to writhe in pain on the ground? Yes. Do they know what it feels like to writhe in pain on the ground for hours — or days? Maybe not. But they have a choice to pass through a gateway of personal experience that validates realities outside their own.

The only reason we have words like, “advantage” and “privilege” is because there is a presence and there is an absence.

Asking how we do or don’t relate to others by reviewing our own experiences sheds light on our own beliefs about our advantages. Questions like, why don’t I have to focus on appearing confident while walking down the street? reveal deep-rooted beliefs like, people are respectful, or maybe, I’m not in a sketchy place so nothing sketchy will happen. Investigating the differences between your reality and someone else’s creates space for you to look in the mirror, see you are one damn muscular dude and reconsider your beliefs about why people don’t attempt to hassle you — to reconsider the air you breathe.

If we fail to ask ourselves why we are breathing when people around us are struggling for air, we dismiss the vulnerabilities of others — we risk human life.

Christina Utley

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Developing identity outside of personal story while embracing lived experiences not chosen. Brooklyn-based sit-and-thinker.