“I can’t breathe”- Floyd’s last words should haunt but also propel America
Monday, May 25, 2020: George Floyd, a 46-year old African American man, dies after being pinned to the ground by Chauvin, a police officer, in Minneapolis. Three other police officers look on. Chauvin forces his knee to choke Floyd for 8:46 long minutes. Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe”.
Monday, May 25, 2020: Amy, a white woman calls police on an African American man, Christian Cooper, who asks her to put a leash on her dog in Central Park, NY. Her words, “I am going to tell them there is an African American man threatening my life.”
Thursday, May 28, 2020: Austin, a white man in Minnesota threatens to call police on a group of young black men using a gym in a shared work space. His words, “I am a tenant in the building. Are you?”
These incidents demonstrate persistence of white privilege in United States. For centuries, we have been witnessing it as an assertion of power and control over African Americans (and other minority groups). In our daily interactions, it plays out as an entitlement of the ‘self’, and distrust of the ‘other’. It is the entitlement and distrust that Amy felt with an unleashed dog in a park where her dog should have been on a leash, and the entitlement and distrust that Austin exercised in questioning young black men’s access to the gym. From their vantage point, both Amy and Austin (like other privileged people) believed that they earned their status; while seeing “others” as unequal, inferior and with undesirable deficiencies.
The white privilege is problematic at many levels; but mostly because it dehumanizes the minority groups. Christian experienced the dehumanization. “I am not going to participate in my own dehumanization”, he explained. One of the young men, Hassan, explained, “We felt threatened”.
The problem with the privilege is that it is invisible to those who have it, because the society is organized and operates in ways that their values and worldviews are considered normal, typical and even desirable. It is hence little surprise that both Amy and Austin denied that racism played any role in these confrontations. However, privilege is visible to everyone who doesn’t have it, because the minority members are forced to conform to the norms and rules set by the privileged or the dominant group. Not only are they shunned out of opportunities, they are also subjected to daily inequities in their lives. The fact that Christian and Hassan were worried no one would believe them hence decided to record the incidents, supports that white privilege is visible to many of us; and that there is a collective realization that the privilege is mostly invisible to the white majority. Sadly, these confrontations also demonstrate the ways in which white privilege impacts our behaviors, thought processes and reactions. Perpetuation and persistence of privilege has created a deeply unequal America.
It is the extreme entitlement, control and power that Chauvin felt in choking Floyd, who repeated, “I can’t breathe”. Chauvin sat there casually with his hands stuck in his pockets, showing no regard to a human life, hearing and seeing Floyd die slowly. Other police officers just looked on, doing and saying absolutely nothing. As I watched the video, I wept and wondered: Did they not hear Floyd? Did they not feel his pain? What were they thinking? How can they justify this brutality? Unfortunately, we know that this is yet another demonstration of unnecessary force and brutality that African Americans and other minority groups have been subjected to for centuries in America.
The dehumanization in the United States has been maintained and enforced through institutionalization over centuries. It is cruel, oppressive, unjust and has divided us. It has shut half the people out, and left all of us outraged.
Floyd’s last words should haunt America- “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” In some ways, Floyd’s words represent how many of us have felt for centuries. The white privilege has left us helpless, pinned to the ground, and choking slowly.
It has been a heavy week for us in America. We have to survive this as a society by taking a greater responsibility. It is going to be uncomfortable but people have to confront their white privilege. Together we have to humanize our society. We need to give up the belief that one race is better than the other. We need to reawaken our humanly senses and feel compassion for others. It is time for all of us to act like humans, and for all of us to be allowed the space to be humans.
America needs deep soul searching and focus on the inequalities that have dehumanized our identities and experiences. Hopefully, we can use Floyd’s last words to also propel us. We need to come together and write a newnarrative, that humanizes us and compels us to live with empathy and compassion.
Shaista E. Khilji- May 30, 2020
I would like to acknowledge Amelia Thompson at GW, who encouraged me to write this blog. All errors are mine.
This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to our website (coming soon).