The Black Body in Pain: What George Floyd’s Death Exposes about Racism

Illustration by Brian Wong at DigiPen (2018).

George Floyd’s fate is the same as every other Black body at the hands of police brutality, and his name will be remembered for what the name itself has come to connote: the pain that signifies that America is the work of men, the pain that has no voice, and the pain that longs to tell a story.

There are many things to discuss about Floyd, so many things to remember about a man who walked into a grocery store one day, only to come out as another Black man added to a country’s racist legacy. Described as a “gifted athlete” and “a good father,” Floyd grew up in Houston and had excelled in football and basketball as a young man. He worked as a hip-hop artist, and in his adulthood, he became the father of two daughters. For many Americans, however, Floyd will not be remembered for his athleticism, artistry, or time as a father. For many Americans, Floyd will always be another Black body on the ground with a cop’s knee on his neck, struggling to communicate as his physical pain shatters every sentence and every word — the language — that characterize every human being.

Language signifies the evolution of human and is, therefore, an essential part of what it means to be a person, what it means to exist. With a verbal medium destroyed as a result of physical pain, the person in pain is reduced to cries asking for air, to muffled groans and incoherent sounds, to a mere body bereft of human speech.

Given this, it is not surprising why so many racist acts contain physical violence. When violence is inflicted, the pain that accompanies the violence actively destroys language by denying the ability to express the pain. Pain can only be described (“terrible pain,” “unbearable pain,” “searing pain,” “sharp pain”), but the descriptions, the adjectives cannot fully provide an accurate detail of the agony. The words can only create a surface image, and as a result, the language fragmentation that pain makes visible successfully denies the person suffering the security to speak for himself, eventually dehumanizing that person. He is forced to rely on pre-human and almost animalistic abilities, by making sounds and noises, that can only provide hints about his pain. This is why the video of Floyd incoherently telling the cops that he cannot breathe posits such a disturbing image: Floyd is seen through a gradual deterioration of his personhood, stripped of every human quality and dignity. To hear Floyd’s brokenness is to watch a man be made into an animal. In the process, Floyd himself was, indeed, dehumanized. Like many other members of the Black community, Floyd was not just murdered; he was exploited, turned into a non human incapable of governing himself through a basic human quality that is speech, incapable of existing.

“Racism is not just about the act of injustice. At its core, racism is also about finding justification for the injustice.”

With this in mind, it is then important to remember that the presence obsessed and/or tempted in interrogating the late Floyd—by either actively or subconsciously seeking some sort of confirmation that Floyd was not at all that innocent — allows the pain that transcends the body, the destruction of speech, and the unjust attack on the human being. It denies their right to be seen as a person and, at the same time, secures the power of racism. Realities and possibilities, regardless of what they or do not entail, should never be cause for bigotry and for exploitations of certain individuals.

I am not Black, and I don’t know what it means to be Black. I don’t know what it means for the Dream to be built on the bodies and the blood of my ancestors. My life is different from theirs, and I can never know the desire to question how one should live inside a Black body. However, I do know that if many people from the same group walk around constantly interrogating their bodies out of fear, then we need to reevaluate the systems that have made their fears possible. It is a sentiment that I’m both afraid and embarrassed to admit has been repeated many times, yet it is one that, as long as the number of Black bodies continue to pile up, is worth repeating. Violence is a necessary tool for racism to remove the subject’s voice, so that the subject’s pain can never be fully known to us, rendering the subject as nothing more than an unfamiliar other. As a result, Floyd’s pain can never be heard, but his fears as a Black man in America will remain, daring to be recognized.

Retired teenager. Grad student. Bad feminist.

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