I am a Black pediatrician working in a cherished community clinic in Seattle’s Central Area. Today, an amplifying lens has been cast on generations of hateful racism targeting Black and brown brothers and sisters. I think a lot about the Black and brown youth who cross this clinic’s threshold every day. They hold such promise, so much potential to indelibly change the world. It has an effect on you. You can’t help but want to celebrate them, marvel at them, appreciate them, live for them. And, yes, it makes you want to shelter them, protect them, hide them, shield them from the glare of a world that can hate them for their melanin. Especially if you are a mother, a father, an auntie, a gran.
Yet youth still have an energy and stance that point to a wonderfully different world. They convince you that there is a boldly revolutionary tomorrow. They show those who have seen too much that better tomorrows are probable. Not just possible; probable.
I admit that I focus on them to help balance out the pain of looking around. To counter the constant, glaring awareness of how we are seen, and judged, and pressed into categories not chosen by us. Pressed until we cannot breathe.
These days seem to reaffirm some things. When a Black man tells a police officer that he can’t breathe, imploring the officer to stop doing something, it must mean to the officer that the officer is achieving his intended goal. It is not heard as a plea. It is a GPS voice saying that the officer’s destination is straight ahead.
When the action is executed calmly, with hand in pocket, visible to anyone who cares to see, then it could only mean to a Black male like me that this is a shared desire by many people. When it is done by a representative of law, of social order, then it must be an institutional desire, a systemic plan. Perhaps the calm demeanor also means it actually comes from a place much worse than hate, it comes from the absence of feeling. It comes from indifference.
The anger that Black and brown people feel is qualitatively different than the emotion expressed by those who don’t expect a police officer to snuff out the life of someone like them. It is different than the shock or disgust that some who stand with us in this moment, but aren’t us, feel. Black and brown are angered in an existential way. It is infuriating that the system continues to work exactly as designed. It is anguish to be re-traumatized, to relive painfully familiar events. It is the most honest of grieving. Grieving that takes our breath away.
I think I more deeply understand the teachings of one of my informal aunties during my young childhood in Washington, D.C. She said to never complain to “the man.” Never say you’re suffering to people you don’t know. I thought she was encouraging me to have a certain kind of pride. To be stoic. To maintain my composure. Today, I think she meant that if I let them know I couldn’t breathe then it would encourage them to keep on pressing with their knee. That I would show them the way to my erasure.
I am a Black male pediatrician. I enjoy great privilege. Perhaps the greatest privilege is the chance to be inspired by young people. Inspired enough to be convinced they may have a different future. Our community will make sure they have the opportunity, and they will make it so. I have enjoyed the support of family and community. I have also had the wind knocked out of me by my share of denigrations through racist acts. I am continually traumatized by societal denigration that I cannot turn away from. I am re-traumatized and angered in an intense and personal way by witnessing yet another Black man’s life extinguished by police. But I will never tell you that I can’t breathe. Now you know why.