George Floyd was murdered with a police officer’s knee stuck to his neck. Not only his air but his dignity was snuffed out. “Please - I can’t breathe.” Neither could I. Breathing is a natural thing to do except under the knees of privilege.
For me, that knee took a different form; it was a workplace abuser - aggressive, explicit, unrepentant, and protected. I was bullied, harassed, traumatised, and then abandoned. Even when the employer knew the facts, they shifted shamelessly behind a self-described Non-Disclosure Agreement; a feature of workplace oppression seen in countless allegations of bullying, harassment, discrimination, unfair treatment, and racism. It’s a knee that some employers use when facts defeat them.
I often wonder how Barack Obama could be President for 8 years, unprecedented and unlikely in so many ways, and how Michaëlle Jean could be Canada’s Governor General for 5 years, and still both countries demonstrate so many facets of prejudice, discrimination, and unfairness. I ask not so much for myself but for my children and my husband, all minorities calling Canada home.
You see, I am black. My ancestry is African and my husband and I are Caribbean-born. His great-grand-parents arrived in the Caribbean from India 175 years ago. We moved to Canada, and not the US, because we felt Canada was non-discriminating for our three young children, especially our two sons, young black men. Unfortunately, we have experienced more racism in Canada than any other part of the world. As a Canadian citizen, I have to comfort our children because they feel and face discrimination.
Our daughter has faced it in school - from teachers unsettled by her brilliance and unwillingness to concede to anyone without merit. Our sons have been followed around in stores by security; one son being told by his boss at a job he loved, “You have monkey feet.” I’ve also had to ask our children to tell their non-black friends we do not accept the use of the "N word.” Our children must school their friends simply because their parents and teachers have failed to do so. Once when we were looking to buy a house, a realtor told me I couldn’t view a particular property because, as she said, “You can’t afford it.” She seemed offended at my insistence that I see the place anyway.
On the Obama and Jean question, I believe racism, discrimination and unfairness take many unshakeable forms. Our oppressors and bullies hide behind another word that gives them some sort of comfort: systemic. They classify the most humiliating and sometimes deadly acts as “incidents” and the most deprecating language and comments “unfortunate.” President Obama and Governor General Jean could not shake what happens behind white picket fences and within tree-lined ultra-urban properties. They could not shake boardrooms and Human Resource divisions. They could not rattle law firms, they could not pop university bubbles, or pressure places of worship. President Obama and Governor General Jean could not do what we can do, which is stand up and speak up.
For several months I struggled to put my own life back together, professionally and personally, and to speak up to this undercurrent of racism, discrimination and unfairness that keeps sweeping black people away from opportunities. Even now, there are attempts to silence, intimidate and monitor me to ensure I do not speak my truth about the unprovoked workplace violence inflicted upon me. As my abuser attacked me in the company’s parking lot, my ancestors whispered to me the run-away strategy which worked perfectly; leaving my abuser angrier, as evidenced in a text I received not long after I escaped, “Shame on you!” Shame on me?
For a long time since, I’ve wondered, what did I do that I should be ashamed of? Did my abuser want me to feel ashamed for escaping her public lynching? Perhaps the Minnesota police officers are waiting on George Floyd’s text: “Sorry for what I put you through.”
That day I had to abandon the confinement of my colonized education and upbringing, and allow myself to experience the full weight of the unspoken generational trauma hidden deep within me, and within all Black persons. This is the thing we are always being told “Get over it” and all of the other gaslighting we are burdened with daily. “It’s not discrimination,” we hear when plainly it is. “It’s not racism.” Well, to honour my ancestors, getting over it is me speaking up and pushing that knee off of my neck.
Dear Mr. George Floyd, like our ancestors, black people should be given what we give so generously: dignity and respect. We care for manners but not empty words. We want to lean-in to those spaces and behind the titles where our abusers hide. We do not want to change the conversation. We want to change the world and this knee that’s stuck to our necks. We want to breathe; it is a natural thing to do.
Image credit: An anti-police brutality demonstrator in Washington, DC, on June 3. Win McNamee/Getty Images