Why I won’t say “I can’t breathe!”


It is now clear that after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, the United States will no longer be the same as before. Floyd’s execution is not an isolated case, but rather yet another confirmation that racism is systemic: even former President George W. Bush has admitted it. For this reason thousands of activists have been protesting since, putting President Donald Trump in difficulty. Worried about the possibility of not being re-elected in November, Trump first tried to put the country against the rioters by hurling himself against the composite Antifa community and promising to declare it a terrorist organization. Following this, he then closed himself in a bunker for less than an hour, after which he attempted the path of the Christian faith by brandishing a bible in front of a church he never actually attended.

All while deploying the army, ranting on Twitter and asking his wife Melania to show a fake smile in front of the press, Trump continues to behave as if nothing in particular is taking place a few hundred meters from them. By now obligated to clear the streets by force to avoid being contested when he decides to intervene in public, after almost two months of protests extended to all States and also abroad, he surpassed himself tweeting “My administration has done for the black community more than any other president after Abraham Lincoln.” This would be the perfect time for Western leaders to permanently drop what remains of the so-called American empire. Stemming their long-time racist, class and misogynist counterpart and siding with those who suffer different forms of exclusion, from being subject to prejudice newspapers to be objective of the violent, as shown also by the reports commissioned by the European bodies, in which Afrophobia  emerges as a social issue that affects and kills everywhere. 

Trump and his sovereign associates are ultimately only one part – albeit tremendously significant – of the problem: the persecution of racialized people has a long history and violence is a matter for all governments. The presidency of the Afro-descendent jurist Barack Obama confirms that rights are never acquired. Black Lives Matter activists know first that, as Angela Davis says, freedom is a constant struggle. If we are white, however, we should recognize that our birth privilege protects us, and ask ourselves what is the most appropriate way to be part of this battle as allies. Just like at Pride, when a cisgender person should give transgender people a larger stage to speak instead, or during Memorial Day, when one cannot think of silencing – at least for twenty-four hours – who is part of the communities despised by Nazi-fascism. Already in the early hours of the street protests in Minneapolis, some asked white allies not to post anything original on social media on Sunday May 31st. Instead to share the contents disseminated by Black people, for example by retweeting the videos of Black’s public speeches Lives Matter. A more participatory adhesion took place on Tuesday June 2nd, when on the initiative of two professionals from the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, the social networks were populated with black squares to say that art must stop when an event such as police brutality on protesters dictates it. The choice to start the #BlackoutTuesday right from the music sector is emblematic: the talents of Black people are very numerous, but those who get rich are largely white. While the hashtag went viral, we could all stop to think about how a situation like that of the musical sphere is heir to a history that has always seen whites prevail by all means over others, especially if it is a matter of distributing wealth.

Aiming for equality would also mean that in particularly precarious conditions, as it was in the worst weeks of the Coronavirus pandemic, there will be no groups of people most exposed due to the link between economic discrimination and ethnicity. It is much easier, however, to share a hashtag than to lead a real reflection, and it is precisely with the sharing of a cry like ‘I can’t breathe’, that were the last words of Floyd dying at the hands of a team made up of four white agents, that this emerges strongly. Although the heartbreaking images of Floyd’s murder caused, for a moment, in many of us a feeling of identification in the position of the subordinate. In fact, if we are white we must recognize that we do not run the same risk of dying in the middle of a road because it was decided by a white man. And we cannot appropriate George Floyd’s words if we are not exposed to the same risk that forced him to plead for the possibility of being able to breathe again because a fact as elementary and necessary for survival as the breath was about to be taken from him. As had happened to Eric Garner, six years ago in New York, and Adama Traoré, four years ago in the Paris hinterland: black men who died saying the same words as Floyd. 

The philosopher Achille Mbembe in a recent article defined respiration as a universal right and said precisely that we should fight against “everything that over the long duration of capitalism will have confined entire segments of populations and entire races to difficult, breathless breathing, to a heavy life”. The impunity that governments guarantee in many cases of abuse of power means that some can decide whether others should exercise this right, but we are not born, we do not grow up and we do not become adults all with the same possibilities available. We do not live in public spaces in the same way: can a woman return home at night with the same tranquility with which a man does it? Can Hispanics aspire to the same job positions as white people? Can Black people have fun in the evening without being targeted by the police? Would we get to die in prisons, CPRs, shacks, if there were no unequal conditions that are fine for most of us? No. As white people, therefore, we can only imagine what it means to say ‘I can’t breathe.’ But we don’t live it. We all see the same pictures, but we don’t all live in the same bodies. Saying ‘I can’t breathe’ is not like saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘No justice, no peace’, which serve to express solidarity. I can’t breathe is an expression that has a precise meaning in the mouth of non-whites. But what we can do is go to the root of this inequality, get informed, take time to learn about – and not force non-whites to educate us – the methods that have been used in history to subordinate subjects to others, such as colonialism, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, anti-Gypsyism and so on, because that is where we find the root of the disparities that still lead to treating some individuals differently today. 

It is time to listen. I will be in the square protesting, but I will not say “I can’t breathe!” I will say “Black Lives Matter!”


ABC News. (2014). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_s8JklrBSlk&feature=emb_title
Cummings, William. (2020). https://amp.usatoday.com/amp/3132800001
European Network Against Racism. (2018). https://www.enar-eu.org/IMG/pdf/key_findings.pdf
Mbembe, Achille. (2020). https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/
Stewart, Emily. (2020). https://www.vox.com/2020/6/2/21278123/being-an-ally-racism-george-floyd-protests-white-people

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