by Aasiyah Ameenah
When one hears the chant or sees the hashtag of “I Can’t Breathe,” it immediately makes one think of the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically Eric Garner's death by illegal chokehold. But when I think of those three words, it takes me someplace completely different. In fact, it takes me back to my senior year of high school, to my lit class.
I was super fortunate enough to go to a private school for fourteen years (pre-k to12th grade). For about six of my fourteen years at this school I was the only black girl. It’s funny because everyone would constantly remind me of it (everyone being my parents and the token two black female teachers in the school at the time) but I never really took note of it at all. In fact, I had 0 idea what being a black girl meant at all, because I felt that blackness wasn't apart of my experience. All I knew was that my skin was a medium brown, my hair was not as smooth compared to most of my dolls and my 8-year-old hips were a little rounder than my other female classmates. To be honest, if you were to ask me to identify myself from ages four to fourteen, I wouldn't have the slightest clue what to say at all.
The first time I was truly made aware of my race was towards the end of my senior year. My high school experience greatly differed from middle school, not only because of the end of my awkward phase, but I also began to slowly pick up little things that people would say regarding race. “Of course he got into Brown because he's Spanish, I don't really think he's that smart." These comments would pop up always when I least expected it, and my face would twist as if there was a sour taste in my mouth. And when I would look amongst my friends to see if they heard it in the same tone I did, nobody would look back. So I would uncomfortably hold my tongue until I forgot about what happened. I figure if nobody else picked up on it, then it must have not been that bad.
So finally, fast forward to my Themes in American Lit class. I loved this class. It was taught by an eclectic black man that took everyone by surprise when he didn't have all white male written books in the class syllabus. My teacher was so animated and excited about what he was teaching that it made me excited to come to class. One day, we were discussing (my club's) posters that were in the hallway focusing on those little comments, called microaggressions. Instead of teaching normal class, my teacher decided to open a conversation about them, specifically the ones concerning race. I listened quietly to what everyone had to say, until he came to a boy who abruptly said, “I don’t really see the point of the posters, some of those were most definitely taken out of context, and were also probably exaggerated."
And there it was.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to bang my notebooks on the table and yell and personally claim about half the comments written on those posters. I wanted to say that he doesn't have the right to tell me how I should feel, especially if they’re not directed towards his demographic at all. But instead I stayed silent, with a stone cold face. Because in that moment, on a Friday afternoon in a classroom which I considered a safe haven, I was being illegally choked by the angry black woman stereotype. I had seen it before, the sudden outburst of emotion from my other female peers of color, and I had also seen the witnesses immediately tell that girl to calm down, saying she was “taking it too far” and it “wasn't that serious”, only further delegitimizing the girl's feelings because she looked too out of control to make sense.
As I sat there, I realized I had a choice to make: whether or not I should speak. I did, but instead of voicing my hurt feelings, I tiptoed around them only to address the boy who made the comment. I carefully and slowly explained that they were someone else’s stories, but he simply disagreed and continued to voice that the comments written couldn't be said at such a “progressive” school like ours. So the hands around my neck were soon placed in front of my mouth, and I stayed silent throughout the rest of class. I vividly remember walking out of class and feeling my throat close, to the point where I was ten minutes late to my next class because I was gasping for air outside.
To this day, I constantly go back and forth wondering if I should have been more vocal or more assertive or more understanding, but I realize there is nothing I could have done to escape that feeling of speechlessness. I now recognize that it is one of the many confusing and difficult things I have to carry along with my race. So when I hear “I can't breathe,” I don't only hear a call to action on police tactics, but I also hear a larger message from other little black and brown girls who have ever felt silenced simply because of what they looked like.