I can't breathe signDuring the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, Floyd said “I can’t breathe” at least 16 times.

Imagine the terror and pain of having someone kneel on your neck for close to 9 minutes as you struggle to breathe. Think about it: one minute, then another minute, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then most of one final minute. At some point, you may finally have found your way out of the horror by going unconscious. Or perhaps even in the unconscious state, the continuing presence of Chauvin’s knee on your neck kept the terror active in your body/mind.

Can you imagine this? I will have to admit that I don’t think I can stay present for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of that level of brutality, even in my imagination. I am too practiced in the art of dissociation.

But then, as a white woman, the likelihood that an officer of the law would kneel on my neck is extremely low.

In spiritual community with others this week, our prayers focused on this current moment in America, a moment in which, once again, the malevolence of our genocidal and exploitative underpinnings has been brought into crisp focus, a focus so unambiguous that even white people such as myself are compelled to see. We prayed about the possibilities of this moment to bring forth a new era of justice. We prayed for the healing of the legacy of 400 plus brutal years of colonialism, in which white people such as me have benefited by the oppression of blacks, indigenous people, and other people of color. We prayed for the overturning of systemic racism embedded in every institution in the United States. And we prayed about the breath.

As we prayed, I was reminded that there are parallels between the healing processes of individuals, families, communities, and nations. If, as children, we are subjected to traumatic experiences, we find creative ways to cope that often involve suppressing emotions that seem scary enough to annihilate us. That was certainly the case for me. Although I successfully stuffed my feelings of terror, betrayal, and desecration, these emotions took up residence in my body, and began leaking out many years later when I entered recovery. As the emotions resurfaced, breathing provided a passageway to healing by helping me to stay present for the feelings, no matter how painful, so that I could express and release them.

So in my prayers this week I started affirming the possibility of breathing into the collective pain of this moment, pain that may have been long repressed, but that is stored somatically in the body of our communities and nation, pain that needs to be felt, that needs to be expressed, that needs an outlet. And pain for which the full healing process has been deferred because the exploitation, discrimination, and violence has not stopped.

Yet breathing into the pain can help us become present to the intensity, and we can use this awareness as a catalyst for change. As long as we are anesthetizing our pain rather than being present for it, it can be very challenging to face and address the oppression.

This is the long overdue moment for white people to be fully present to the truth about racism in America. This is the time for white people to do our best to imagine what it would be like to have a police officer kneeling on our neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, even if our white skin makes this possibility farfetched. This is the time to enter into a true reckoning, to breathe into the brutality, to take risks, to demand the dismantling of the structures of racism, to refuse to collude with the status quo, to stand in full solidarity with our black brothers and sisters.

I am breathing right now as I write this piece. Breathing into the knowing that as a white person I have personally benefited from systemic racism. Breathing into the acknowledgement that I have made mistakes as a white ally and in all probability will again. Affirming my willingness to stay in the conversation in spite of that risk, no matter how scary. Reminding myself that even though it would be impossible to say anything that is fully adequate in the face of centuries of ruthless, calculated exploitation, it is important to say something.

Black Lives Matter. It’s time to have a reckoning with our history, to dismantle unjust systems, and to make reparations.

Everyone deserves to breathe.

What contribution will you make?


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html

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