If you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky one
The entire world is asphyxiated. The COVID-19 pandemic leaves not a single person unaffected. People across the globe have been ushered into their homes to prevent spreading the disease, and they feel more restless and suffocated with each passing day. Those who contract the disease have been facing difficulty breathing as the virus primarily affects the lungs and the respiratory system. The global economy has entered free-fall, leaving millions of people jobless and hurting, while business owners are breathless while struggling to feed themselves, their employees, and families. But also—completely unrelated to the pandemic—an innocent black man was held in a fatal neck hold for over eight minutes by a law enforcement officer, in the presence of multiple other law enforcement officers standing idle. The man—George Floyd—was suffocating under the officer’s knee and pleaded to be released, but to no avail. This atrocity deeply affected not only the black community, but allies of other races as well. Protests moved to streets. Their signs read George Floyd’s poignant last words, “I can’t breathe.” This has become the greatest point of contention currently.
Some peaceful protests turned into violent riots and even led to looting. Many—including the Indian-American community—have condemned the actions of those looters and rioters, and media outlets went from covering the pertinence of addressing police brutality to condemning and criticising those looters and rioters. The focus shifted from changing policies to reflect that back lives matter, to condemning the actions of the Black Lives Matter movement.
From the perspective of a second-generation Indian living in America, the beliefs of many of those in my community have been largely counterproductive. For one thing, we must understand that facing discrimination does not mean we are not privileged in this nation. We may be pulled over by the cops for no apparent reason, but our visceral reaction to seeing a cop does not perceive them to be a threat to our lives. We have it better than the black community and that is the plain truth that should first be accepted if we want to see any meaningful change in America going forward. For instance, one of the hardest battles of equality that we are fighting is the one for fair representation in the media, and currently the black community is further along on that pathway than we are. But we must keep in mind that while we struggle to see too few Asians represented truthfully and fairly, black people previously suffered through mockery of their entire identity with white actors playing them on screen in blackface.
I do not wish to generalize all Indian immigrants nor do I wish to be naive to our struggles in America, and it is true that we have faced painful discrimination in this country. Have we ever considered, however, how much worse our treatment would have been if Martin Luther King Jr. had not fought for civil rights? How much worse it would have been if the African-American community had not fought for the fourteenth amendment to be ratified in this nation? Would we even be in America if MLK did not fight for the Immigration Act of 1965 to be signed by Lyndon B. Johnson? We owe much of our success in this nation to the black community and the fight for equality that they pioneered in America. Everyone knows about Jay-Z, Beyonce, Travis Scott, Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Drake. If you have a teenager in the house, I guarantee that they have heard of these people. Seeing the apex of the mountain, that is black success, makes it all too easy to forget that the ground is lower on that side.
It goes without saying that the discrimination Indian-Americans have faced does not compare to what African-Americans have faced. The current situation, however, can be more closely likened to the Indian Revolution. The dehumanization that we faced from the British, the way the Brits divided and conquered us, and how they brutally looted India by stripping it of its treasures and culture is similar to what African-Americans have gone through in America. They were taken from their homes, packed in large numbers into ships, taken on a long Transatlantic Voyage on which many died, sold like animals, put to work on plantations under extremely cruel conditions, exposed to deadly diseases, whipped to death, and when they finally gain their freedom through the ratification of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments, they are told that they do not suffer from any generational trauma and that they have always had equal opportunity. The turmoil that we have faced are eerily similar. The black community has fought for the rights of all people of color and now it is time put in our effort as well. This is not just through ‘woke talks’ within our families, but spreading genuine empathy, exercising our democratic rights to create policies, understanding our own privilege, and becoming hyper aware of any implicit bias within ourselves.
The issue at hand is not just an isolated incident of a black man’s passing, that can be solved with punishing the perpetrators and tribute posts nor is the issue completely baseless and Black Lives Matter movement unnecessary. The solution to this problem requires rather meditative attention and care. There is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed and it is all of our responsibility to address it. I will conclude with this lyric from one of my favorite songs—Youth written by a band called Daughter—that I feel holds tremendous relevance to the current situation: “If you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky one. Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs.”
We stay in our homes, but we breathe in the cold AC during blistering heat. We stay in our homes so we don’t contract or spread COVID-19. We may struggle to maintain our livelihoods during this time—and that is difficult—but we can still breathe. Let’s all take a deep breath, and use it to lift those who cannot.