The Privilege of a Breath

By Kate Aschkenasy.

I’m a twenty-one-year-old straight white woman. My whole life I have considered myself to be aware and outspoken about the inequities of the world and engaged in working towards solutions. Being an empathetic individual was ingrained in me by my parents from birth. But I am also very conscious that my being “woke” is in and of itself a privilege. I wouldn’t dare to pretend to understand what it is like to stand in the shoes of a black man or woman in America.

I feel that have expressed my outrage in a hundred different ways; first for Trayvon Martin, then Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. Recently, for Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and today, for George Floyd. I’ve done my best to educate myself on the issues at play, have shared useful resources on social media, started conversations with those around me, called lawmakers, gone to the polls with intention, raised money and signed petitions. The anger and the injustice that I feel today for the umpteenth time unfortunately feels like the eerie tune of a broken record.

As I reflect on tragedies past and our collective response, it is clear that our shared outrage has done shockingly little to move the needle. And I must admit, this leaves me confused and deeply disheartened. My whole life I have attempted to do all that I can to be an ally, to not only refrain from being racist, but to be actively anti-racist. But I also feel a sense of helplessness and fatigue that I have not done enough with my privilege. So—where do I go from here?

I see social media posts in the wake of police brutality clutter my feed, prompting hope that, though long overdue, this tragedy will be the breaking point. I watch heated activists on the news, and I think that their powerful words cannot possibly be swept under the rug, that this time it will finally force legitimate progress. Then, as quickly as it appears, the issue fades into the background as if it is a TMZ article about botched plastic surgery.

I want to see outrage last, not just wait on pause for the next tragedy to arise and reset.

What I do know is that in order to truly realize change, active outrage must last long after George Floyd is buried, even if the police officers are all ultimately convicted. I envision it like my phone battery; in order to maintain the outrage, the movement needs full battery. A call to progress cannot succeed with only the few minutes of charge that occur in the wake of a tragedy, but instead must be powered by a full battery. The passion must endure in order to enable systemic transformation.

I don’t want to presume that I understand how to do this better than those who are on the frontlines of the fight and suffer the effects of racism on a daily basis. I want to get my hands dirty in a way that is truly helpful. I don’t want to be just another white person sharing well-intentioned but counterproductive ideas based upon the innately privileged assumption that all contributions are useful. I am mindful of my role and position in this fight; to be an ally, I need to do what is necessary, not just what makes me feel better. Posting on social media might free my conscience, but it does almost nothing to affect institutional or systemic change. I want to use my privilege to amplify the words of black voices, highlight their issues and make actual progress in a country that is quite literally burning down. I’m itching for a way to educate others, to humanize victims, to expose shocking racist practices that are excused or explained away. I’ve had conversations with white peers and friends, and I know that I am not the only person who feels this way.

My reflection on my role in these issues has led me to feel an intense sensation of guilt and frustration that I am not doing enough. I believe so deeply that what happened to George Floyd—and an unthinkable number of others— is the purest form of inequality, persecution, and innate moral wrong. But I feel trapped not knowing what else I can do to help create systemic solutions. I feel helpless. I lie in bed, largely safe from the violence and macro and microaggressions that the black community deals with every day on the outside, but wholly distraught on the inside— to the point where I wrote much of this at 3 in the morning, grieving the birthdays and graduations that George Floyd will miss.

I woke up with my mind still spinning. I took a walk with my grandmother, and we discussed this topic in depth. My grandmother confided in me that she shares my feelings of futility. I was struck most by her recollection of feeling similarly about the inequity of treatment of black men and women in Baltimore when she was a little girl in the 1950’s. Of course, some progress has been made by the black community. But she distinctly remembers the hope that she felt after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and then again when Barack Obama was elected President. Now she looks back and just sees so much squandered opportunity. I do not want to reach her age and have the same conversation with my grandchild.

To be honest, I didn’t know what my intention was when I began writing this other than a way to process what I was feeling. As I’ve written this, I have discovered this is less an essay than an open-ended question, a search for answers that might never come. It’s a prompt for conversation. What can I do better? How can I wake up in the morning and be the ally and the anti-racist advocate that I claim to be—how can I truly feel confident in the fact that I am doing everything I can? How can I use my privilege for good in this fight for humanity?

Eric Garner couldn’t breathe. George Floyd couldn’t breathe. We all have the ability to breathe in this moment, and with each breath, there is hope and a possibility for growth. I am here and I can breathe; and I want to use it. I challenge you all reading this to consider the same as me—with the privilege I have simply to breathe, what can I do with it?