“I cannot breathe” – that’s what George Floyd said when a white cop murdered him in Minneapolis. During this time where Coronavirus has forced us to change the way we live our lives, all of us can recognize the feeling of not being able to breathe – the whole world seems to be holding its breath. Yet, while quarantine has in some ways brought people closer together, it’s also exacerbated the discrepancies between advantaged and disadvantaged communities. The effects of Coronavirus force us to acknowledge the issues of racial disparity within our world.
On May 25, 2020, the news proclaimed, “George Floyd, an African-American man, died in Powderhorn, a neighborhood south of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. While Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on a city street during an arrest, Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, kept his knee on the right side of Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds; 2 minutes and 53 seconds of which occurred after Floyd became unresponsive, according to the criminal complaint filed against Chauvin. Officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K. Lane participated in Floyd’s arrest, with Kueng holding Floyd’s back, Lane holding his legs, and Thao looking on as he stood nearby.”
Reading the news and seeing the video, I became shell shocked. How could somebody treat another so cruelly because of the color of their skin, when the color of our blood is the same? I wasn’t sure what my response should be- I knew that I wanted to talk about it, write about it, protest in any way I could. How could somebody sit still after witnessing such cruelty?
But on May 30th, the president of the United States tweets again.
“Great job last night at the White House by the U.S. @SecretService. They were not only totally professional, but very cool. I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe. They let the “protesters” scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard…nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least….”
Yes, that’s how Donald Trump tweeted an entire thread to stop the ‘ranting’ of people when they were protesting against George Floyd’s cold blooded murder.
But the story does not end there!
Trump tweeted again, “Crossing State lines to incite violence is a FEDERAL CRIME! Liberal Governors and Mayors must get MUCH tougher or the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests. Thank you!”
What does this delusional president mean? If his countrymen come through the fence then are they going to shoot them using “the most ominous weapons?” No, this president can never understand that his political career is not an extension of those memories of playing with his BB gun as a kid!
Also, why is he proud of using the most vicious dogs? We have all seen pictures of the police brutality on black men during the civil rights movement, with German shepherds attacking black men on the streets with bared teeth. Looking at the police response to protesters in America today, it seems as if nothing has changed in the past sixty years. Does Trump truly believe a democratic country should use its unlimited military power on civilians? If so, he’s much worse than any vicious dog!
This is pathetic!
White people kept black men and women as slaves for 246 years. They kept them tied up like animals, and they treated them like property. At last, after the civil war, slavery was abolished in the U.S, and slave owners had to set their slaves free. But have all white men really set the black community free in their mind? Do all of them really believe that a black person is truly his or her equal? If so, how is it even possible that a white cop kills a black man in broad daylight even when he was pleading for his life, even when he was gasping for his breath?
We have all seen the brutal video clip. When I saw it, I remembered the first scene of Alex Haley’s “Roots”. Kunta Kinte’s white master is slashing and whipping his black body and demanding, “Your name is Toby. Now tell me your name.”
“Kunta Kinte.” The black boy did not oblige.
The moment he said that, another whip slashed Kunta Kinte. There was no mercy, the same way there was no mercy shown to George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by Derek Chauvin. Even in the famous scene from Roots, Kunta Kinte stands up to his master – but in George Floyd’s case, he couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t even breathe, much less protest against the cruel treatment.
It hurts to see the cruelty with which the black community is treated; it makes me nauseous that the same violence black men had to face in the 1600s has continued under the name of police brutality; it sickens me to my stomach to see this white supremacy.
Now America is protesting – the whole world is protesting. I understand that looting, vandalism, and setting establishments on fire is wrong. But we have to protest – otherwise crime will become the norm. The protesters, while they may be acting in a way many see as wrong, are faced with little choice. What can they do, when society has continued to discriminate against the black community, despite the continuous marches, walkouts, and peaceful protests? Unless society changes its ways, the violence erupting across the U.S. will continue to happen, as there seems to be no other way forward.
I as a person and we as a society can always take the convenient middle-path between right and wrong and go about our ways for a very long time. But that should not be the way of life. I remember when I was very little, my grandmother read me a poem by the Nobel laureate Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore. I remember the two immortal lines-
“He who commits wrong or condones the same,
May your contempt singe like a reed in flame.”
Yes, in our ethical eyes, the person who commits the crime and the person who tolerates it without protesting the injustice should both be treated as criminals. This is just not poetry; this should be society’s norm!
On December 6th, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery. We are now standing here in June of 2020. But still, in American society, black people are not allowed to breathe. They still face economic disadvantages, leading to higher rates of poverty within the black community. They face mass incarceration and are treated unequally by the criminal justice system – this system is sometimes referred to as ‘slavery by another name’.
We have read how America’s institutionalized racism is also influencing Covid-19’s toll on the black community. Nurses from New York hospitals have informed us that they are getting instructed to serve white folks ahead of Black and Latino. It is a shame to see the white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence, and police brutality set against black Americans. Time and time again, we have seen how the U.S. criminal justice system is prejudiced against black Americans. These are not just stories; there are countless statistics that reveal America’s structural racism. Yes, ‘Black lives matter!’
But now when I see people from my sub-continent, Bangladesh and India, vehemently criticizing the white people living in America, I want to tell them to look carefully into their own baggage too. In the USA, all white people are not racists. There are wonderful people with compassionate hearts. And all police are not brutal; they keep a check on law and order. In fact, after immigrating to the USA, I was impressed by the work ethic of American Police, as in Bangladesh and India one can bribe a police to get anything done for their own benefit. I have spent the first 18 years of my life in Bangladesh, the next 12 years in India, and the last 22 years in the USA. In my experience, I have seen that a great deal of racism exists in Bangladesh and India as well as in the USA. I would not do justice to myself if I did not mention that before ending this article.
Fierce racism truly exists in Bangladesh and India. I personally know lots of Bangladeshi and Indian brides who have cried in silence for their entire lives because of their dark skin. They are repeatedly told, the bride should have light colored skin – I guess that is the remnants of being under 200 years of British rule! Their mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law torture these brides while the husbands keep quiet.
I have seen Bengalis taunting the ‘Marwaris’ (an Indian ethnic group who are successful businessman) just the way Jews are taunted in the USA.
I have seen them calling the South Indian People as sour ‘Tetul’ (tamarind) because in South India, tamarind is used in most of their dishes. Tamarind is a good food to eat in hot climates, and it makes sense that the South Indian people do what is good for their health. Even in America, I have seen Indian kids from other Indian states not wanting to sit by the South Indian kids because “their ‘curd rice’ lunch smells like puke and the kids’ backpacks smell and the kids’ sweaters smell and the kids themselves smell!”
I have heard those ‘Shardarji’ jokes demeaning the people from Punjab. “Oh ho, they need the turban tied up on their head, because otherwise their brain will fly away!”
Bengalis refer to the Telegu people as the ‘Hyderabad house!’
While growing up in Bangladesh and in India, I have heard time and time again that, “Americans do not take care of their parents. They send them to old homes. But we take care of our elderly.” But I myself have seen many Indian men not taking care of their elderly parents; they have literally thrown them on the streets!
After 9/11, many of my Muslim friends in Queens, New York had to spend their days in extreme fear, as their neighbors and the people in public places started thinking that Osama Bin Laden was their ancestor.
I still remember the mud and filth covered body of a tortoise my Muslim neighbors brought, giggling, from the sewerage drain to our Hindu house in Bangladesh because they heard that Hindus eat tortoises. They thought it didn’t matter even if it was from the sewerage drain, that’s how little they thought of us.
Likewise, I have seen in Kolkata, the snickering of the Hindus towards the Muslims. They point at the Raja bazar and say, “Look at those fools. Procreating by the dozens! These people do not even know how to use birth control!” Even today, I have seen in Kolkata many Hindus who do not drink water from a Muslim person’s hand. And this is the twenty first century!
I have heard the saying that Chinese people eat anything that moves. After the coronavirus outbreak, half of the world, including Trump, blames the Chinese for its spread, with ridiculous conspiracy theories taking over the internet.
The same question can mean two different things. When I wear a red bordered, off-white ‘Dhakai jamdani’ Sari, adorn my hair with jasmine garlands and put a red ‘tip’ (dot) on my forehead, I have heard Americans asking me “Isn’t it very difficult to wear a sari?” I can sense the intent in their voice. They want to know about my culture, about my pride. But then with a different tone in their voice, the same question can mean, “This is America. Why are you wearing your clothes in my country? And what is that red dot on your forehead?”
“No, friend. That red dot is not for your target shooting practice!”
To understand what racism is, we do not need to go through any rigorous curriculum. It is not rocket science. We do not need any PhD degree. When we humiliate somebody for his or her culture, heritage, ethnicity, or the color of their skin; when we discriminate against somebody for his or her culture, heritage, ethnicity, or the color of their skin; when we kill somebody for his or her culture, heritage, ethnicity, or the color of their skin – that is racism.
I am remembering one of my favorite books, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things” by Robert Fulghum. At the end of the day, we need to learn and know just these few things.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
All of us want to remain proud of our culture, our heritage, our ethnicity, and the color of our skin – all over the world. My hair color is my identity. My skin color is my identity. My name is my identity. You, an outsider, do not get to change my name to “Toby.”
“I AM KUNTA KINTE!”
Kalyani Rama is a Bangladesh-born Bilingual author. She has seven published books in Bengali. Kalyani has written for the newspaper ‘The Wisconsin State Journal’, and other literary magazines. Kalyani has received her Bachelor of Technology degree from IIT, Kharagpur, India in Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering. She is an Application Development Senior Engineer by profession and works in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Kalyani loves listening to people, animals, and trees.