On Friday, June 5, Breonna Taylor would have celebrated her 27th birthday. She was only a year older than me. We’ll never know what Taylor would have done that night. Maybe she would have stayed home with her family, playing cards as she often did. It eats me up not knowing.
Taylor was shot and killed in her bed by Louisville police, who later said they had the wrong house.
Every Black person I know is grieving for the life of this bright, young woman who loved her family and her job as a paramedic, and the many other Black people killed by police. And though we are physically apart, separated by borders or social distancing, we’re grieving together. The loss of so many Black people has sparked outrage, fear, sadness, emptiness, rage, and obviously, grief.
A less talked about side-effect? Guilt.
Amid the anti-Black racism protests taking place in North American cities, Black activists have the public’s full attention. I’m constantly engaging with friends and strangers. I spend most of my days posting and answering questions about defunding the police, prison abolition and Black liberation.
It is a relief to finally be heard. It is also exhausting to be “on” all the time.
I do my best to make myself accessible for those who are new to the movement and the cause. In a day, I may answer questions about where to donate, or fact check and create informational posts. I know that others may be too tired or traumatized to do the work, and feel invigorated by contributing toward the cause. Usually I don’t mind the additional labour, but the cracks are starting to show.
“Sometimes I don’t want to resist. I just want to exist.”
In the past, I’ve seen psychologists talk about the effect that racism has on the psyche. If racism can cause PTSD in Black people, what is all this constant trauma doing to us? Or all this grief and guilt?
There’s been talk lately of how to avoid burnout from being bombarded by constant news and tragedy. As I lose sleep wondering what more I can do and feel down on myself for not going to every protest, my friends make sure to remind me to eat, take breaks and accept help when it is offered. I try to make time for self-care and happiness — attend a Zoom yoga session, scroll through harmless pages on Instagram, play with my makeup, do some light reading.
I know that these acts of Black joy are an act of resistance in themselves. In a world where our very existence needs to be justified, living for the sake of living becomes political. Like the Black children in Georgia who were subject to racist threats at a birthday party a few years ago. Or Christian Cooper, who was simply birdwatching in New York’s Central Park when a white woman called the police on him.
Black people don’t get to be happy for no reason. That’s why I deserve every silly selfie or gut-busting laugh. But sometimes I don’t want to resist. I just want to exist, or dare I say, thrive.
Most of all, I just want things to be OK so I can rest. In theory there’s always time for rest, but I can’t seem to practise it. Guilt consumes me. In the back of my mind, the thought is always there: Black people are dying, from the coronavirus and police brutality pandemics, and here I am looking at memes.
The names and faces of all the ones we’ve lost to white supremacy haunt me. Often, we have more than our Blackness in common. Tamir Rice was the same age as my cousin. It pained me one day to see my relative hold a plastic gun like Rice did. Darrien Hunt could have been any of the nerdy Black friends I cosplay with for Anime North or Fanexpo. Hunt was dressed as a character from the anime Samurai Champloo when he was killed. Sandra Bland was as outspoken and fiercely independent as my aunt.
Breonna Taylor could have been me.
I know I’m not alone in what feels like survivor’s guilt. It’s hard not to put yourself in the shoes of another Black person whose life has been ended this way. Every time someone else dies, I wonder: What has made me so lucky that I haven’t become a hashtag?
Chicago-based Derrick Clifton wrote about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2015, and how much it struck him: “I see no need to watch yet another video of a young black person’s final moments…I do not need to further be reminded that these scenarios could’ve played out in my own family, a tight-knit clan including outspoken men who could be one pointed remark away from being choked to death like Eric Garner.”
“My hope for Black people is that we don’t have to continue shouldering these intense emotions.”
Black American activists are risking their lives to protest and tear down racist statues in the States. Here in Canada, I’ll go to marches and protests, but I feel guilt that we don’t face the same risks. The first march in response to Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death was peaceful at the family’s request. The image of Toronto police chief Mark Saunders kneeling with the organizers of a later march is a far cry from the cries of Minneapolis protestors booing their mayor out of their movement.
I know I am doing everything within my power. And yet, I feel more guilt that it isn’t enough. Nothing seems to be enough.
Maybe I could have donated more, or I could have mustered up the energy to go to multiple protests. I could have shared a post about Iyonna Dior, a transgender woman who was beaten by transphobes in her city. Instead, I quickly scrolled past it because I couldn’t bear to see it. It hit too close to home.
My hope for Black people is that we don’t have to continue shouldering these intense emotions. I want us to have access to normalcy and stability. May we go jogging without wondering “Am I next?” Let us lay down our heads at night without worrying whether or not we will wake up.
We ought to be able to mourn, work through our grief and guilt, and not have to ready ourselves to experience it again.
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