by Esther Harvey
Across the world, Black and brown bodies are being gunned down in their homes by state authorities. Maybe this is too ineloquent, or blunt, a way to phrase this painful truth; at least, I do not hear these words being spoken, not by mainstream news sources or political officials. That is a hard truth to realise, and it sends a message: the lives of people of colour do not matter and can be callously thrown away at the whim of state authorities. Furthermore, when this truth is consistently presented to me as a seemingly unalterable pattern—the massacre in Gaza, the crisis in Ferguson, the endless slaughter of Black youth by police officers in the U.S.—I begin to see it as an inescapable reality. Bodies like mine are not valued and this fact has significant impacts on the state of my mental and emotional health, in the same way it does for many other people of colour around the world.
In the climate of perpetual violence inflicted upon people of colour by the state, I wonder at the extent of my mind’s capacity to witness violations of the most basic human rights, and whether it will last. Recently discussing my approaching ‘breaking point’ with a friend, we considered the weight of bearing witness to these events as people of colour. “It feels like a storm is coming,” I told her, and we agreed that our levels of anxiety were increasing at a rate in proportion to the level of race-based violence of which we not only witnessed, but tangibly felt the ramifications. As my friend went on to point out, the ability to limit one’s exposure to the effects of various forms of violence and oppression, to have an ‘opt out’ button that allows one to don blinders at will, is the very definition of privilege. When people without that option feel the consequences of state-enforced violence, they have a real, tangible impact on our mental and emotional health: from the worry we feel for our loved ones to the level of safety we feel sitting in our own homes. The degree of stress in the minds and lives of racialised peoples collectively increases when we see and hear about the violence enacted upon our communities, both immediate and diasporic; that is, whether or not we directly confront police brutality on a physical level, we feel its presence haunting the bodies of those with skins like ours.
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The violence of these events is not experienced in isolation (nor are these events isolated incidents). It is experienced by, and integrated into, the collective consciousness of the diaspora, experienced so rawly and repeatedly that from the moment we are born, we are saturated in it. We share the communal knowledge of shared memories of violence, that happen to us, our siblings, our friends. Or that happen to strangers who look like us, share our cultures or places of origin. The repeated histories of police brutality, of the physical and psychological warfare waged against people of colour, become ingrained in our minds in ways that begin to transcend individual experience, the stories merging into our collective memory: a memory composed of our understanding of our positions in history as colonised peoples, or supposedly valueless bodies, and, consequently, a memory that breeds survival instincts.
When we are repeatedly told that our bodies and lives are worthless, harassed and gunned down in the streets, and made ashamed or deemed immoral for fighting back, or simply for assembling in protest, the powers that be are sending us a message: Black and brown bodies do not matter. Not only can we kill them, we can refuse to report these killings, refuse to call them what they are, and refuse to take action to punish those responsible. Perhaps the most sinister consequence of these tactics is the way in which society’s gaze becomes warped in relation to bodies of colour: the bodies that experience the brunt of this violence are the very ones deemed responsible for it, and are represented to the world as its initiators. And so our methods of survival are deemed dangerous and antagonistic, and we are left with very little ‘legitimate’ means of defence.
The tactics of race-based control used by the State in North America have never been altered; they have only been given different names— crowd control, self defense, keeping the community safe. Who are the streets safe for when all the Black bodies have disappeared from them? And where, or when, will we finally be allowed to exist? In much the same way as bodies were left in the tree after a lynching, Michael Brown’s body was left on the street by police, to the same effect. Images were allowed to circulate and a message was sent to those in the community, and any others viewing that image, stating exactly just how little Black lives matter, and how easily they can be taken away.
Images like this become permanent fixtures on our emotional landscapes. They stand in stark contrast to our dreams and aspirations, and intrude on what should be at least one safe place of refuge for us as people of colour: our own minds. Colonisers, perhaps, only partially predicted the effects of controlling a population with physical force. Perhaps they knew that the population would learn to fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, regardless of where they were or what they were doing. Perhaps they even foresaw that levels of stress and anxiety would increase in these populations, not only in direct relation to the immediate violence of their surroundings, but as a result of centuries of exposure to a general devaluation and disregard for their humanity. I doubt, however, that the colonisers predicted the development of an ancestral memory, one that is passed down orally and visually, as well as in the written word. This memory collectivises pain. Whether it be of our ancestries, of our colonisation, or of our constant subjugation to race-based hatred, it goes beyond a general empathy and becomes an understanding of the fact that our histories are written, immovable, on our skin. When we consistently witness violence against people who look like us, who share our colour, our lives, our faces, we are told: this could be you. It could be your family, or friends, and if you are not careful, it will be. This is not only physical, but psychological, warfare.
The emotional and mental consequences of witnessing and experiencing the kind of violence inflicted upon people of colour on a global scale are limitless. Acknowledge this. Acknowledge that in order to learn to survive this violence, we have had to learn to metabolise it. It must be processed on a daily basis, constantly, consistently, and that is work—hard work. But, let it be converted into an energy so fierce and forceful that it fuels our survival, and allows us to continue living, loving, and existing, whether it be through our poetry, our activism, or our irrepressible resistance; even if we are fought at every turn. Because a world without us is not a world worth living in.
my people. of colour.
you are an altar of stars.
do not ever forget this.’
– nayyirah waheed
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