A picture of a black woman with curly hair standing outside of a pink building

This post was originally published December 9, 2020.

The Great Exhale

Living life in America as a Black, biracial woman for me has felt like one giant inhale of my identity. The reality of being Black in America is that you cause people discomfort. So, I inhaled. 

When people made overtly or covertly racist jokes, I inhaled. 

When people said they forget that I’m Black, I inhaled. 

When people got uncomfortable uttering the word “Black” in my presence, I inhaled.

When people said, “My parents would never let me date a Black guy,” I inhaled. 

Then, somebody made an offhand racist “joke” about my dad my senior year of high school, and I inhaled. I went home and decided that that was my line. I was ashamed for feeling more comfortable inhaling than standing in my identity. I decided it wasn’t my fault that the world couldn’t handle or accommodate for my exhale. 

Then, my exhale became my revolution. I decided that it was no longer my job to inhale the ignorance, indifference and complicity of those around me. 

Then, my exhale became my revolution.

I inhaled and saved face for their ignorance for so long that I started to believe it for most of my life. I believed that there actually was something uncomfortable and less than about my identity because I was Black. The world told me so, over and over again. 

I exhaled all of the poison I had inhaled in my life that I was “less than.” That blackness was something to inhale. Over time, little by little, the world told me that me taking up space—as I am—would make people uncomfortable and that there was no room for me here as I am. 

The last four years have been one long slow exhale. 

I learned to exhale and stand in my identity despite knowing that I will make people uncomfortable. I began to breathe freely knowing that by me not inhaling I would disrupt the expectation. Breathing freely began to look like revolution. 

I learned to exhale and stand in my identity despite knowing that I will make people uncomfortable.

Now, here’s what’s happened. The world seemingly woke up to the reality of racism as it truly exists. The reality of racism that is woven into the fabric of this country. The reality of racism is the air we breathe.

I felt like I was about to fight the urge to take one giant inhale. It was like my mind was ready to fight the urge to run. I was going to have to take up space despite making people uncomfortable in one of the largest public discourses yet. I’ve unlearned that my blackness is something to hide.

Then, one by one, friends whose eyes were closed, strangers too indifferent to care, people who I never thought would listen, held space for my experience and the experience of the Black community. Blackness was not an awkward mention in a conversation. Blackness was the conversation, and I didn’t have to fight to exhale. People, people who never had before, held space for Black people to lead, to feel and to speak. 

One by one, friends whose eyes were closed, strangers too indifferent to care, people who I never thought would listen, held space for my experience and the experience of the Black community.

I didn’t know how good it would feel to live in a world where I could take up space as a Black woman, despite knowing I would make people uncomfortable. 

Nobody changed the subject. 

I cried each time a white friend reached out to me. I became comfortable taking up space in an environment that still expected me to inhale, and I exhaled anyway. I never imagined what it might feel like to take up space in a world where people would welcome the exhale.   

Now, here’s the rub, once you feel seen, held and respected enough to take up space as you are, once you are free to exhale, you cannot go back. 

I refuse to live in a world where my exhale is done so as resistance to a system that prefers I continue to inhale. A system that perpetuates the idea that blackness is anything other than heavenly. A system that denies the realities of implicit bias and racism.

I now know what it feels like to live in a world where I can exhale and be held. 

I now know what it feels like to live in a world where I can exhale and be held. 

In what feels like the blink of an eye, some people have packed up their folding chairs they set up at the Black Lives Matter parade, and they have gone home. 

I have lived many days inhaling the poisonous beliefs that the color of my skin makes me less worthy of love. The Black community is ready to exhale, and we are ready for you to welcome that exhale.

Please, pick up your folding chairs and throw them in the trash. Do not be a spectator in this movement. Be the person you said you would be if you had the choice to march with Dr. King and John Lewis. 

Be the person that stays. Be the person that goes deeper, gets angry, listens intently, asks questions, owns up, fights harder, loves with your actions and mobilizes your empathy. 

Welcome our exhale. We aren’t going back. 

Do you think that there has been progress in the dialogue on race and racism in America in 2020? Why is it important to hold space for experiences that are different from your own?

Image via Janessa Spina

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