I Can't Breathe

Monday, September 14, 2020

My first experience with racism was at the age of 11, after our recent move to Liverpool, England. Another boy walking on the street toward me stopped and stroked my skin, hard. Surprised he then looked up at me and commented "Oh, I thought it would wipe off", and walked away. I think that day I stopped breathing, even if for a few seconds.

Weeks later someone else would call me 'Golliwog" because of my kinky curly hair. In those years I became keenly aware of something that had never mattered to me before; I was a different colour from others around me, and apparently, it mattered.

As a teenager, I was excited like most other teenage girls to try different types of makeup. My friends and I would go to the drugstore after school to play with testers and try on makeup. I quickly tired of these expeditions, simply because there was never any makeup for my skin tone. Literally nothing. It was like manufacturers did not acknowledge that black girls existed. A potent message of invisibility that permeated society. My breath at this time became shallow, I was struggling to be.

At school, I remember a season when I was disengaged from my studies. I let my grades slip and coasted through the semester getting okay grades but not my usual high scores. My frustrated mother told some aunts and uncles of mine who then sat me down and looked at me with all the seriousness they could muster. I would never forget the look in their eyes when they said "Tara you cannot afford to be mediocre, remember you are black and you have to work twice as hard as everyone else around you to prove yourself". I knew they were right, and that mantra kept the fire lit within me. I always made sure I excelled academically so there was never a question as to my abilities and what I could and could not do. I took a deep breath and dove into being a high achiever.

I eventually got used to people's low expectations. Both in the workplace and academically. It was as though I was not expected to be excel at anything. I learned to quietly and diligently do everything my hands touched with excellence and when people around reacted with surprise said nothing to question their surprise. At this point, I am breathing, deep conscious deliberate breaths; I will live.

I remember looking for work after I had graduated from university. I wore a wig so my hair would look 'straight' and 'groomed' and 'professional' and not jeopardize my chances. Not long after I landed the job I tossed the wig and wore my hair in a 'fro in quiet defiance. I have since stopped trying to fit in. I just let myself be and allow myself to be seen - its the ultimate in vulnerability for me, and with it, I can inhale the breath of fresh air that is Freedom.

And of course, there's my favorite question - "Where are you from?" I tilt my head to the side and reply "Canada". "oh but where were you born?" is the typical response. Head tilt to the other side "Canada". 2 times of 10 the questioner backs down. But most of the time they continue "ok but where are you really from". And then I turn the question around to them and do the same thing much to their shock.As innocent as those questions may be they would not be asked of a person who was not a visible minority. And the problem with it is that it makes the damaging assumption that every person of color must be from somewhere else. I still catch my breath each time I hear the question, and then remember to exhale the 'why'.

I have since learned to live life fully in a world where as a visible minority I am constantly boxed. I understand that I need not apologize for who I am or what I have achieved. I no longer measure myself by the lack of expectation I see in others but I understand I am free to be who I was created to be. I choose to breathe daily the air of Freedom and walk free of choking restraints that.

Its why Freedom Tree is thus named - the freedom to ultimately be ourselves to be free of judgment and fear.  To rise above the limitations we find ourselves in. A woman in a little known village in West Africa who is expected to die giving birth and be one of the unnamed statistics can be free of the fear of leaving her children motherless. A volunteer in America who feels inadequate can step out of their comfort zone and be fulfilled by pouring out their gifts and talents to help others. A child in one of our after school programs can discover the joy of unique deposits she was born with.

At this time, wherever you may find yourself and with the tension that is running through the world today, BREATHE. Remove the restraints that prevent you from knowing others fully and allowing yourself to be known. Breathe the refreshing of vulnerability and Freedom.

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