Breathing While Black

Mikael Wagner
12 min readOct 26, 2022

Have you ever wondered what it may be like to survive while breathing in Black skin? Most people don’t even think about it, especially if it’s not their life. As a very young boy, I was given a lecture by my mother on how to survive in America and anywhere else in the world. At the time I may have been 5 or 6 years old and didn’t understand what my stressed-out mother was trying to explain to me. I only remember that she kept saying, “You must protect yourself from people wanting to hurt or destroy you because of the colour of your skin”. Over time, the message became crystal clear.

Most children at the age of 4, 5, or 6 just want to play and have a good time. I loved playing with my friends in the neighbourhood, but venturing out of the community was stressful, even for a small child that didn’t know the meaning of the word stress at that time. At an early age, parents try teaching their children, Black children, how to survive and breathe in Black skin. It’s not an easy lesson, but eventually, it becomes second nature.

Growing up in a community of mostly Black people and other cultures was an amazing time for me. Whenever I think about people from so many cultures in the world, I can’t stop smiling and savouring the sweet memories of my childhood and all the love shared. I loved running home from school with my friends to see which one of the community grannies or grandpas would be taking care of us today. I can still smell the aroma of so many types of food that ranged from Chinese noodles & fried rice, Japanese chicken teriyaki, Korean barbecue chicken, Vietnamese rolls, New Orleans gumbo, shrimp creole, jambalaya, carrot cake, and sweet potato pie, just to name a few.

I always felt safe in my community because we were a family. Everyone looked out for each other, no matter what. Racism started early for me. Walking to school as a 6-year-old boy with my friends was always the fun part of my day. Once we left our community, white police officers would always drive by to harass us, asking, “Where are you going so early? Are you going to rob a 7–11 store or break into someone’s home and steal their television?” Most of the time they would just laugh at us because we looked confused. We didn’t know what a 7–11 store was or what it meant to steal anything. We just wanted to get to school and play with our friends. I was never worried because my big brother was always watching out for me, even when the police were making fun of us children, he would be jotting down license plate numbers.

The lessons from my mother continued year after year. Early on, she taught me the importance of using the right language. She would say, there are two types of languages that you will speak. One is how you talk to your friends and family members, and the other is how you talk outside of the community with other people. It was very confusing to me, but eventually, I gave in because there was no other choice with my mother. Today, what my mother was teaching us was how to code-switch. If you are a Black or African American person in America, especially working in a corporation, public health, or a not-for-profit agency, chances are you know how to code-switch. We code-switch to try to fit in by using a tone, speech patterns, or words that we believe are more socially accepted. It’s also used as a form of survival, but whites usually will make insulting remarks, such as, “You speak English really well, or you sound so white.” Comedian Dave Chapelle said, “Every Black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview.” Breathing while black in America and in most countries has made me aware of how I am perceived. It’s what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘double consciousness” which can often become exhausting observing yourself through the eyes of the majority culture. I am happy that my mother taught me this skill, but today I focus more on my own mental health and emotional well-being. Like any habit, it takes time to change, besides, it was exhausting at the end of a long day. It also feels refreshing to just be me and to do what makes me happy.

As a young boy, I didn’t understand why people hated anyone with my skin colour even if they had never met me before. Growing up, I started questioning various friends and colleagues about lessons they were taught about Black people in general. To my surprise, everyone was totally honest and forthcoming. Friends told me that throughout their childhood, their parents and grandparents told them to stay away from Black people because they are heavy drug users and will kill them. I asked them why they became friends with me, and they said they learned that many lessons told to them were false although many people still believe the fairy tales. Most of the fears came from watching movies or reading news articles. Overall, Hollywood movies and television shows played a major role in spreading lies about who the Black man, woman, or child is in society. Globally, Blacks are portrayed as:

  • Lazy
  • Stupid
  • Murderers
  • Rapist
  • Angry and violent
  • Thieves
  • Drug Addicts
  • Homeless
  • A Minstrel Act to make people laugh

The biggest threat in America is dealing with racist police officers that are trained to frighten, harm, hurt, or kill Black people. We were taught how to survive and not to be afraid, but to understand the abuse that could be used against us, regardless of our age. Police would travel throughout Black or diverse communities strictly with the intention to harass members of the community or rough up the males that may be walking home from a long day at work. Throughout my entire life living in Black skin, the trauma of harassment and discrimination was real. Driving a nice car was a cause to be stopped and questioned because it was assumed that it was stolen. Over the years I lost track of the number of times I was stopped as they ran my license plate number and checked my driver’s license to see if I had unpaid fines or was wanted for a crime. It took me a while to understand and learn how to not let their trauma affect my mental health. Even walking into a grocery store or pharmacy to pick up a prescription, security guards would follow me around with their hands on their guns while others were openly stealing and hiding products in their pockets, crotches, bras, or in a baby carriage.

Lack of housing continues to be a major threat in America and other countries if you are trying to breathe while Black. When looking for an apartment to rent, it was always a coincidence that the unit was just rented. Often the apartment would reappear on the rental list the very next day. I discovered that it was not by chance. I took a job with an agency that hired a lot of students and made our resumes, employment history, bank statements, and college degrees the same. The team ended up being my best friends. They would always send out a man or woman that was Black, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Latino Native American, and Caucasian. We practiced our pitch together and scheduled appointments to see the rentals using the perfect voices that all our parents had taught us. I still smile to myself when I remember the faces of the white men and women showing the apartments. They looked at our paperwork and would always say, “Someone rented the apartment an hour ago, but we will keep your information on file when another one opens up.” We would thank them for their kindness. Without fail, our white team member would always be the fortunate one to get the apartment. Then they would bring in their partner of colour and the expressions and offers would disappear. The great part about the job was that the agency filed several lawsuits against racist housing establishments that helped to end housing discrimination. Unfortunately, today, racism in housing still exists and thrives in most major cities, states, and countries. Redlining still exists to keep certain cultures out of what’s considered well-to-do white communities.

Try breathing while Black in education — every path is full of roadblocks to try to keep you from attending colleges or universities with the best reputations. When I decided I wanted to become a paediatrician, the high school counsellors that didn’t look like any of the culturally diverse students worked hard to convince me and others that college was not the right choice for people that looked like me and recommended going to a trade school to learn how to become a mechanic, a plumber or a construction worker. Some suggested getting a secure job with the postal service or working as a garbage man. My friends and I all laughed about it together and took turns mocking and imitating the counsellors. Nevertheless, I did manage to attend college to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Today I understand why my family tried to discourage me from having high hopes. It was to protect us, children, from being hurt by the mainstream culture at the time. Now I understand the resilience that Ruby Neil Bridges Hall, a 6-year-old demonstrated as the first African American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis on November 14, 1960. So amazing that she survived all the name-calling, hatred, and racist remarks from students, community members, parents, and some school staff. Would you be able to deal with such an ordeal while trying to get an education breathing while Black as a child? Lessons in life taught us how to survive and to remember our ancestors that gifted us with strength and courage. m

Seeking adequate health care breathing while Black can also be an obstacle, especially in America. Racism constitutes a barrier to achieving equitable healthcare. This is something that existed before I was born and continues today. Often the treatment from medical staff is appalling. According to the Health Affairs report on Structural Racism In Historical And Modern US Health Care Policy, “Members of racial and ethnic minority groups have long suffered from health inequities in the United States, and the COVID-19 pandemic has mercilessly worsened many of these inequities. As of November 2021, American Indian and Alaska Native, Black, and Latino people all had suffered from higher rates of hospitalisations and deaths related to COVID-19 compared with White people. These inequities result, in large part, from racial and ethnic minority populations’ inequitable access to health care, which persists because of structural racism in health care policy.” They also added that “Since the Jim Crow era (1875–1968), racism has implicitly and explicitly been an integral part of the US government’s structuring and financing of the health care system. For example, in 1946 the federal government enacted the Hospital Survey and Construction Act, commonly known as the Hill-Burton Act, to provide for the construction of public hospitals and long-term care facilities. Although the act mandated that healthcare facilities be made available to all without consideration of race, it allowed states to construct racially separate and unequal facilities. In addition, federal programs such as the Medical Assistance for the Aged program (also known as Kerr-Mills), which provided health care to the poor, “were underfunded and few states participated, especially states with large populations of Black Americans.” I highly recommend learning more about the Health Affairs report.

The lack of adequate employment while breathing in Black skin can be discouraging and devastating. If you are qualified, you may be able to obtain various interviews for jobs until you walk through the door. Most people, if they had mothers like mine, would know the expressions on their faces revealing that you would not be given a fair chance and certainly would not be hired. As I became more qualified in my field, often I would play a game with the nervous interviewers to see all the ways they could try to push me out the door. Of course, that was always my plan to demonstrate how unqualified they were to decide because of their racism. It always brought me great pleasure to push until the job was offered and then I would turn it down and explain why I was not interested in working in a company that discriminates against people wearing my skin. Discrimination exists in every working field. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you may have, years of experience, or if you graduated at the top of your class. The key is to never give up on your goals. I have been fortunate in my life to always meet people that took a genuine interest in me without caring about the colour of my skin. Every time that happened, I worked extremely hard to show my appreciation for believing in me. I discovered that not everyone is a bad person or against me because of the skin I am breathing in. There is another group that hates others that breathe while Black.

Mothers are amazing people that children really should learn to listen to at an early age, but none of us did, well, not to everything. As a boy, my mom described a group of people that would be against me for the simple reason that my skin matched their skin. I never understood it until I started to travel around America. As a child, I was taught to show kindness to all people of colour, but especially to those that looked like me. Initially, it was more painful to feel discriminated against or discredited by others in my culture of people. Mom saved my life. One of my dearest friends now living in Washington, DC always said to me when talking about a person that I may be working with, “Are they A-Kin or A-Skin?” At first, I look puzzled then she explained to me how Blacks or African Americans could be the cruellest by trying to bring other Blacks down in corporations or agencies so they could be the only Black person on staff or to prove they are better than you. Being A-Kin is a Black person that identifies with you, respects you, and looks out for you. Being A-Skin is a Black person that just happens to have Black skin but resents you for being qualified or liked by their white masters. Many of them wish they were not Black.

A few years ago, I attended a Black party in the Oakland Hills, a very exclusive area. I didn’t want to go alone so I begged a friend to go with me as my guest. We were so excited until the door opened and the host held up a brown paper bag next to our faces. Very proudly he said, “You can enter, but your friend is darker than the bag and he won’t be allowed to enter. I was furious and put up a strong argument but was unable to convince him that we are all the same, we were all Black. My friend grabbed my arm and said, now let’s go and have some real fun and we did. I will never forget the experience.

It’s called Colourism. The term was coined in 1983 by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, who defined colourism as prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour” in her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Many experts agree that colourism, as it operates in America, can be traced back to chattel slavery as seen in the distinction between “house” and “field” slaves. However, it certainly exists beyond the constraints of the United States.

My DC friend’s story reminded me of the stories from slavery of how lighter skin or house ‘niggas’ as they were called were told they were better than the darkies that worked in the fields. It’s ironic how no one was better in slavery, but the house slaves were taught to believe they were superior because of their lighter skin colour and because their mothers were probably raped by white men in charge of the slaves. The sad part is it still exists today. The internalised hatred and racism exist when people have been traumatised but choose not to heal from it and to strike out at others that look like them. Lessons in life have taught me how to survive and heal from trauma and to grow stronger, wiser, smarter, and more resilient from those lessons.

--

--

Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.