The weight and pressure of American racism

For Black and Indigenous people and other persons of colour, the backbreaking weight of American racism is inescapable.

BLM protester AP photo
A protester, his chest decorated with a tattoo reading 'I Can't Breathe', observes a moment of silence at a Juneteenth protest, June 19, 2020, in Providence, RI, US [AP Photo/David Goldman]

The weight of all forms of American racism on Black people – African, American, Afro-Latinx, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Caribbean – on Indigenous peoples, on people of colour with proximity to Blackness (collectively, BIPOC) is often overwhelming.  

At sea level, the Earth’s atmosphere exerts 14.7 pounds per square inch on us all. Or, for metric-system lovers, 1 kilogram per square centimetre. Racism has a weight that is equal to atmospheric pressure, doubling the effect of the Earth’s air on every square inch of every Black and Indigenous person’s body, mind, and spirit.  

All that weight, all this constant pressure, equivalent to being 10 metres underwater, slowly drowns many a Black and Indigenous person, outside-in and inside-out.

From conception to the afterlife, this weight is inescapable. 

Black hyper-masculinity and Latino patriarchy cannot shift it. Nor can socioeconomic mobility and educational achievements. Nor can alcohol or drugs or sex. Nor can Christianity or respectability politics or virginity or “doin’ the right thing.” No matter a BIPOC’s class standing, this weight and pressure is always there. 

It constricts skin and muscle, crushes bone and bone marrow, entangles neurones and blood vessels. Leaving so many Black and Indigenous persons in a constant state of anxiety-ridden awareness. No human should be on alert for attacks and oppression their whole lives.

I have been an American Black male for more than half a century. There have been only a handful of times since turning seven and watching the mini-series Roots for the first time in 1977 when I have not felt this excess weight, this otherwise unyielding pressure. Like when I went to Toronto in 1999 to do a conference presentation, leaving the US for the first time. Or when I visited an Athabascan village in the middle of Alaska during the summer solstice in 2001. Both put me outside the weight and pressure of my life in the US. Otherwise, anxiety, bouts with depression, a quiet yet deep well of rage, the nagging feeling that my work and my accomplishments are never good enough, the everyday struggles with being Black in the US, all have been my companions over the past 43 years. 

This weight, this pressure, has consequences, for me and millions of others. A lower life expectancy and a lower quality of life. Hypertension, high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes are often on this toxic menu. Justified paranoia that with the weight of racism can contribute to clinical depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, real and socially constructed.  

“If only all the contradictory voices shouting inside my head would calm down and sing a song in unison … I wouldn’t care as long as they sang without dissonance … But there was no relief,” Ralph Ellison’s bodiless narrator says in his 1952 classic Invisible Man.

Imposter syndrome for the small percentage of BIPOC folks who find themselves among America’s elite is another consequence. “People of colour … are particularly vulnerable to this debilitating sensation … imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads. We … receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong,” HuffPost Life reporter Jolie A Doggett wrote in 2019. 

Expressions that denigrate achievement, like telling a Black student who received an acceptance letter from an elite university they got in because of race, or congratulating an accomplished BIPOC orator for being “articulate,” exacerbate imposter syndrome. These not-so-micro aggressions feed that sense of not belonging, of being a fraud, of using the white gaze as the means for measuring BIPOC self-worth.

But the most common consequence is being constantly at war. War with one’s self as WEB Du Bois identified it in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), part of his definition of “double consciousness,” of using the white lens to see one’s self rather than one’s own self-reflective ID. Or, “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder,” as Du Bois wrote.

And, with white patriarchy, there is also an intraracial and intersectional war, as whiteness and the narcissism that whiteness nurtures is a world more insidious than anything seen in The Matrix. The intersection between racism, colourism, misogynoir and narcissism nourishes many BIPOC men into internalised racism, domestic violence, rape and other forms of dehumanisation. Leaving Black and Indigenous women, LGBTQIA folx of colour, and BIPOC living with poverty fighting on multiple fronts, with that much more weight to carry and that much more pressure on their beings.

There is also the culture of resistance in which African diasporic and Indigenous people especially have engaged for centuries. Resistance to slavery, by escaping and freeing oneself. Resistance to cultural erasure, by combining the remaining shards of African folk traditions into music, into prayer, into family, with medicine and with food. Resistance to Jim Crow, in building civil rights movements, in self-defence, in Pan Africanism. 

Resistance to marginalisation, to lynchings, to law enforcement-sanctioned murders, to rapes, to wage theft, in “protesting with their feet” and migrating for the opportunity “to ‘joy” their “freedom” (to quote Princeton historian Tera Hunter indirectly) to cities all over the US.  

And as with any organised resistance, freedom fighters from Nat Turner, Ida B Wells, and Marcus Garvey to Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur have faced repression, detention, assassination and exile. 

We can possibly add Ferguson and St Louis Black Lives Matter activists like Darren Seals, Deandre Joshua, and Bassem Masri to this mix. For those activists who do not die young, there is also the toll on their physical and mental health, the ostracism they face, the loss of income that occurs.

Being a resistance fighter in the war against American racism can crush spirits and bodies like a tin can caught in the gravity well of a black hole.

To expect Black, brown, and Indigenous people to respond to these lethal weights and pressures with nonviolent protest and instant forgiveness is simply ignorance and racism defying all logic. Like Du Bois, I believe it is a wonder that there is not more violence directed at individual white people and individual American institutions for their everyday anti-Black and anti-brown violence. Like author and activist Kimberly Jones, I understand why so many would want to “burn this bitch to the ground,” and agree the US is “lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge”. But, the weight of American racism is backbreaking, the pressure suffocating. How long are marginalised Americans supposed to wait before the US restructures itself to remove the weight and release the pressure?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.