A woman standing outside with her arms at her hips

Being a black woman in 2020 is like being in a car full of people. The windows are rolled up. Everyone is smoking, except you.

You start wheezing, and you know your asthma—something you’ve had since birth—is flaring up again. You try to clear your throat. You force a little cough to see if the tickle in your throat is lessened. It’s not. You start to cough, and you look around to see if anyone notices the tickle now making your right eye water. They don’t. Their eyes are locked on their fingers as they focus on their own inhales and exhales. 

Their eyes are locked on their fingers as they focus on their own inhales and exhales. 

Through coughs, you ask in broken, quiet sentences over the music if the driver can crack the window. The driver turns around smiling and points his cigarette in your direction with a nod. You still wheeze, but you start to relax your throat. You didn’t realize you were tightening because you know you’re about to breathe easier.

You don’t. You turn your head toward the window, but it’s not down. It seems like the music is louder. You don’t know if it’s actually louder or if your struggle is making you imagine things, but it’s harder to concentrate on your breath.

Maybe they didn’t hear me, you start to think. Maybe they thought I asked for the music to be turned up and they don’t hear me struggling, you wonder. I was coughing after all. I could have asked louder, you reason.

You ask louder this time, but the coughing is now causing you to strain. You feel like the smoke and the music are suffocating you. Surely, this time someone heard me, anyone in the car. You look around and everyone is smiling and looking ahead—windows up.

Now, you’re angry, but mostly, you’re just afraid something bad will happen to you. Someone had to have heard. The person literally right beside me has to see I’m not OK, and I need the window down, you think. Even if they didn’t hear me ask, can’t they see I’m coughing and struggling to breathe? Someone has to get the driver to roll down the windows. Someone has to help, you think as you wrestle with your anxious mind.

A voice from the passenger seat shouts over the music. They can’t hear you. Speak up louder. You try yelling, but you have a throat full of smoke and tears streaming down your face. 

You try yelling, but you have a throat full of smoke and tears streaming down your face. 

Do you just hope it passes? Should you try saying it louder? How much longer do you cough until you have a full-blown asthma attack? Do you shake the person beside you? Do you suffocate on the smoke as you try to yell to get their attention?

Do you punch out the window? Do you do nothing and let the smoke fill your lungs until you can no longer breathe? Why is no one helping? Why is the driver not listening? 

You punch the window, and they cry, “Vandalism! and “Thug!” You shake the person beside you and yell. Others in the car might do the same. What if the driver gets hit and you turn a peaceful car ride into a riot?

Eventually, they’ll ask, “Why didn’t you try harder? You knew you had asthma. Why didn’t you have your inhaler? That’s not an excuse to damage property. You should have spoken in a different tone. You know, you also should have said something before you got in the car.”

No matter what, there’s no option that doesn’t result in some form of criticism. Everyone will say what you should have done after the fact. Where were they when you were screaming and crying through choked wheezes? Is there a right thing to do when you’re trying to survive in an environment set up to harm you? Is there a right thing to do when you’re fighting for your life? For simply the right to breathe?

How have you responded in the past when black people share stories of racial discrimination? What can you do to better listen to the black community?

Image via Kathryn Hancock,  Darling Issue No. 15

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