I Can’t Breathe: Oppressive Systems are Suffocating My Black Body

by LaVonya Bennett I have always tried to share my perspective of growing up as one of the first...

by LaVonya Bennett

I have always tried to share my perspective of growing up as one of the first black families in my neighborhood, being removed from private school because of the negative experiences around race, and living with the loss of a brother at the hands of cops. In sharing these experiences, whether solicited or not, I often received the quick response of being a race baiter, focusing too much on my differences, or giving too much power to my experiences. I don’t understand how I am race baiting or perpetuating hate by sharing insights of my life on a daily basis. These systems of oppression have never been addressed systematically so we’re allowed to live and thrive behind a mask of religion, politics, work ethic, education, and access. I challenge that.

White people do not understand my blackness but that does not mean I have to die a slow (or quick) death. When men do not recognize their privilege, I should not be made invisible or the silenced servant to their success or needs. When the dominant culture normalizes and marginalizes, the soul and being of one’s identity becomes the festering ground for hate. When people ‘other’ me through their normalized lens of oppression, I continue on my journey of dying a slow death. My resilience serves as a temporary lifeline, giving me one more breath.

For those who do not share my identity, understanding my experiences is a difficult task. As a woman of color, my realities are often scapegoated to empty acknowledgements for being a servant to men. As a woman of color my realities are denied each time the world finds their prototype of what a black woman should be — which often includes the erasure of their identity. While I like to imagine a space where others’ concerns of my identity is their own burden to bear, I cannot because their concerns, stereotypes, and prejudices impede on my ability to move freely in the world. It inhibits my ability to find peace, to relax, to be, to breathe.



I can’t breathe knowing that the microaggressions and macroaggressions I frequently experience are embedded and perpetuated in historical events and attitudes that are often denied as truth and disregarded as reality. Yet, I am consistently met with expectations to just “get over it.” It being racism, gender inequality, homophobia, patriarchy, poverty, ableism, classism, and countless other systemic injustices. Too many have the mindset — sometimes without actively acknowledging it — that slavery, women’s suffrage, and oppressive systems toward marginalized populations, was so long ago that it has little impact on today’s world. But, they fail to realize that the struggle for civil rights for some went like this…


Prior to 1865 and thereafter, we see the continued genocide and erasure of indigenous people in the United States.

In 1865, slavery was abolished, but racial and gender hatred and discrimination were not.

In 1920, through the efforts of liberal feminism, white women were able to vote (and in 5 years we will whitewash history with a beautiful, expansive celebration of women’s equality in the United States).

It wasn’t until 1924 that Native/Indigenous women gained the right to vote.

Sixteen years after this victory for indigenous women, the fight for equity is still in its premature stages. Legal and highly supported segregation of people of color, the LGBTQ community, women’s equity, and most marginalized populations was still alive and well. Not only were these oppressive systems supported widely by most of the Euro-Western world but, there were (and are) systems in place to ensure the bigotry and hatred of others would remain status quo. Some of those systems include rape culture, transphobia, gender expectations, and the expectation of assimilation.

Thirty-two years after white women gained the right to vote Asian women could finally vote in 1952. However, it was well before 1952 that we see the emergence of the Model Minority Myth that set unrealistic performance expectations as a means to prevent unification of marginalized populations.

1964 was the year of the attempted abolishment of segregation. In the same year, black women and those who previously were not given the constitutional right to be an active member of our local and national governing systems, gained the legal right to vote.

Someone born in 1964, during the midst of racial hatred and unevenly weighted power structures, would be 10 years old in 1974. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people who held the literal and proverbial power and had privilege by virtue of their skin, class, financial status, and/or gender were not all out being saviors of those seeking civil rights. In fact, according to most research these people (and their children) did just the opposite by embracing views of hate, racism, and oppression in various forms.

Around 1984 to 1994, those ten-year-old children were now having babies. The false assumption is that their children are more tolerant in that women can work and vote, and people of color are not frequently being hung from trees. These overt acts of racism has now moved to mass incarcerations, the targeted war on drugs which was/is actually the war on people of color, systemically structured governmental tactics. At this time, acceptance is still a mere ideological framework that is fairly unknown and incomprehensible towards marginalized populations.

I begin to lose my breath when I have to deal with knowing that the intersections of my identity do not always meet the normative standard for my in-group, while simultaneously being too close to the negative stereotypes surrounding black women that are found threatening by those who do not look or identify like me.

I start gasping for air as I come to grips with living in a purgatory of a little too much, but never enough.

I begin to look for other means of oxygen, as I recognize that liberal feminism (you know, the ones that fought for white women’s right to vote in the 20’s) only supports bodies of color when it is of benefit. Liberal feminism is white feminism: a system that I am expected to proudly support, but I only do so out of a means of self-preservation.

I am out of breath knowing that the response to sharing these concerns, thoughts, and truths will be met with genuine, kind hearted phrases like “make sure you are engaging in self-care.” When the reality is the luxury of self-care is only afforded to those who are also afforded humanity. I have to try and be an unapologetic black woman when society only feeds me negative messages of my identity. That is, if I am even seeing myself outside of my bathroom mirror. I have to worry about not letting my blackness discomfort most of the world — being exceptionally smart to prove my most basic intelligence and navigating the oppressive patriarchal systems that are upheld by virtually all men because patriarchy knows no color. I have to give exorbitant amounts of energy on being happy, so that I am not threatening, avoiding resting bitch face so everyone else is at ease, worrying about my cultural tone inflections, and trying to dodge every false stereotype and assumption that I am frequently met with.



The reality is, I don’t need self-care. I need the death of oppressive systems of power, the end of the abuse of privilege, more equity, fairness in the workplace, comfort on my runs that are supposed to aid in my health and stress, and recognition of my lived experiences and reality.

So, while we may love to loathe our dearest ABC dad, Poppa Pope, he was only speaking realness when he said to his little black girl, “You have to work twice as hard to get half of what they get.”

I can’t breathe. You say life is not a race, then why am I running? I am exhausted. I am out of breath. I can’t breathe.

Photo: vincenzo mancuso / Shutterstock.com

LaVonya Bennett is an Administrator in Residence Life, a division of Student Affairs and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oklahoma. She obtained her B.A. in Psychology and her Masters in Human Relations with a Counseling emphasis. She can be reached at lavonyabennett@gmail.com.


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