Standing upright

Breathing is a basic physiological process that is required to sustain life. Gravity is a basic force of nature that gives weight to physical objects and causes them to fall toward the ground when dropped. Economical enterprises unto themselves, our bodies provide a basic polarity that efficiently keeps us standing upright in relation to gravity’s field without requiring a lot of conscious struggle.

For many Americans though, it has been a conscious struggle just to stand upright over the past several weeks. Recent news has brought punch after punch. Enough punches to the gut and you get the wind knocked out of you, gravity pulls you down, and you fall flat on your face.


A gross historical reality, black people in this country once put their hands up when caught by bounty hunters hunting down escaped slaves as hunt. With American institutional culture still haunted by the corpulent legacy of slavery to this day, unarmed black men all across cities in America still put their hands up as they plead with police officers, “Don’t shoot.” Yet, every hollow claim of a post-racial America could not save the lives of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Rumain Brisbon, Eric Garner, and uncounted others like them.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

In a “we don’t need feminism,” world, recent incidents of violence against women have been nothing less than alarming. 22 year-old Nadia Ezeldein was brutally murdered in public by her abusive ex-boyfriend yet nary a media headline referenced domestic violence, signaling that she should have known better. In analyzing the broad cultural response to allegations of gross sexual assault by Bill Cosby, sadness over our childhood memories being tarnished have overshadowed discussions about the trauma endured by the up to 20 survivors, possibly including a minor. The Washington Post recently uncovered discrepancies in a Rolling Stone article about a victim’s experience of sexual violence at the University of Virginia. Since this eruption, ‘mistrust’ has once again been placed squarely upon the victim, allowing paid professionals to absolve themselves of their own egregious mistakes in journalistic integrity.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

A man in an SUV who had previously threatened the local Muslim community ran down and killed a boy outside a mosque in Kansas City. Although, this was a hate crime of national import, Muslims dying outside the narrative of national security and terrorism aren’t newsworthy national news. Americans all over the country are still in shock over a scathing report about the CIA’s unimaginably abusive and brutal interrogation techniques and their deceit in the use of these practices. This coupled with news about new racial profiling federal ‘restrictions’ that will still allow officials to use the controversial practice in the screening of airline passengers and along the southwestern US border, leave American Muslims to watch civil liberties, as applied to them, continue to erode away.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.


Presumably, in a democratic and just society, the most qualified people make wise decisions for the public good. In reality, those we have elevated as the very symbols of our Americanness – our icons, the leaders of our institutions, our ‘heroes’ – might actually sometimes be flawed, or even horrible, people.

By conflating leadership with heroism, we provide endless free passes to law enforcement officers, CIA directors, university administrators, and policy makers to not follow universal ethical principles, social norms, or even the law in the same way that is demanded from others. As we permit these ‘shining stars’ to carry the weight of all that it means to be American, we unconsciously grant these individuals, who are also capable of great harm, with unchecked power and impunity.


Gravity is the force through which all physical bodies attract each other. As we walk on the surface of the Earth, it pulls on us and we pull back. But since the Earth is so much more massive than we are, the pull from us is not strong enough to move the Earth, while the pull from the Earth can make us fall flat on our faces.

In a binary culture with impunity for some and abject disregard for others, the law of gravity dictates that something must give. Put more simply, the body with more weight can cause the body with less mass to fall flat on her face. The body that is attributed less weight has less resistance against the body with far greater mass and eventually is certain to topple in a grand, circular fall.

I can’t breathe.

In today’s polarized atmosphere, to question the very symbol of what America is or to bring our own institutions to account is increasingly viewed as un-American. In some sense, individuals going up against institutions is the equivalent of humans trying to move the Earth.

So while David vs. Goliath might not be the most winning strategy in the struggle for justice, there must be another approach; a flawed principle to override, a mistake that can be corrected. Perhaps, the fight is to demand a rebalancing of the scales, to demand that some individuals not be undeservedly granted the weight and gravitas of all that America stands for.


Similar to gravity, mammalian breathing is its own natural process, an unconscious physiological action. Yet, remarkably, there is a conscious, intentional override to the involuntary nature of breathing. Have you ever stopped everything to take a deep breath? Breath can be voluntary, intentional even, and deep.

In times like these when gravity’s pull threatens to topple us all over, those of us who carry the immense weight of privilege, who carry the very meaning of what it means to be American, need to stop everything, take a deep breath, and override the unconscious, unchecked processes that we assume keep everyone in our society standing upright. We need to rebalance the scales. We need to account for weight as it really is.

For those of us who belong in particular marginalized communities, let us also stop and hear the sound of our own righteous anger, let us know our own true weight. Let us stop everything, take a deep breath, and demand a rebalancing of the scales. Let us maintain a center of gravity and stand upright. We will not stand by and let those who are willing to harm, violate, and kill us to be granted complete impunity by the very institutions that are supposed to protect us.

If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be American.

If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be lived Islam.


(Photo Source: Samar Kaukab)


As the Managing Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works to launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago’s research enterprise and is Mama to three children.   

1 Comment

Leave a Reply to Lynn Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *