“I Can’t Breathe” Is a Cry Well Known to Black Indigenous People in Australia

We know the “I can’t breathe” cries of George Floyd and before him Eric Garner, but how many know of 26-year-old David Dungay Jr., a Black Indigenous man in Australia who cried, while in custody, “I can’t breathe” and died while being “restrained” by police?

The global dimensions of the struggle for Black lives were strikingly visible last year, after the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, when we all witnessed global protests from multiracial groups of people who were fed up with state-sponsored killings of Black people and anti-Black policing around the world.

In our day to day lives, however, many people in the U.S. are often unaware of the ongoing resistance occurring throughout the world. It is for this reason that I wanted to bring attention to a Black and Indigenous group in Australia, the Indigenous Blackfullas, who are often erased on the international stage of anti-Black pain and suffering.

To get at the heart of anti-Black Indigenous reality in Australia, I spoke with Chelsea Watego who is a Mununjali and South Sea Islander woman and associate professor within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland.

With over 20 years of experience working within Indigenous health as a health worker and researcher, Watego’s work has drawn attention to the role of race in the production of health inequalities. She is working to build a new field of research committed to the survival of Indigenous peoples locally and globally, and she is a founding board member of Inala Wangarra, an Indigenous community development association. Her forthcoming book, Another Day in the Colony, published by UQ Press, is to be released in November 2021.

George Yancy: In 2020, the world witnessed the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd as he was being held face down on the ground, and as one white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt with his knee on Floyd’s neck. As in the case of 43-year-old Eric Garner, Floyd was heard pleading with the police officers that he could not breathe. “I can’t breathe!” is a cry that has deep existential, political, social and economic implications for Black people in North America. It is cry that reflects North America’s history of violent lynching of Black bodies, social and economic racist oppression of Black bodies, and the disproportionate vulnerability experienced by Black bodies and people of color regarding the impact of COVID-19. In other words, that cry isn’t new. Yet, this existential motif is not specific to North America. I was excited to see Aboriginal people engaging in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement here. I think that solidarity must move in both directions. I find that many Americans, across racial divides, are not as aware of Aboriginal suffering under white supremacy as they ought to be. Black bodies are globally depicted as “inferior,” “sub-persons,” as the quintessence of “criminality.” In short, Black Aboriginal people continue to find it hard to breathe within a white hegemonic settler colonial system. Discuss what you see as the structures of the anti-Black racism that haunt Aboriginal people.

Chelsea Watego: I think you raise an important point about solidarity moving in both directions. As a people that are both First Nations and first-raced, we are Black and Indigenous, yet on the international stage, it is not uncommon for us to be erased from the category of Black.

Our mob joked about being the “wrong kind of Black”; our creation stories don’t speak of a Blackness that originates out of Africa, and nor does our emancipatory work as Indigenous peoples align neatly with the U.S. civil rights movement. As Aboriginal people, we can observe a hierarchy of Blackness in which we are placed at the bottom — that is, when we are not being excluded from it altogether. It really is something to be seen as neither human nor Black in the place where we became both.

An example was that Trevor Noah joke that surfaced prior to his Australian tour and the response to it. The joke told in 2013 made reference to the beauty of all women which included Black women, but then, he went on to speak of Aboriginal women specifically and separately from Black women. The punchline was something along the lines of well, maybe we aren’t beautiful, but we are good at giving head, as he mimicked playing the didgeridoo (which, for the record, is a men’s instrument). Noah granted an interview with me and my co-host Angelina Hurley the “Wild Black Women” in which he refused to apologize for the joke, despite the interview taking place in the midst of both #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. The responses on social media from many of his Black fans were to insist that we weren’t even Black because we didn’t look like it.

There is a betrayal of sorts when Black people read the bodies of Blackfullas to deny the legitimacy of our identity as Aboriginal people — it is, after all, a very settler thing to do. Ideas of blood quantum were fundamental to the racial violence we experienced here, yet we have resisted, and we speak instead of bloodlines: bloodlines that aren’t dilutable, but that forever bind us to the country from which we became human and testify to the completeness of our Indigeneity.

Regardless of color, the bodies of Blackfullas also testify to the brutality of race in this place. David Dungay Jr. was just 26 when he uttered his last words, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly. The force applied, complete with a sedative injected into his body, was because he refused to stop eating biscuits in his prison cell in 2015. The coronial inquiry concluded that none of the guards should be subject to disciplinary action. Stories of Blackfullas dying at the hands of the state with investigations that deem such deaths as “inevitable” show how race continues to work all the time, everywhere, in prison cells and hospital wards as well as public streets. I would also argue, however, that Blackfullas, as genocide survivors, have something to teach the world about how to strategize survival amidst racial violence, too. After all, it is on these same streets that we chant #StillHere and #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe.

I have had the opportunity to visit Western Australia a few times. My first public talk in Australia was in 2010. I had the opportunity to give a talk there on white privilege. I must say that the white Australians with whom I discussed that issue appeared to be shocked. I tend to be direct and candid when giving talks on race and racism. So, I’ll concede that this was part of what generated their response, but during Q&A, it occurred to me that they had not done the critical work of exploring their whiteness. Hence, I suspect that the discussion itself was unnerving. Perhaps I was naïve to expect otherwise. From your own experience as an Indigenous scholar, as a Blackfulla, has there been any substantial movement by white Australians to come to terms not just with the ways in which their own system of white governance has been brutally detrimental to the lives of Black Indigenous people, but the ways in which their whiteness is the problem?

White people are particularly out of control here in the colony, so it is not surprising to hear of these kinds of reactions. Here we are forced to speak of our supposed cultural “otherness” rather than the violence of white supremacy. Australia is very much in denial about who it is as a nation, from the founding lie of Terra Nullius (unoccupied land), to the mythologizing of itself as a place of the “fair go.” It is a country that heartlessly incarcerates people indefinitely for seeking asylum. It is a country where, in one state, 100 percent of the youth prison population is Aboriginal. It is a country that has suspended the Racial Discrimination Act on three separate occasions and only in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There isn’t even a place in the Australian academy to teach or study race, and if you try to, you can guarantee you’ll be hard pressed finding an office to work from even if you have tenure.

It is also difficult to publish as a race scholar. Just this year, I had a peer-review publication denied by the Australian Feminist Law Journal on what was to be a “special issue” by Indigenous female academics on race, literature and the academy. I wrote a review of a text that had routinely used animalistic descriptions in their references to Aboriginal characters. It was rejected by the editors on the basis that to imply that someone is racist, which my 150-plus footnotes appeared to do, could be seen as defamatory, even if it were true. I was allowed to write an opinion piece instead to talk to my “experience” of not being published. They also then insisted on the inclusion of a white male in this special issue of Black women’s writing, to explain defamation laws. Interestingly, the alleged unpublishable article will be published in my forthcoming book. So yeah, there’s that.

In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison has this powerful passage that reads: “Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.” Under racist hegemonic systems, those in power would rather we suffer in silence. Or perhaps they would rather we remain hopeful. While being hopeful can keep an oppressed people alive, it can also function to keep oppressed people — and here I am thinking of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) — looking toward a future that may never come. In this way, I agree with Morrison. Anger operates at a different level of temporal intensity. Anger expresses our reality of presence. It says, “We are here!” It speaks to our sense of self-worth; it says that we refuse to wait, to hope, to have justice deferred. My sense is that there are forms of dehumanization that mock the privilege of hope. What are some of your thoughts on the ways in which hope itself might function as counterproductive to Black Aboriginal complete liberation?

It’s funny because it was your interview with bell hooks when she spoke about anger and the advice from Thích Nhất Hạnh that I’ll never forget. He advised hooks to “hold on to your anger and use it as compost for your garden.” I felt so relieved to hear that because I had come out of a conference that had commemorated the 50th anniversary of Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton’s articulation of institutional racism, where all the presenters (mostly white) were talking about hope, and it made me angry! I am tired of being told that anger is an unhealthy emotion, particularly when it is anger that drives my work, and is the foundation of my best work.

I don’t know how it is I could be human as an Aboriginal woman, and not be angry about the world that I am situated within, which Lauryn Hill captures so powerfully in “Black Rage.” But just because I am angry about things does not mean I am an angry person. I have much joy in my life which I am deliberate about.

The radio show “Wild Black Women” I co-hosted for several years invoked the idea of the angry Black woman, where each week we deconstructed the events that got us wild (i.e., angry). The irony was that we laughed and snorted our way through each episode, ridiculing those who had the nerve to try and put us in our place. Our earliest complaints were from largely white listeners who were offended because we were laughing. So, we read those complaints out on air to the backdrop of violins and laughed some more. We also got our first fan mail, which I’ll never forget. It was a hand-written letter from a brother in jail who spoke about how Black radio playing outside his cell got him through the glare of those fluorescent lights. To be human and to be free is to feel every damn emotion — whenever the hell we feel.

I’m aware of the risks involved when Black people share their pain. It is often so easy for white people to consume it with a sense of fetishization. I recall once asking two philosophy graduate students, one Black and the other Chinese, to share with the other students, who were white, what it is like to be nonwhite in North America. That day, I learned a valuable lesson. Both students refused to share, as they didn’t want their pain placed on display. I don’t want to risk that here in this conversation. However, as a Black Indigenous woman living under white Australian systemic power, could you share how you cope? I ask this because there are times here when I want to scream at the top of my lungs.

So, I have had to check myself on this one. I have long resisted the idea of being a victim. I just hate the idea of it. I was taught to be 10 times better as a strategy for surviving racism, so the vulnerability of victimhood was unfamiliar to me. But I’ve slowly realized that the requirement to be superhuman as a response to dehumanization is another unfair burden placed on Black bodies and souls. As a victim of racial violence, I have taken up fights through legal processes and I found myself in what I thought was the paradoxical position of victim and potential victor. I thought that to win, I had to be strong and that I couldn’t let them see me as a victim. Yet, I’ve realized that one can occupy the dual role of victim and victor. It means a preparedness for a form of public vulnerability, but knowing who that is for and the limitations and risks of it all.

I realized I was doing a great disservice to other Blackfullas, including my children, when I pretended that the violence was not taking its toll, knowing that some days it had almost broken me. They felt it in our home, even if I didn’t speak of it. What are we saying to ourselves when, having been brutalized, we don’t permit ourselves to occupy the role of victim?

I know that my vulnerability will be weaponized against me by white people, but there is something just as dangerous in denying ourselves that vulnerability with each other. In rethinking victimhood, I had to rethink victory, too. I had long been obsessed with W.E.B. Du Bois’s “blue sky moments,” but it was an Elder Dr./Aunty Lilla Watson who sat me down one day and questioned me on my desire to win. She said to me that when we operate on their terms, we’ve already lost. But when we operate on our terms, we are winning. I had to think about winning not as an outcome of a court case, but instead in the turning up of things. The winning is in my being, in the exercising of my sovereignty in those moments, all the time.

While I’m critical of hope, I know that Black people around the world must survive. And we may have to do so in the face of absolutely no guarantee that our lives will improve under different manifestations of white power, white nation-building, white empire fortification. What do you see as necessary for Black people in Australia in terms of their survival? And as someone who is aware of the pervasive suffering experienced by Black people in North America, what would you suggest to Black people here moving forward? I ask this because we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, beyond the white nationalist, white supremacist ethos of Donald Trump — it is there, standing back and standing by.

So, I am all about retiring hope as an emancipatory strategy for Black people. Literally, the chapter I’m writing right now is called “Fuck Hope.” I am interested in dealing with the reality of things, in all of its ugliness. And look, it’s not like a red pill, blue pill choice as we find in The Matrix, though I used to think of it like that, as though we only ever have a choice between race blindness and race transcendence. Both positions are violent and exhausting for Blackfullas, and in part because both rely on the hope that race isn’t real, either now or in some future time. Race isn’t going anywhere, and progress is a lie white people tell to assure us of their virtue — again, in some future unknown time. I’m more interested in “nihilism” in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout where he describes an “unmitigated Blackness.”

Our people have not aspired to be like white people, seeking the same rights they have; rather, we have been insisting upon our unique rights, while knowing full well the odds are completely stacked against us because the settlers aren’t going home. But Beatty writes, “sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”Unmitigated Blackness doesn’t lend itself to definition, but he writes, “whatever it is, it doesn’t sell … it’s a seeming unwillingness to succeed … it’s the serious black actor, it’s a night in jail … simply not giving a fuck.” This is the closest articulation of an embodied sovereignty that I’ve witnessed among Blackfullas.

I’m arguing that there is a place between white lies and Black death, and that such a place is essential to our survival — that place is an embodied Indigenous sovereignty. Such a survival is grounded in not what they grant us, but in who we are, on our terms. It means we can recognize ourselves as human, as Black, as belonging, and as worthy all the fucking time. I think sometimes Black people confuse hope with faith. Hope is in the waiting, but faith, like sovereignty, is in the knowing, in remembering who we are and where we come from. And look, if ever there was a case for “the nihilism that makes life worth living,” it was the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests across the world amid a pandemic. There is so much power and possibility in a Blackness of the unmitigated kind.

This article has been lightly edited for clarity.