Do Not Take My Breath Away

Author: Amber May

Published Date: 5/4/2021

Categories: Faculty and Staff Liberal Arts Matter


photo of amber may
One of my fondest memories as an undergraduate at a liberal arts institution was being invited to my professor’s home. This intimately kind act of connection and fellowship remains vivid in my mind 18 years later. I considered this sort of human connection a perk of my liberal arts education—the chance to see our professor as a human being, not solely an entity with perceived unlimited power to propel or destroy our academic careers. In turn, professors had the chance to see us beyond our exams, poor writing samples, and unprofessionally written emails. We experienced an exchange in humanity. 
 
This exchange in humanity, this honing in on individual relationships, teaches students to empathize with each other, making it possible for us to examine the ways aspects of our identities are privileged and to explore how our actions can oppress others. Rather than leaning into the biases, racism, and micro-aggressions that would otherwise divide us, a liberal arts education helps us recognize how diversity encourages empathy that unites us.
 
Over the last year we have been united in our awareness of how essential breath is to life. Restoring breath has been critical during the coronavirus pandemic, obviously for our health but also for our wellbeing. The pandemic forced our critical thinking and problem-solving skills into overdrive, whether we were focusing on home improvement projects, social problems, or health disparities. No matter where we focused our attention, we had to reevaluate our environment. Many folks – especially those fortunate enough to have housing – observed renovations needed within their four walls. But our observations about repair and upkeep weren’t limited to material goods. We were also focused on examining who we are, individually and as a nation, as though the grip of the coronavirus forced us inward, inside the walls of our homes, and inside our heart as a nation.  Sheltering in place forced every screen in the world to witness the untimely murders and repeated assaults on black bodies. My mother lived down the street from where Jacob Blake was shot and her eldest brother grew up with George Floyd. We can never unsee George take his last breath and cry out for his mother. 
 
And so James Baldwin’s words echo for me: “The law is meant to be my servant not my master.” And the lesson George Floyd reiterated for us: do not take my breath away. 
 
Liberal arts education is said to teach and strengthen skills that benefit the functions of society. Breath is essential to our functioning, as individuals and as a nation. For people of color and people who are part of traditionally excluded marginalized groups, the classroom is the first place our breath is taken away. 
 
I can’t breathe in class when …
… my white roommate and I walk in late daily, and at the end of the semester, I lose percentage points for being tardy and she doesn’t. 
 
I can’t breathe in class when … 
… a professor or classmate begins to have a debate in which my sexual orientation and gender identity is targeted.
 
I can’t breathe in class when … 
… I try explain that blackness is diverse, with varying shades world-wide, and a white male students says out loud that we all look alike—and the professor says nothing.
 
I can’t breathe in class when …
… a professor only asks my opinions during black history month, as if my contributions don’t matter year-round.
 
I can’t breathe when … 
… a professor chooses to lean into confusion or fear when racist, homophobic, ableist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic things are said about a person like me, rather than helping to preserve my dignity. 
 
How do we help each other breathe?
 
Individuals with a liberal arts education can lead in the social justice reform our country so desperately needs because liberal arts institutions emphasizing developing individual relationships across what might seem to be cultural divides. In this way – together -- we can lean into the mission of solving complex problems that threaten society as a whole. In this way – together -- we can restore breath for our black- and brown-skinned students.