An adult skeleton has 206 bones, 32 teeth—but did you know that babies are born with 300 mixtures of bone and cartilage? The cartilage hardens into bone in a process called ossification.
Blood is essential to human life. It circulates in plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets through our body, distributing oxygen, vitamins, glucose and amino acids that combine to make proteins to build our muscles. Blood transports metabolic waste, including unwanted salts, phosphates, sulphates and urea from our cells. A red blood cell has a lifecycle of 120 days in the body. Platelets control our bleeding, so we don’t bleed out, and white blood cells help protect us against disease.
In genetics there are dominant and recessive alleles. Each human cell carries two copies of each chromosome, and each version of the gene is called an allele. A dominant allele (it overwhelms a recessive one) is responsible for brown eye colour, broad nose, freckles, curly hair. Recessive alleles (you need two of them) are responsible for hazel eye colour, narrow nose, white skin, straight hair. A child doesn’t have the privilege of choosing what gene it gets. It gets whatever it gets from the fusion of a sperm and an egg to form a diploid cell called a zygote. And it’s mildly complicated for mixed-race people, like my son.
When you fall in love, your body releases a rush of dopamine; it makes the feeling a pleasurable one full of euphoria. There’s adrenaline, it increases blood flow from your heart to trigger the pleasure centre of your brain. And there’s norepinephrine—it also races your heart and heightens your thrill. Your brain and body change, and you want to cuddle, you want to hug, you want to kiss, and you feel calm, trust and security with the object of your love. Your blood pressure goes low, you feel less stressed. You get butterflies in the stomach.
When you die, your brain cells shut down—they have no blood flow. In the throes of dying, you lose hunger and thirst, speech, then vision. The last senses to go are hearing and touch. So, you’d hear the last words of your killer if they called you a nigger as you died. This might have been the last words Ahmaud Arbery heard, after being chased, hunted and executed, when Travis McMichael said them, as Arbery lay breathless on crimson-stained ground, nauseated, his kidney, liver, heart and lungs, then brain, slowly shutting down.
You see, black or white babies are born with 300 mixtures of bone and cartilage. White babies don’t get any more bones or cartilage than black babies. Blood flows in black and white people the same. They inherit two alleles the same and have no pick in what eye colour they get. Black and white people fall in love the same. Their body shuts off the same when they die, before it starts going through autolysis, or self-digestion, when their cells deprived of oxygen increase in acidity and their enzymes begin to digest cell membranes and leak out in a break down. Their skin discolours, their body temperature drops and rigor mortis—starting in the eyelids, jaws and neck muscles—sets in. As the dead human body begins to release 30 or so different chemicals, the gases and compounds produced in the decomposition exude that smell of death.
Black and white people smell the same when they die. Dead white people don’t smell like honeysuckle or stargazer lilies. Not all live white people smell that good either. I’ve met dirty white people who stink like unwashed socks. And there are goal-less white people who wouldn’t know motivation if it plummeted from the sky and landed upon their heads. Narcissistic white people too—she was a kiwi, a total bitch. Cost me my job. This doesn’t mean that all white people are dirty, or goal-less, or narcissistic. But white people are human, as are black people.
Black lives matter—this is the global chant reiterating the humanity of black people, following escalating events in the US. Emmet Till who was lynched like a puppet in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 for looking at a white woman was human—he felt everything. Amadou Diallo who was shot and killed like a dog by four New York Police Department plain-clothed officers—they fired 41 shots into his body—was human. Ahmaud Arbery who went out for a jog in Brunswick, Georgia, and was hunted like a deer, shot in broad daylight was human. Breonna Taylor shot and killed by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky—she was an emergency medical technician, only 26 when she died, shot at least eight times like a pheasant for sport in her own apartment by police executing a no-knock search warrant for another person. She was human, but her killers are yet to be charged with a crime. George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his dying words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as a police officer, hand in the pocket, kept his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck, was human.
But racism is not confined to the US and its history of enslaving black people. Australia has a shameful legacy (less scrutinised or analysed compared to racism in the US) in its treatment of Aboriginal people. New data suggests over 430 Aboriginal deaths in police custody since the 90s alone. A National Sorry Day doesn’t make it right, it won’t bring back the stolen generation. This is what we’re capable of as humans in the name of racial supremacy: snatch children from their mothers’ breasts in the name of assimilation. Forcibly remove them from their black families and surround them with whiteness to protect them from becoming more ‘native’.
I am a mother of a coloured child—I see him as caramel, others may only see black. I don’t want to lose this boy to racism. I don’t want him hurt by a judicial system created to protect him. A police officer with a baton, rubber bullets, tasers or gas masks. We need to hold people in authority accountable. We need to hold our leaders accountable. But, most of all, we need to hold ourselves accountable. You might wonder, what, when, where’s racism today—is it not a thing of the past? Ask yourself this question when you’re shortlisting candidates for a job. Ask yourself this question when you’re assessing applications for a business loan. Ask yourself this question when you’re wondering how best to ‘safely’ introduce your partner of colour to your family. Ask yourself this question when you’re out jogging in your neighbourhood and no one is hunting you down with shotguns like an animal, as they did Mr Arbery.
Ask yourself these questions: How often do people give you a wary eye for the colour of your skin? How often will people ask you, ‘Where do you come from?’ even though you’re right where you belong? Does the guard at the supermarket near the checkout, more often than not, ask you to open your bag because you might have nicked something? Does airport security every so often pull you aside for a chemical test? That sweet old lady clutching her bag and walking faster, hastily taking a detour when you walk behind her—is it because you ‘look’ suspect?
Racism is when your small child comes home from school with big eyes one day, looks at himself in the mirror and asks you in a small voice what colour is best, but what colour is best, Mama? Because some bully in the primary school said something. Racism is when years later white girls won’t date him because he’s black, and others will because he’s ‘exotic’. Racism is when strangers on the streets call you Zimbabwe, when that’s not even where you were born, or someone in the tram addresses you as Barack Obama’s sister, when you have no close relationship with the Obamas. Racism is when you’re just as qualified, but the other person gets the job because they are a ‘better fit’ to the organisation. Racism is any discrimination against others who don’t look like you, speak like you—black, yellow or white.
This is one way to make it right: by acknowledging the harm. If you’re thinking, I don’t want to go there—please go there. Emerge from the margins, take a stand. Doing nothing is being complicit. Do better for black people. Do better for ethnic minorities. We are your friends, your partners, your colleagues. It’s time to listen, to hear pleas that say, ‘We are done dying. We’re done surviving. We want to live.’
Black lives matter, not because others don’t. But because others won’t if black lives don’t.
‘Do not think there are no crocodiles just because the water’s calm.’ Black people have proverbs, and they are teaching adages passed down from elders we respect. We raise our children to have values, and we ask our ancestors to guide them. One adage says, ‘He that beats the drum for the mad man to dance is no better than the mad man himself.’ We need great leaders of the modern world, people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln. Because amid the racial unsettlement impacting the US and the rest of us, our world is also subjected to the buffoonery of America’s political experiment.
We are done with misguided leadership. If you’re a leader with a brain the size of a rat, a mouth the size of Uranus, now is the time to shut up and simply not tweet.
And you voters, you are beholden to the world—it’s your right, and ours, that you choose leaders of character, people with ethics.
Science says that black and white people are the same. Please, oh, please. Let’s stay on top of it. Give us the benefit of our humanity.
Dr Eugen Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Award, Australian Shadows Awards and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans.