What Does “I Can’t Breathe” Mean to AfroGreeks?



The killing of George Floyd by police in the United States and the subsequent violent protests that continue two months later have shaken the world. The Black Lives Matter movement and the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” have gone viral worldwide.

In fact the two phrases were even seen on placards and T-shirts in protests in Greece. Not that there is such thing as white policemen killing black citizens in Greece, but the issue of racism appears to be present in every society, to a certain degree.

The impact of the phrase “I can’t breathe” on Africans who are living in Greece as naturalized citizens was the topic of a panel discussion on Saturday, in an event organized by the Onassis Foundation.

The panel discussion, in Greek, which was led by political scientist Jackie Abhulimen and economist Eirini Niamouaia Ontoul reflected the experiences of a group of young AfroGreeks living in Greece and the relevance of the phrase “I can’t breathe” in their everyday lives.

The panelists spoke about how the killing of George Floyd and the riots that ensued have affected their own lives. They discussed the differences between what they called the systemic racism in the United States and the incidents of racism in a country where black people have been integrated in society in the last three decades or so.

All panelists speak fluent Greek, are educated and hold jobs and are integrated into Athenian society. Yet all of them have been seriously discriminated against in some stages in their lives. Some more, others less. However, none of them came close to their lives being threatened, although the brother of one panelist was beaten once by a Golden Dawn member.

Emmanuel Olayinka Afolayan, who is a musician, says: “For us blacks here, there is all this pressure written in our DNA. All this pressure is our inheritance. The identification with this thing (the George Floyd murder) is very strong. Even though it happened far away from here, it feels like it happened to our fellow, standing next to us.”

He then elaborated on the difference between being a black person in America and a black  migrant in Greece: “Here, we have not felt racism like it is in the United States. There, it is part of their history, it is a tradition. We live in a country that did not have colonies. We are just migrants here.”

Speaking of her experiences in Greece, Solace Goodwin, a medical doctor, says that her color did not allow her to advance professionally as quickly as her fellow medical school students:

“When I went to apply for my specialty, they would not allow me to enroll because I didn’t have a Greek ID. I had my passport and my work permit, but that was not enough. I had to go through many hurdles until I reached my goal.”

Dr. Goodwin also said that her brother was beaten up by Golden Dawn members back when the party was in Parliament.

Jessica Onyinyechi Anosike, currently a student, recalled her experience when looking for a job at the age of 18. “I had made an appointment with the owner of a clothing store over the phone. When I got there, a man would not allow me enter the store. I told him I had spoken to the owner and she came to the door and told me flat out that she could not hire a black person.”

“I felt the earth move under my feet,” she says. “From then on I developed a phobia and I am afraid to go look for a job.”

The young woman has also encountered another problem. She said that one day she was working with her mother and cars stopped next to them two times, their drivers then asking them, “How much?”

Jessica feels embarrassed that people think she’s a prostitute because she is black. She also feels constrained when her mother always tells her to watch what she wears so as not to appear provocative.

Helene Habia Nzanga, an actress, says it took her a whole year to rent the apartment in which she lives now, since all the landlords backed out when they saw that she was black.

“I spoke on the phone with an old lady and she was very warm. I made an appointment to see the apartment and I called her ten minutes before I got there. When I did, she would not answer the building door.

“I looked up and saw her peering from the corner of the window. I called her name, and she opened the window to tell me that her husband had just given the apartment to someone else without telling her.”

However, other than the case of the young doctor’s brother who was beaten by Golden Dawn supporters, the “I can’t breathe” experiences of the AfroGreeks do not come close to the case of George Floyd or other black victims of police brutality in the United States.

Since 2010, immigration laws have made it easier for migrants to incorporate into Greek society, which seems to be more open to newcomers of other colors and who come from other cultures.