A pause in racism due to COVID

Like many of you, I have been sheltering in place at home since mid-March when I shut down my Boston office. Though I did spend late-May to late-June in Chicago when my Dad was dying, upon my return to Maine after my Dad’s death, I hunkered back down in my house. To date, I have only left my island community four times, including when I flew out to Chicago. 

When COVID-19 hit, I was already working from home half-time due to our office being located in downtown Boston, so Zoom meetings were already a part of my life. Aside from my speaking engagements, my work life has continued mostly uninterrupted, which has meant I have been able to keep the roof over my head and food on the table. 

While I don’t head to the mainland often, I do go out daily to walk the island and get fresh air, and I have a very select group of friends whom I do occasionally have over on my porch or meet with outside for a socially distanced visit. That said, recently I have ventured out to a few island establishments for a socially distanced drink and it’s been in those moments that I have noticed something. 

Despite the stress of living through a pandemic and the unexpected loss of my Dad, my overall stress levels are lower than they have been in years. I have talked to my therapist about this but assumed that some of it was just due to no longer having a frenetic travel schedule (Last year I logged 126 days in hotels and Airbnb stays due to work).

But it hit me this afternoon: I actually think my stress is lower because I am not dealing with the daily racism that is part and parcel of being Black in America. 

I was so intrigued by this thought that I posed the question on my social media feeds and every Black person who responded echoed back a similar sentiment. A noticeable decline in the “living while Black” tensions that are part of life in America.

While I have noticed white friends and associates struggling with the reality that the federal government is not helping us and the newfound challenges of a restricted life, for some Black folks this is a time of reprieve from the daily microaggressions and other forms of racism that are a staple in our lives. 

While it is in vogue to talk about racism—and many people are aware of the racial disparities that exist within our educational, healthcare and other systems—we talk less about the lived experience of being Black and the real toll that racism takes on the psyche and the body. To always walk around with the flight-or-fight response ready to kick in on a moment’s notice. The daily indignities of racism that are sometimes so numerous that you pretend they aren’t there, but your body knows. Your body feels it. 

I am convinced that racism is the number-one reason that on average, Black people die sooner than white people. Neither of my own parents lived to 70, though Dad almost made it. 

While COVID is disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous and Latinx folks—and we are disproportionately dealing with the economic fallout of COVID—for those of us who have managed to stay employed and avoid COVID, this time out of the daily grind of life is a also a real break from the very real stress of racism. 

Which should make anyone reading this stop and pause. 

A few days ago, I ventured outside of my comfort bubble to grab a drink at the newly reopened island watering hole outside, and was immediately struck by how uncomfortable it felt to make small talk with white people when I question their commitment to Black Lives. For example, to be served a drink by a bartender whom I have long suspected doesn’t care for me. 

None of these are overtly racist people. Hell, over the years, we most certainly have shared a few laughs and good times, but they would never be called “woke.” The thing is, prior to COVID, I occasionally accepted that the price of connection meant occasionally being in such spaces. No doubt, as I write these words, they sound awful and yet navigating the world in a Black or brown body (especially in white spaces) means occasionally bending to whiteness, even when you question yourself. Even when every muscle in your body is tensing up and the voice in your head says “Why are you doing this?” 

The duality of blackness is real; to survive in a white supremacist culture means bending and adjusting as needed. Yet this pandemic paused all of that, and with the exception of the month that I spent with my Dad in Chicago, I have been able to exist as a fully free Black woman. I eat better, I sleep better, I take care of myself, because I can feel myself. While this pandemic has no doubt been stressful, and I miss many aspects of that prior life, I am not so sure that I want to go back to that existence where even as a Black anti-racist writer, speaker and organizational director, there is still a need to placate white fragility. In fact, I don’t know that I can do that anymore.

None of us knows what the future will hold but in this moment, I revel in being free of the daily aggressions (subtle and overt) and attacks of whiteness against my Black soul and body. But I hope for many of you who are white and reading that you spend less time being happy for my increase in personal peace right now and consider what needs to be done to secure it for me and other Black and brown people going forward.

In other words, even as I recognize my relative comfort right now, I am asking you to be uncomfortable and ask uncomfortable questions of yourself.

For white-bodied people, I suspect it’s easier to slap a Black Lives Matter sign in the window or plant one in the yard than it is to heal at the soul level from the internal destruction that whiteness and white supremacy has done to their ability to treat people of other colors as true equals and humans. But as hard as it might be, I ask you to work on that healing within so that you aren’t one of the people inadvertently visiting microaggressions on people who look like me. So that when we are all together again without a plague, one day we can be together in true comfort and peace.

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Image by Brett Jordan via Unsplash