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June 6, 2020

Did COVID-19 Prepare us to Defeat Racism?

Lately, the news has been relentless in delivering heartache. 

It seems that somehow in the midst of feeling raw and vulnerable in unprecedented ways, things are getting worse. But I believe in the power of timing. Perhaps COVID-19 served a higher purpose and has some hidden silver linings after all.

In many ways, the pandemic has helped prime us for social responsibility. It urged us to face our fears. It stripped us of a false sense of security and challenged us to grow past our comfort zones. Would we have been so open to feeling utterly devastated by George Floyd’s death if we hadn’t paused and been forced to be still?

Holding space for more unbearable suffering is getting harder and harder to do. Or ignore. I wonder if we would be challenging issues of racism so fervently if we had the usual distractions—work, bars, outlet malls, gyms, a thriving dating scene, and the million other things we customarily pour ourselves into.

Perhaps we needed to reach this painful threshold. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time a person’s life has been shamelessly lost because of racism. The emotional fatigue is palpable and has led to collective grief, but also awakening. Maybe it took a pandemic to quiet us down. Now that racism is shouting toward our tender hearts, are we going to listen?

Truthfully, as a woman, I’ve never considered myself privileged—until now. I didn’t grow up having to normalize being mistreated, suspiciously, unkindly, and inhumanely. I don’t know what it’s like to live in fear because of my skin color. Being born white afforded me the privilege of not knowing many hardships. 

I’ve tried to imagine the challenges that accompany growing up marginalized; it’s not easy to weather the exhausting undercurrent of resentment that comes with feeling unsupported, misunderstood, and unaccepted. George Floyd’s death is a poignant reminder that many people have their basic needs under constant threat. Being treated humanely, with decency and regard for one’s life should not be a privilege.

My job requires me to seek out sensitivity training regularly, and each time I’m surprised to find the sneaky, biased filters that cloud my perceptions.

Is it humbling? Yes.

Is it necessary? Absolutely.

As much as I want my work to be supportive to all people and inclusive of all genders and races, I understand that the minute I relax and assume I’m free of biases, I put myself and my clients at risk.

Unfortunately, I often hear people defending their biases, especially these days. Claiming you’re not racist because you have racially mixed friends or work with people of color is like saying you’re a feminist because you have daughters. It’s tempting to want to clear ourselves of what’s deemed unacceptable, but it’s not always helpful in creating change.

If we put our defensive responses down, we can approach racism with healing curiosity. One that allows each of us to nurture awareness and investigate our racially charged biases. We can begin asking questions like, “I wonder what built-in biases might be present in me? Is anything getting in the way of real understanding?”

Weeding out our biases is ongoing work. We are never safe from slipping into unconscious beliefs because denial is a big part of our pathology. While it’s important to not judge ourselves for what we inherited, it’s equally important not to perpetuate what we inherited.  

As horrific as recent events have been, they’re getting our attention and resonating in places that have been dormant too long. I’m confident that our collective racial lens is being challenged and exposed in a necessary and timely way. We need to let this pain move through us. We need to let our hearts break open and become free of the blinders so we can do better.

It’s okay to weep or rant or reflect. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed or deeply moved by the rioting scenes. Processing all of our feelings is important because if we continue to dismiss or minimize suffering, we risk disconnecting from our own humanity and the vulnerability that’s necessary to detect the next right step. 

Just as an illness serves to show us where we need to heal, right now, we are being pushed to pay attention to much-needed healing. We must have the difficult conversations. We need leadership that unites via understanding, not one that further divides. We need to respond to the current events with long-term plans. Our schools need to do more than hold an assembly or assign a paper during Black History Month as though it’s a part of our past. As Jane Elliott says,

“People who are racist aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. And the answer to ignorance is education.” 

Generational wounds linger deeply in invisible places, and the first step in healing any trauma is acknowledging it. We need to remember that words are powerful; they can uplift or tear down.

When Thomas Jefferson referred to slavery as “a necessary evil,” his words condoned unspeakable suffering. Minimizing racism and the impact of this systemic problem is akin to saying women stopped suffering domestic abuse because we no longer have ads from the 1950s that advise beating your wife to train her into obedience.

The suffering of oppressed populations is real and ongoing. It’s time to stop abandoning each other and show courage. 

The word courage derives from French, Coeur, which means heart. This is a time to lead with heart, be brave, and use our voices, our platforms, and our resources to attend to the suffering we all created. 

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