Alumna author finds a moment of reprieve while social distancing.
For many, stay-at-home orders and social distancing is about creating a protective space between oneself and others who may be carriers of the coronavirus. For me, and I would venture to guess many others like me, these measures have created a protective space of another kind—one that is about creating distance between myself and others who have been socialized by dominant understandings of race.
I’m not the first person to discuss the double pandemic of racism and the coronavirus. Black people are 5 times as likely to contract COVID-19 as White people in the U.S. We are also 3 times more likely to be murdered by police. We have 5% of the wealth of White Americans and have been politically, socially, culturally, and economically disenfranchised in this country for centuries. The recent social uprisings in response to George Floyd’s murder brought this to the world’s attention, but the lived realities that led to this incident are far from new. Scholars and activists have long discussed the emotional, physiological, and psychological impact of racism on Black people.
While these issues often feel insurmountable, lately I’ve found myself reveling in the reprieve social distancing has created. I recognize that social distance is just that, limited to the realm of social practices and relationships. I cannot escape the larger systems at play by staying home, nor would I want to. I’ve dedicated my intellect and my labor to changing these systems. Yet, like all people, I long to exist in places where I am understood as I am, not as I am perceived to be.
When Breonna Taylor was murdered by police in her home on March 13th, I felt the same sense of anger and devastation as I do now mourning George Floyd. However, my ability to process those emotions where, when and with whom I wanted was limited. For better or worse, I often choose to compartmentalize these feelings so I can deal with them on my own terms and in my own time. This was never a true possibility when I had to be physically and emotionally present at work each day. Being one of few Black coworkers means people often perceive me as the go-to person to talk about their feelings on racism. Even if the person asking for my time shares my views, the divide between our experiences means these conversations demand emotional labor, often when I barely have the emotional energy to get through the day. Right now, the wider response to the pandemic means my choice to be selective about when and who I engage, in person or online, is more widely understood and accepted. I’ve used this time to foster a space where I can exist outside of the world’s racializing gaze. I can invite whomever I would like into that space and, in this sense, create a kind of community I hadn’t previously imagined possible.
One might think that approaching the world in this way is lonely, antisocial even. I suppose in some ways it is. However, that loneliness stems from the reality that there are few spaces in which people like me can exist freely. It is not the enclave of my small community that is lonely, but rather loneliness that makes this enclave necessary. I cannot count the number of times I have felt utterly alone as the only Black person in predominantly White spaces. While the community I am creating now offers a refuge, I know I cannot retreat from these other spaces. Change will happen because I am in those rooms. Yet, even if seen only by a handful of people, I cannot keep being seen as “the other” without also being seen and understood as myself.
I often find myself thinking about how to sustain such protective measures, especially now that I have moved back to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area, where I grew up. In many ways, the Twin Cities exemplify the contradictions of U.S. life being protested right now. The Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area is consistently ranked one of the top five worst cities for Black Americans. This is due in large part to the widespread geographic segregation and economic disparities that characterize the cities. According to the most recent Census data, Black households in the Twin Cities earn 44 percent of what White households earn—the second greatest income disparity in any metro area in the nation. Similarly, only 1 in 4 Black households own their home. In contrast, 76 percent of White households own their home, one of the highest homeownership rates in the country. Despite these gross racial disparities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul continue to be labeled the most livable cities in America. In fact, Saint Paul’s city slogan is “The most liveable city in America.” The irony of this label is not lost on me. The recent attention to police violence and the death of George Floyd raises the question, liveable for whom?
The persistent threat of violence and the social and economic disparities in the Twin Cities are symptoms of a plague affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Long after we’ve found a vaccine to the coronavirus, long after the news cycle and social media have moved on from George Floyd’s murder, Black people like myself will be left trying to figure out a way to continue protecting ourselves against an ongoing pandemic.
Yelena Bailey, Ph.D. ’16 was a professor of English and cultural studies in Seattle before becoming the Director of Education Policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. She is the author of How the Streets Were Made which examines the creation of “the streets,” not just as a physical, racialized space produced by segregationist policies, but also as a sociocultural entity that has influenced our understanding of Blackness in America for decades.