Saturday, November 28, 2020

Face Value

Today’s post may not at first appear to be local. Bear with me. I want to share with you a short video, around three minutes in length, called “A Love Letter to Black America.” Please take the time who watch it. I’m aware that most of my readers are not Black. Watch it anyway.

A Love Letter to Black America

The video, produced by the Black Coalition Against Covid-19, addresses distrust in Black communities about the upcoming vaccine and encourages participation, as well as continued cooperation with public health guidelines such as handwashing, masking, and distancing. It acknowledges the history of untrustworthiness of the American medical community towards Black citizens. It challenges the viewer to get involved and stay informed. 

Since Black communities are so heavily impacted by the spread of Covid-19 these words are timely and crucial. Since the white medical establishment has not always been a trusted partner in advocating for Black health, the messengers in this video are every bit as important as the message. Eight Black doctors and nurses came together to create the Black Coalition Against Covid-19. Their work represents collaboration between Howard University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, Charles Drew University, National Medical Association, National Black Nurses Association, and the National Urban League. 

The video conveys not simply a public health push for vaccination compliance, but also a deep respect for the condition of being Black in this country and a firm assertion that, in order for the Black community to opt-in to a vaccination process, the white American medical establishment must prove themselves to be trustworthy. And that means power-sharing and transparency, things that they have been notoriously bad at in the past.

It’s not a “want to have”. It’s a “must have” if our nation is going to come back from this crisis.

Now I’m going to turn away from the main focus of the video to share with you the local connection I experienced when I watched this.

These are the faces and bodies and hearts and lives I do not know because I was raised in an almost entirely white suburban world. The children did not go to my schools and the families did not live in my neighborhood. I did not see them in shops or restaurants unless we went “downtown.” While I was not indoctrinated to believe that people who looked like this were in any way inferior, the truth of my life was that they were “other”. They might as well have been foreign.

Though I have lived in several other places in the US since then, by and large my existence has always been inside a cocoon of whiteness, reinforced by the history of redlining which keeps Black people away from “white” neighbors and out of “white” schools. Even in Howard County, considered to be inspirational for its diversity, we continue to wallow in a privileged system of separation. Talking about it makes people angry. Trying to take action creates whole new fight-back groups against it.

Here is what I saw when I watched this video: all the people who have never been in my life because of systemic racism. Love, beauty, wisdom, strength, humor, commitment shine from these people and my life has been bereft of their value and humanity. My life, and so many lives, are less because of this. Many people seem to think that attempts to address racial inequity are purely about “getting something for Blacks”. And yes, we absolutely should be facilitating what is owed. No doubt about that in my mind.

But I don’t think that we (as whites) truly comprehend how much we lose and are stunted by persisting in an unnaturally white world. Even if we’re not fighting to keep it that way. Even if we are merely content to exist within the status quo.

Decisions we need to be making locally, in housing, for instance, or school redistricting, or anti-bias curriculum, the future of school policing, what kinds of amenities we support, and for whom: we cannot make them in a truly educated way swathed in the comfort of whiteness. It is not enough.

To feel truly comfortable examining these issues we would need to be comfortable with the people this video represents. Because then we would have not just knowledge but also empathy. 

But we don’t, because we as a community keep making choices to keep them out. And then we wonder at racist comments by parents on Facebook groups and racist memes and videos by high school students. Why should we be surprised? The separation perpetuates the system. 

We need to make big decisions locally to change this. But we are often fearful to do this because we lack the real-life proximity required to motivate those changes. 

I’ve seen some folks online asking why people are pushing forward on racial equity issues now during a pandemic. They see it as completely irrelevant, a distraction to “the import issue” on the table. When you watch this video, and when you think about all the ways our community fails the people represented in the video, I hope you can experience a taste of what I did: that it is all deeply, deeply interconnected and we will not solve “the important issue” without it. It’s not a “want to have”. It’s a “must have.”

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