Don't use the word 'pandemic' in reference to systemic racism and racial injustice.
I did. Here's what I learned.
It's July 2020. Which means that we are in the middle of a literal pandemic: COVID-19 is at it's peak (I hope) in the United States. And our country is on the heels of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor (shot to death while asleep in her bed, and months later her killers still roam around free, by the way), and George Floyd -- all Black individuals, all killed in grotesque, violent manners; two of which were by the police -- within the same time frame that a virus is killing many around the world. The deaths of the three Black people mentioned above, combined with countless other needless and violent murders of Black individuals and the horrific video of George Floyd's death, spurred a world-wide social movement for racial justice and equity.
"It is easy to get lost in my own safe, white bubble while conveniently forgetting or dismissing the plight of non-white, marginalized groups in the U.S."
As a white woman who is married to a black man, I am ashamed to admit that I was lukewarm on racial justice issues. I had heard first-hand stories of prejudice and unjust acts towards my husband. I had experienced some myself while with him; even while I have been with our multiracial children without him present. We had started the Success in Black and White podcast to highlight our lives as an interracial couple, including issues of discrimination due to skin color. And yet, just as many other white people not affected by the need to think about self-protection, the necessity to codeswitch, and how to ward off microagressions on a daily basis, it was easy to get lost in my own safe, white bubble while conveniently forgetting or dismissing the plight of non-white, marginalized groups in the U.S.
When the 2020 movement for racial justice started, many individuals, companies, organizations, and systems responded to calls for change quickly (many also did not, but that is for another article). Inspired by the shift in the atmosphere within the organizations I am vested in, I wrote a letter with a call for action to the leadership in an organization very close to my heart, one that I have served for years. I did my research and got plenty of feedback from my Black colleagues and past organization leaders. I was specific in my asks and I offered my assistance where I knew it could best be utilized. I was impassioned, and wrote my letter opening with flourish:
Our country and our organization are at the intersection of two pandemics: COVID-19, which has had a short but deadly timeframe; and systemic, institutionalized racism, which has had a 400-year deadly impact on the very fabric of our country..."
A few days later, I came across a Vanity Fair article. The author poignantly states:
“White supremacy is a deliberate human construct and ideology with identifiable authors and propagators. You do not catch it by touching a doorknob or a subway pole. White people choose to believe in white supremacy every single day, yet they are not afflicted by their beliefs. I am. A virus is not a way of life; it is not a creed willingly or passively agreed to; it does not exist separate from the whims and wants of the people who carry it through society or the life or death sentence it gives to those who carry its burden."
(Read Iweala's Vanity Fair article White Signs at Black Protests here).
As I read the article, I felt my breath catch. I had so definitively tied the word pandemic to the racial injustice in our world. I hit "Reply All" on my original letter, shared the author's words, and wrote:
"In the spirit of working to learn and unlearn, and to transparently correct mistakes... For my use of the word “pandemic” (which according to dictionary.com is a disease spread across the country, continent, or world), in regards to unjust systems of white power and supremacy, I am sorry. I understand the ease of which this term describes on a large scale the effects of what we see happening globally, but I need to be cognizant that it also insinuates that this is an infectious spread of ideology that cannot be controlled. This displaces responsibility and power of people like me, who need to continue to do the hard work and be accountable for it."
"I need to be cognizant that it also insinuates that this is an infectious spread of ideology that cannot be controlled. This displaces responsibility and power of people like me, who need to continue to do the hard work and be accountable for it."
While this season has been one of learning and unlearning for me, and I'm happy to correct and share my mistakes publicly; I am always conscious of Chenjerai Kumanyika's words: "while white people are busy learning, Black people are dying."
(Chenjerai Kumanyika is an Assistant Professor in Rutgers University's Department of Journalism and Media Studies. Follow him on Twitter at @catchatweetdown)
About the Author:
April Lovett is co-host of the Success in Black and White podcast, a weekly podcast in which she and her husband, Darryl Lovett, discuss a variety of topics dedicated to bridging the gap between racial boundaries. April identifies as white, cisgender, he