America: A Tale of Two Viruses
I’ve been sitting at my desk for hours, trying to step through a storm of thoughts, reactions, and feelings about recent events in our country. It’s quite apparent there’s not one, but two deadly viruses killing Americans. Let’s call them what they are: COVID-19 and systemic racism.
On May 24, The New York Times published a very grim milestone on the front page of its Sunday paper: U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss. Although African Americans make up about 13% of the US population, they count for nearly 23% of those reported deaths. Early demographic data has revealed a number of disparities for communities of color, including income inequality, underlying medical conditions, and lack of economic opportunities and access to good health care.
Amidst this pandemic (that’s already disproportionately affecting minorities), we are also seeing repeated cases of violence and bigotry against POC, especially African Americans. If you keep up with the news/social media, then you’re probably aware of some, if not all, of the following high-profile cases:
- George Floyd was pinned to death by a police officer over a $20 bill.
- Breyonna Taylor was shot eight times during a police raid of her home.
- Ahmaud Arbery was fatally gunned down by an ex police officer for taking a neighborhood jog.
These are only three incidents out of a very long list of African Americans who have been unjustly killed by current or former cops. The fact that these senseless killings continue to happen in 2020 is not only heartbreaking, but unfathomable. For a country that eradicated slavery in 1863, eliminated racial segregation in 1964, and experienced Black Lives Matter in 2015, where is the progress? Where is the growth? Where is the change?
Up until now, I have completely shied away from writing about any political or social issues. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve largely avoided these topics because they are, by nature, complex, polarizing, and uncomfortable. But if I’m honest, what has been most uncomfortable for me the last few days is staying silent while observing one disturbing story after another.
When George Floyd was brutally crushed to death under a Minneapolis policeman’s knee, there were three other officers present. As I watched in horror what was happening, I couldn’t help but take note that one of the officers — the one who turned his back and held off a group of civilians from interfering— happened to be of Asian descent.
As much as we don’t like to see race and color in these situations, I think it’s important to recognize that such context matters here. I immediately saw myself in the Asian officer because his inaction reflected my own inaction. For so long, I have remained quiet, even ignorant, about structural and institutionalized racism simply because it hasn’t affected me directly.
Unfortunately, it is this kind of idle behavior that helps the oppressor, not the victim. As a community, Asian Americans have stayed relatively silent while other minority groups face discrimination. Now with more anti-Asian sentiment growing due to COVID-19, I think we are all increasingly aware that the way we look — no matter if we were born here or speak perfect English — can not only lead to prejudice and alienation, but in the worst cases, physical harm and violence.
After taking some time to reflect on these recent events as well as my own reception of them, I decided to research ways I can play my part. To me, it’s not nearly enough to repost a story or retweet a message. I wanted to do more, but I knew I had to educate myself first. Below are a few steps I’ve started to take:
- I looked up some organizations doing important work surrounding racial equity and justice, including the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, Color of Change, and Families Belong Together.
- I love film, so I found some movies that touch on black history and creatively dive into subjects like racism. Among the ones I’ve earmarked are “13th,” “Selma,” and “Fruitvale Nation.”
- I started following three social media accounts that carve out clear, actionable steps for fighting interpersonal and internalized oppression:
- teachandtransform is run by Liz Kleinrock, a Teaching Tolerance award winner. She has an Instagram Highlight on her profile called “New folx” which is dedicated to educating people about inclusion and equality.
- theconsciouskid provides tools and advice for approaching racism in the everyday world. It also offers great book recommendations for all ages and guides parents on how to educate their kids through a critical race lens.
- ohhappydani is a young artist and activist who encourages people to take action through her illustrations. She has some amazing infographics which outline steps for doing research and amplifying people’s voices of color.
Last but not least, I’m beginning to take inventory of all the privileges that benefit me every day, and how each one awakens a related responsibility. For example, a present privilege I have right now is being able to work from home, so a present duty I hold is to do a better job of social distancing in order to protect others who do not have the same privilege.
We can all agree that COVID-19 has torn apart lives and wreaked havoc across the nation. Along with these obvious effects, it has also uncovered tremendous racial and ethnic disparities that have needed to be confronted for a long time. Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to address these underlying inequities. We have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and fight not one, but two viruses.
In an essay for The New York Times, acclaimed professor and director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center Ibram X. Kendi wrote:
“It’s not enough to be non-racist. Now is the time to be actively anti-racist.”
To be anti-racist means continuing to listen, learn, take action, reflect, and recognize racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. It’s a commitment to fight every day for a nation of equal opportunity for everyone.
While I’m still learning how to be a better ally and supporter during this time, I’m thankful for the opportunity and platform to do so. Change starts with the heart, and only from there can it move to bigger spaces and places.
Change your heart. Change your home. Change humanity.