Sadly, it took the extrajudicial killing of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of the police for me to find my voice about finishing a dissertation under quarantine during a pandemic. I have considered whether or not I should write something every day since my quarantine began on March 16th but could never nail down what that would actually accomplish. It wasn’t important or noteworthy that I was neither mentally prepared nor had the infrastructure in place to write extensively and exclusively from home. It wasn’t important or noteworthy that I was under veritable house arrest because contracting COVID-19 with a compromised immune system could kill me.
And yet, the environment in which the expectations of academia are entirely divorced from the realities in which so many students exist is both important and noteworthy.
The economic and health effects of COVID-19 have disproportionately ravaged Black people in the United States, both in terms of our health and financial security. The health impacts of COVID-19 for Black Americans are dire. Although Black people make up approximately 13% of the country’s population, we account for nearly 23% of the reported COVID-19 deaths. Black residents in my home state of Kansas are dying at seven times the rate of White residents.
Not only are Black Americans more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 but we’re also in much more economically precarious situations when figuring out how to pay for the resultant medical costs. Bearing in mind that we represent about 13% of the population, we only hold 2.6% of the country’s wealth, according to William A. (“Sandy”) Darity Jr, the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University. Moreover, the Urban Institute’s K Steven Brown found that over 40% of Black adults belong to families that experienced job loss, furloughs, or reduced income due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Over these past few months, well-intentioned white people have offered me some tips for coping with quarantine conditions that in no way consider racial realities.
“Meg, see if your doctor will allow you to take long walks. Those will help to relax you.” Will they? On February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and killed while on a jog.
“Well, at least you’ll be safe at home.” Will I? Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed when she was killed by unannounced police officers kicking in her door and firing indiscriminately.
I was about two days out from turning in an updated dissertation chapter when a police officer put his knee in George Floyd’s neck and chose to stay there as Floyd begged for his life and called out for his mother as he took his last gasps of air. This past May alone there has been extensive reporting of at least three instances of Black Americans killed in extrajudicial fashion at the hands of White Americans who are allegedly sworn to protect and serve. These reports are not merely statistics for me; they are a cause for mourning and ultimately, they factor into my perception of personal security. In the context of this heartbreak and rage, the ill-timed receipt of an email inquiring about a dissertation chapter was my breaking point.
No doubt, the shift to writing at home was tough for me. But I kept writing. I kept writing even after learning about the COVID-19 diagnoses and COVID-related deaths of people I knew. I kept writing even after I received emails presuming that quarantine had somehow blessed me with “more time and more flexibility” making me available to support others’ projects. I kept writing as a Dean sent emails replete with song lyrics and quotes from Alice in Wonderland that assumed that students had successfully navigated the last quarter together and come out of it with “only a few bumped heads” and “no bruised souls.”
But I don’t know if I can keep writing about armed agents of the state victimizing civilians in El Salvador with impunity when I am terrified of the very same thing happening to any Black man, woman, or child in the United States. And I’m disappointed with and disheartened by the institutional expectation that pressing forward with little interruption while trying to process all this heartbreak is healthy, particularly from my home institution that consistently proclaims allyship via its stated commitment to diversity and inclusion.
I have never felt more emotionally and mentally defeated than I have in the last 79 days. I struggle to understand the “we’re in this together and will get through it together” perspective when there has been little attempt to recognize or understand what the “it” actually means and when the “we” seems to be awfully monochromatic. In the midst of institutional failures to acknowledge this status quo, that work has been left largely to Black faculty members, such as Brandy Monk-Payton and Hakeem Jefferson.
But others can help us navigate this trauma. First, acknowledge the gravity of the situation and its effects on your Black students. Language about community feelings of sadness decenters Black students within a situation that disproportionally affects us and doesn’t convey an appreciation for the gravity of the situation. Second, ask us not only about our mental and emotional well-being but also about the kinds of support we need or want from you. You can work through the university’s cultural centers and student organizations to converse with those who know us best or communicate directly with students who you know. Finally, act as our ally based on what you’ve learned from us and announce it to the greater university.
COVID-19 changes how we live and interact. This is hard enough. But if you consider such tremendous change coupled with increased risk of economic and health insecurity as well as the threat of violence stemming from 400 years of structural racism, it will give you greater insight about the explosion of emotions Black Americans are currently experiencing.
But recognize how different the experience of Black professionals in the workplace or at school is from their White counterparts. Danielle Cadet, Managing Editor at digital media platform Refinery29, wrote about a “tale of two quarantines” for Black people at work. While everyone has to figure out how to navigate with these new rules, Black people also have to figure out how to survive within this new environment.
For instance, do masks make us as suspicious as the black hoodies do? What modifications need to be made to the rules we learned from our elders to survive an encounter with the police in our new reality? While Cadet directed her words at colleagues in a professional environment, I want to echo her words at administrators, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities across the country on behalf of Black students: “We are not okay. And you shouldn’t be either.”