Sometimes the things that we write do not age well, and other times the things that we write are timeless. Often it is almost impossible in the moment to know which will be the case. Social distancing has lasted longer than I personally predicted, which means that we are still unsure where the future is taking us. It is my opinion that much of what we say about the future in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic is fairly unreliable. Today our country is four months in to various stages of handling and understanding the virus. Right now, some are predicting that social distancing and large event cancellations will last through the end of 2020 and maybe longer.
I left my job as a Chief Community Development Officer for a large organization in the financial services industry in early April. My state had just begun to shut down for the pandemic, and economic impacts were beginning to be felt. My former role was identifying ways the organization could better support financially challenged communities in our territory. Because of the systemic racism involved in the reasons that communities are poor, there is a color line in financial services that leads directly to negative impacts on minority communities. It is impossible to do impactful work toward solving social problems without doing diversity, equity and inclusion work. As my team was working on grants in early March, I wondered if diversity efforts at companies across the country were about to suffer budget cuts. I suspected that organizations that viewed DEI as a project or program were going to determine it was an unnecessary line item. I had seen this type of response throughout my decades of community development work far too often.
Then George Floyd and the world’s largest Civil Rights movement happened in late May, and companies that had never whispered a word about diversity publicly were making statements about prioritizing inclusivity and awareness. Average individuals who had never made one social justice statement were taking to social media to say that black lives matter. The pandemic closures likely allowed people enough pause to see racialized police brutality clearly for the first time. Equity work is still happening, but some who jumped on the diversity bandwagon have already moved on to other focuses. That’s not to say there are not many White people with a new sense of self-awareness and a new willingness to do self-exploration and consider new perspectives. There is no discredit to those who want to continue learning and still are in the process of doing so. But it is also the true that as the economy has reopened, many people are trying to piece back together a semblance of life without a pandemic. The very circumstance that allowed people to recognize that this country has an issue with racial injustice is also a barrier to effective diversity work.
The significant challenge to DEI work is that many people are experiencing another monumental personal crisis at the same time; that of living in a pandemic. Covid-19 is affecting everyone, and even for those who are not deeply effected by actual illness, their choices, possibilities and opportunities have changed. It is difficult to process another person’s context at a time when an individual feels their own is being threatened. The way we frame the world is affected by the context and environment in which we have been raised. Whatever one feels is the appropriate response to managing the pandemic, quarantine and masks have become symbols of the way a person views the world. At a time that we need to be listening, we are thrust into a position where we have to defend our basic worldview.
The anti-masker movement is an outworking of this. Although I do not relate to their stance, many of these people genuinely believe they are being lied to by public officials and that masks are a step toward removal of other civil liberties. The choices made by these individuals require response from those who are taking social distancing procedures seriously. Those that are considering the pandemic carefully now need to exercise extra caution to protect from those they see taking the virus lightly. Considerations about opening or closing, safe returns to school, vacationing, traveling, and more also require extra mental attention. Humans have limited bandwidth for problems, and this pandemic is forcing use of bandwidth toward personal basic health and safety.
Never mind the fact that participating in the anti-masking movement requires a level of privilege. Black and brown communities have been hardest hit by COVID-19. It requires an experience of relative personal security to believe the pandemic is not real. It is one thing to protest a closed economy because economic insecurity is severe and serious as well; it is another thing to protest wearing a mask which requires little personal sacrifice to do.
Regardless, masks have become an indication of worldview. Worldview does matter, and it takes intention and effort to question one’s own worldview. It is the foundation for decision-making. When that foundation experiences a seismic shift, the individual begins to question many other personal decisions. Moving toward a more equitable, inclusive culture as a country requires personal inquiry, particularly on the part of White Americans. It requires the consideration of other perspectives. The pandemic is driving us into a position to respond, rather than consider; to react, rather to plan; to defend, rather than to listen. While social distancing is necessary, it also moves us deeper into our circles and further from those unlike us. Diversity work requires relationship, and the online and virtual world reduces our ability to connect with those with different life experiences. Right now, any interactions with those unlike us are happening through a screen that allows us to turn off our cameras without explanation when a conversation gets uncomfortable, or through a social media account where we usually do not have to reckon with the consequences of our words.
It is unlikely diversity budgets will be cut now that this is a national conversation. Diversity work is necessary and always has been. It is especially critical that White Americans use the momentum of recent events to move their efforts forward. However, for those new to the work, it is also important to recognize that the tools and interactions needed to be effective in creating this level of change have been impacted by Covid-19. We should do the best we can with our current situations, but plan for the work over the long term. That means tough face-to-face conversations and willingness to listen to and build relationships with those unlike ourselves. It means when we are back in the office that we remain committed to creating change. If we successfully navigated the past few months, things may feel less comfortable for those who previously held power as we walk into a ‘new normal’ of diversity, equity and inclusion.