2020 Parallels: Pandemics & Race Movements

If you think this mask makes it hard to breathe, try being black in America!

A lot of folks have been writing off 2020 for months. And like…fair. It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind when we I was posting a cute “roaring ’20s” photos on January 1st.

But just like nothing magically changed when the clock hit midnight that day, no switch will flip on January 1st of next year, either. So don’t be too quick to wish 2020 away. (Although I hope 2021 comes with a vaccine and a new president.)

In a recent conversation with my pastor, she expressed that “2020 [is] the year that none of us wanted but maybe all of us needed.” 2020 has so much to teach. It is doing so at the unique intersection of two of the biggest events in my life: a pandemic and a mass-reckoning with racial injustice.

If one of these things happened on its own, it would still be a year for the history books. But neither event would have the same impact alone that they have together. It is important that they are happening at the same time.

In the Media

In a video posted on her Instagram, Senator and Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris says “there’s so much about this pandemic that has accelerated what was a problem before.” Like racial inequities in employment and healthcare, for starters. COVID has brought these to the forefront along with the police brutality in the news. And it has given many of us time at home to watch and listen and reflect.

On an episode of the Michelle Obama podcast, one of Michelle’s mentees, a Black woman and former White House employee, shared the following:

I’m trying to process why when I initially saw these videos of the Sandra Blands and the Philando Castiles, why I didn’t feel this same anger and hurt…when I first saw them that I’m feeling now, and I think a lot of that has to do with the pandemic, and the mere fact that I am forced to sit in it and sit with it, whereas before, it was business as usual; you saw it, and you’re like ‘damn, another one,’ and then you kept going. But right now, since everything is at a standstill, I’m processing these things a little bit more in-depth than I ever have before.

Chynna Clayton

As a white woman, much about my processing looks different than Chynna’s. But I, too, would not have my current perspectives without this year’s overlap in events.

A Personal Realization

Earlier in the summer, I was doing some classic white people shit…I was playing a round of golf. My first of the year (and maybe my third ever…I’m new at this).

This was back when the world was first starting to open up again, after we’d all been staying home as much as possible. For several weeks, even going to the grocery store was exhausting, the possibility of COVID lurking around any turn. And at home, when we weren’t actively stressed by the unknown, we were constantly thinking about it and talking about how quickly our lives had changed.

So I finally got outside, saw a coworker in person, and focused on something remedial…hitting a ball toward a hole (slowly but surely). Somewhere around the fifth hole, I realized I hadn’t thought about the pandemic since I took off my mask an hour ago. To my surprise, I had actually relaxed and felt “normal” for a while.

As I sighed in relief, a second realization followed. What I had just experienced was new to me. ‘But I bet people of color experience this all the time.’

I saw COVID everywhere for a few weeks. Black people experienced this on top of seeing oppression everywhere for a lifetime. I fear my family getting sick. A dreamer fears this, and that their family gets deported. I was exhausted at talking about working from home. People of color are exhausted by the ways their work lives have changed, and by explaining microaggressions to their coworkers. I found refuge in a round of golf. Where do they find refuge?

On the same episode of her podcast referenced earlier, Michelle says, “Sometimes we turn off to it, because that’s our break. If I gotta wake up everyday and face the world as it is right now…ugh…sometimes you gotta turn it off just to get through it.”

Michelle also says, “You can’t understand what you don’t know. And when you’re white in this country, you have the luxury of only knowing what you know.”

Before the pandemic, I had the luxury of not knowing the feeling of navigating a world that is not built for my comfort. Now, I and other white people have a point of reference that helps us to understand the experience of people of color a little more.

Call to Reflection

Take a moment to think about how much 2020 has taught you, before it’s even over. Maybe you, too, have had a personal realization or two. Maybe you’ve taken the world up on its offer to educate you on race with documentaries and podcasts and Instagram slide shows. Maybe you’ve decided to learn more about politics and play an active role the upcoming election.

Maybe you have learned how to clear space in your life and say goodbye to “the old” that no longer serves you. Maybe you have learned how to care for yourself in a time that feels really difficult. Maybe you’ve lost a job, or even lost someone to COVID, and you’ve learned about your strength and perseverance.

Whatever you have learned, keep learning, and use what you learn.

To borrow another idea from my pastor: You were made “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). You were made for a year with a pandemic and race movements.

I understand the desire to skip ahead to a time where things are “back to normal.” But things will never go back to how they were in February or in 2019, because 2020 is changing each one of us. I hope it changes us for the better.

So Sick of Love Songs

“So why can’t I turn off the radio?”

I love a good love song. One that makes me picture myself dancing with my theoretical future spouse at my wedding, knowing I picked the person for me. One that makes me think back to how strongly I felt about my ex, and smile a little bit in appreciation of the experience. I LOVE a Taylor Swift album to cry over a breakup (not to be confused with loving breakups…I hate those).

But sometimes, I feel like all I hear in popular song lyrics is “I can’t live without you.” There are even a few songs by this name. And sometimes I can’t help but buy into the narrative – who would I be without this other person to tell me who I am to them? How could I tolerate the day to day without them?

Yes, I know it sounds crazy when I put it like that. But think about how often that message is out there, permeating our collective psyche.

In a recent country song (the tune of which I really like), Keith Urban sings:

“I couldn’t bear the cross
For everything I’d been through
And each day, I knew I needed change
But there was no way, no way

And then God whispered your name
And that’s when everything changed
And love came out of the rain
Talk about being saved

Suddenly I wanna live…”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, that a lover can come into your life and be everything you need. But it’s a fairy tale, just like the prince coming to wake up Sleeping Beauty. And we already know princess movies fuck us up.

What can save you when you’re in a deep dark place? Yourself. God. Yoga.

What can make you want to live? Finding your purpose. A good treatment plan from a therapist.

Not a lover. Even the best, most selfless life partner will crack under the pressure of holding your happiness in their hands. Or at the very least, they will be a human being and disappoint you sometimes.

They can hear you and support you and talk through things you are processing with you. But they cannot resolve your trauma for you. They cannot fill you.

You must be willing to do the work yourself. There is a way, Keith. And it is only fair to them that you become happy in and of yourself. Then your partner, current or prospective, can prioritize their own happiness, too. Then think about how happy you can be together!

In another pop song, JOHN.k sings, “If we never met, I’d be drunk, waking up in someone else’s bed, I’d be lost in a crowded room of fake friends….” First of all, waking up drunk in a casual partner’s bed isn’t always a bad thing…but if you want to stop doing that, and you want some real friends, it’s up to you to make those life changes. It’s up to you to fill your life with things that excite you. Easier said than done, I know; I’ve been there. But worth the work it takes.

In the hit Netflix series Love is Blind, Cameron says to his now-wife Lauren about life before he met her: “I wasn’t really that happy to be honest, and I think it’s ’cause I was missing you.”

I hope that he and Lauren are happy together, but I know it won’t be because Lauren makes Cameron happy all by herself. Cameron has to make Cameron happy.

Let’s replace “you make me happy” with “I’m happy, especially when I’m with you.”

And while we’re at it, let’s replace some more of the expectations that set us up for failure (in 50% of marriages):

Not only can we not rely on our partners to make us happy, we also can’t promise our partners who we will be and what we will need in 10 or 20 or 70 years.

A partnership is two independent human beings deciding to combine their lives in some way. And that can have so much value in it, even if it is not permanent. A relationship can be a success without ending at a funeral home, right? (I borrowed that last bit from Dan Savage.)

None of this is to say that whole people in healthy relationships don’t feel like they might die when they go through a breakup. But even in their deepest moments of pain, they know that the will be okay. Because what they have in themselves, no one can take way.

Microaggressions & What it Means to be Queer

This year, I’ve heard the term “microaggression” more than ever before. I was discussing the topic with a long-time friend of mine and kindred spirit. As a teacher and generally good conversationalist, she has a way of turning my curiosities into questions she can pose back to me. At this time, she asked me whether I have experience with microaggressions since I am bisexual. I thought for a second and responded “no, not really.”

Most of the people I surround myself with know enough about bisexuality by now to not say things like “this is just a pit-stop on the way to being gay” or “it’s not fair that you have twice as many options.”

My experience is certainly colored by the fact that I am “straight-presenting.” I have only had serious relationships with men to date. When I bring up my interest in women, it is by choice. So I often bring it up in situations in which I figure it will be well received, like when a guy friend is talking to me about a “hot babe.”

I am also lucky that certain generalizations that are often misconceptions actually fit me. Society often assumes bisexuals want to engage in group sex or other forms of non-monogamy, which I’m happy to correct. But it doesn’t get under my skin, because I am interested in these things.

Still, when my friend asked me about microaggressions in my life, I did have some come to mind…of a slightly different variety.

Although people in 2020 have seen characters on their TV screens kissing both men and women for some years now, pop culture education on ethical nonmonogamy (ENM) is much newer. (For a show that delves into both at the same time, I highly recommend The Bold Type on Freeform.)

The microaggressions I’m familiar with come from well-intentioned friends trying to understand what I’m saying when I express my desire to be open to multiple sexual partners…forever. Most commonly, I hear, “you might change your mind,” or get the question: “do you think you just feel this way because you haven’t met the one yet?”

I could change my mind. I can’t claim to know what the future will hold. And I will volunteer this. But the very suggestion undermines the validity of my identity. It subtly points out to me that the way I find it most natural to interact with the world is “other,” of which I am already acutely aware.

But how am I supposed to know what to say? This is all new to me. There are so many terms, I can’t keep up.

This sentiment is reasonable. What was once “LGBT” never seems to stop growing with new letters, like “A” for asexual and “N” for non-binary. And still, so many identities and expressions are not captured. I recently heard a joke on a podcast with a serious message to the effect of: “we have no idea what the kids are gonna be coming out as in ten years.”

It can be easy to wonder whether all of the differentiation is necessary. And I hope that one day, it will not be. In my conversation with my friend, I expressed a desire for a world in which there is no coming out, but we simply respect the consensual existences of others without judgement or a need for approval.

But we are not there yet. We are in a place where individuals like myself who are anything other than cisgender, straight, one-penis-for-the-rest-of-forever, “vanilla” sex kind of people look for terms that remind us we are not alone, that help us to find others navigating “otherness” too.

In addition, these terms allow people who don’t have a particular non-traditional experience to do a Google search to learn more about it. It is no one’s fault if something is new to them. But it is their decision if they choose not to learn more.

So when a friend is telling us something about themself that doesn’t jive with our preconceived ideas, let us approach it with a curious mindset. And let us truly listen, not to respond, but to hear what they’re making an effort to tell us. The more we do this, the quicker we’ll get to the ideal world I described.

A few days after talking to my friend, she sent me a tweet quoting bell hooks:

“Damn she so eloquently summed up what we were trying to talk towards,” my friend wrote. Yep; she hit the nail on the head. For me, it has never been as simple as being attracted to people of multiple genders. It has always been about finding my way in a world in which so much of what I am is not the norm.

Since then, I have identified as queer. The term is at the same time less precise and more accurate than any I’ve used before.

For more information on ethical nonmonogamy, check out my Resources page.