We began this conversation in April at the height of the local and national restrictions that were aimed at protecting communities from a widespread viral infection of the Covid-19 virus and from overwhelming the health care system. The measures we had to take were extreme and it cost us something—more for some than for others; but all loss is real loss. We wanted to talk about the idea of ambiguous loss—a phrase coined by Dr. Pauline Boss to give a name to the kinds of losses that are hard to define and don’t have a definitive marker that helps us work through the stages of grief. For Covid-19 our losses were absorbed into a bigger story.
For the past week (really a few weeks), Covid-19 has given way to a different story. We have a national epidemic. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd pulled back the curtain of centuries (401 years) of treating black people as less than whites in America.
2019 was the “Year of Return” in Ghana. It was an invitation to the African diaspora to return and reconnect to their African roots and their African heritage. They specifically chose 2019 because it marked the 400-year anniversary of the first Africans landing in the English Colonies in 1619. They didn’t come here voluntarily; their migration was forced. They were stolen twice. Once by the Portuguese in order to be transported to Mexico and then by pirates who brought them to Virginia. Africans were defined as “less than” Europeans in the academies, the arts, the sciences, and theology. Families endured a walk through Africa, being held captive in slave dungeons, the Middle Passage, Slavery, the Civil War, the Jim Crowe Era, Segregation, the Civil Rights Movement…the list of injustices is long and black people in America have the burden of carrying the weight of this history with them every day. It is an epidemic.
When I had “the talk” with my son when he was young, it was about his body, about relationships, and about treating women with respect. When a good friend had “the talk” with his son, it was about his body and how some people feared it, about his relationship with authority and what to do if he was stopped by a police officer. I am white, he is black.
I want to say something about being white (because that’s me). Being white is not an ethnicity, it is an ideology. I’m Danish, English, German, and a little bit Irish (I did my 23andMe). I became white in 1692 when the term “white” was used to classify all Europeans.* I lost my ethnicity at that moment. “White” was used to determine citizenship, so that they could get the benefits of the emerging United States of America. “Whiteness” has been used to define humanity on a value scale—white at the top, black on the bottom of that scale (and other minoritized communities in between). We don’t say it directly anymore (at least I hope we don’t), we don’t believe that anymore (I hope that we don’t), and we try not to live it anymore (I hope that we don’t). But it is a subtle and insidious disease. It lives in the background—an epidemic that needs the same treatment as Covid-19. It might cost us something.
* A great podcast for those who are interested in this idea that “whiteness” is an ideology is “Seeing White” on Scene on Radio. http://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/
* One of the best books that I’ve read on the construction of racialized categories in history is The Christian Imagination by Willie Jennings. https://www.amazon.com/Christian-Imagination-Theology-Origins-Race/dp/0300171366
Photography by Bonnie Sanders