A Space for Our Vulnerable Selves
“We are saying, if you have money and you’re white, you can do well here. If you’re not, good luck to you.” – Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and the former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Connection is a fact, and how our country is choosing to spread divisiveness and disregard for the humanity of others is painful for me to watch. I want to talk more about the emotional toll of this crisis, which is of course linked to all the physical suffering of COVID-19 and our economic and political upheaval.
In past newsletters, we have been asking you to show up and lead, navigating through all this uncertainty. But is there, can there be, a space to show up with everything we’re carrying? How can we make a space for our full humanity, which includes our weariness, frustration, fear, disappointment, and hurt? I simply don’t think there’s any other way to show up right now other than fully as ourselves.
The Latest Revelation of Deep Inequalities
In early April, reports emerged of how COVID-19 isn’t just affecting communities of color more than other groups, with far higher numbers of confirmed cases and deaths in black and brown communities, but that the virus is in fact devastating to communities of color in the U.S.
To discover why, we don’t need to look further than the long-standing inequities in our health care, housing, employment, and education systems. Black, brown, and some Asian communities are being hit harder by COVID-19 because they have always had health, financial, and safety burdens placed on them.
Who Cares if We Live or Die?
While all this news was painful to take in, it was what followed that brought me to my lowest point.
Compounding the tragedy is how unsurprising we find it that people of color are suffering at higher rates. When has history not shown this exact same trend? But something different is happening now. The suffering isn’t merely overlooked, it’s being publically called an acceptable loss. And not just by racist outliers, but by our political leaders.
Within a week of reports about communities of color being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, protests erupted across the country with demands for our states to “reopen” their economies—despite warnings from epidemiologists that doing so would be unsafe. Backed by the President, members of his administration, and several Republican governors, the rallying cry at these protests was that stay-at-home orders trampled individual freedoms and rights. The message heard through the undertones of institutional racism was that reopening would be safe for white people while the health and safety of people of color is, as always, an acceptable loss.
The timing of the protests and their overtly racist, far-right extremist, and white supremacist organizers and participants tells the tale. Reopening states will invariably place the highest health and economic risks on people of color on the frontline—they are the ones who will go back to work first, largely without childcare, in positions where it will be nearly impossible to safely socially distance. They are the ones working in meatpacking plants that were just declared “essential” despite being breeding grounds for the virus. They are the ones in jails and detention centers. They are the ones living in densely populated cities. They are the ones making and delivering food, staffing grocery stores and nursing homes, sanitizing high-hazard areas. They are the ones, as ever, using their bodies to give us access to our privilege.
Not to mention the upsurge in scapegoating violence against Asian Americans, spurred by the President’s anti-Chinese comments, and public figures reinforcing racist attitudes instead of resisting them. Or how the elderly, disabled, and homeless are not only left defenseless against the virus but put more severely at risk by our disregard and dangerous policies.
All this reality is weighing me down. It’s why I’m showing up to work these days with an unusual shadow of despair and defeat. It makes me think about what authenticity means at a time like this, with issues like these on our shoulders.
“Once the disproportionate impact of the epidemic was revealed to the American political and financial elite, many began to regard the rising death toll less as a national emergency than as an inconvenience.” - Adam Serwer, The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying
Seeing Our Full Humanity
I feel the pressure to be resolute and confident when I show up professionally. But the heaviness is hard to deny, and even harder to hide from my colleagues and clients most days.
Authenticity for me these days means feeling hurt and dismayed that lives of color don’t matter, that I see every day how bigotry is both individual and globally systemic, that it seems no matter what you do, racism prevails. I feel discouraged and frustrated. I feel invisible and under attack. I feel like I need to shout and argue just to have my humanity acknowledged.
But where does our despair fit into the professional world? Having to push through or hide our devastation only exacerbates it and makes us feel even more unseen.
Just a few years ago, I stopped writing entirely, having grown weary and overwhelmed in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and how Black Lives Matter needed to shout to have our lives recognized and valued. At that time, I didn’t have a team around me like I do now, who can hold a space for my full self to show up and be seen, who can write articles like this with me so that I know for certain I am not alone.
At this point in my life, I have the privilege of being surrounded by people who are supportive, racially aware, committed to social justice, and personally accountable. I hope very much that you have the same right now. I know that while such support helps, the stress still leaves a mark. I want to underscore that this stress contributes to the inflammation and insulin resistance that make Black people more vulnerable to COVID-19. It is a vicious circle that simply eating better doesn’t interrupt.
I Don’t Know What Moving Forward Looks Like
Long-time readers will know that usually these articles cover topics I’m deeply familiar with, ones that I’ve lived and coached through many times, like unconscious bias, compensation, and principles of Building Audacity. Such experience often means I have some nugget of wisdom to offer, or sometimes just a crucial question to ponder. Not today.
Today, I’m showing up with a lot of vulnerability and not many answers. I am holding grief and hurt and sadness as I show up at work and at home. I, too, feel disrupted and uncertain of how to move forward.
And I know that there is power in naming all this, normalizing it, and hoping it helps you feel seen right now.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If this article was sent to you by someone else and you would like to receive her articles directly in your inbox, please sign up here.