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The Root's Clapback Mailbag: Coronavirus Is Racism

Illustration for article titled The Roots Clapback Mailbag: Coronavirus Is Racism
Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/G-O)
Clapback MailbagEach Friday, we select the best (or worst) emails, tweets, DMs and comments from our readers and respond to them in the The Root's Clapback Mailbag.

No, hear me out...


Like COVID-19, there’s always one person who understands the danger of racism while wholeheartedly believing, “Everyone else might get it, but not me. I’m immune.”

Like this letter:

From: Jakki
To: Michael Harriot

Michael...I hope you’ll read this for a second. There are a lot of white folks that aren’t actually “white” Jewish people weren’t considered white until after the Holocaust. I never knew that.

I never knew people viewed us as different in any way. I didn’t like the Separatism of being Jewish. I thought it was short sighted. The world is made up of everyone...and that’s what I wanted my life to be. Growing up my parents had friends of every background. Multi ethnic. So my life has been filled with people of color that I love as family. Always.

I’m more attracted to someone of color. There is a depth and honesty and sense of humor that resonates with me and my heart. By the way...I’m only speaking about this for clarification. It’s annoying to me to have to distinguish someone by their skin color. But here we are.

My point is...there is no difference between people at all. Not for me. Yes, white people are weird. I don’t know how they got this way but I think it’s lack of interaction with other groups of people.

For 20 years I owned a company in the inner city of Hartford. I felt like I was Home. I helped everyone in the area with love and kindness...and people grew to know me , trust me and love me back. Is there something we can work on together to bring everyone together? I don’t know what to do. I’ve been approached by a couple of groups...but what I want is people to grow together...not apart. I’m part of the Resistance...and DemCast in each state. I’d really like to get many more PoC to get involved.

I think Black folks need to educate white folks. When I read your tweets...I learn things I’ve never heard before. I think what needs to be done is to work together to create a world that works for all of us. Together. Make people understand that what hurts some of us...hurts all of us.

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Dear Jakki,

Wash your hands.

I live about a mile from a lake. The lake is split into two parts by a 1.3 mile, winding road lined with the entrances to subdivisions filled with huge beautiful homes. For years, I ran on the sidewalk of that road (2.6 miles both ways). A few months ago, I bought an elliptical machine with a feature that allows you to create a virtual run along any path that has been mapped by Google maps. The machine’s incline and resistance adjust according to the virtual path, so I essentially didn’t have to go to the lake. The lake was in my home.

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This past Saturday, it was 83 degrees. After being stuck in the house for a month, I decided I’d go do the real run. Somehow, this run is uphill both ways. By the time I was halfway through, I realized that this was nothing like the elliptical. I was tired as fuck!

As I ran, I passed a few families out for walks, couples holding hands and just meandering. The sidewalk wasn’t crowded but, because I was practicing social distancing, whenever I encountered another person, I noticed that they would see me coming and they wouldn’t move! Not an inch.

So every time I passed someone, I would have to veer off, into the road, to keep a six-foot distance between me and them. I’m not even saying it was their responsibility to get out of the way. I’m just saying that it wasn’t 50-50. They never stepped aside and I always did. It was like I was in a game of chicken that I didn’t know about. And, every time I did it, the person (or in some cases the group of people) would stare at me as if I was accusing them of something. One old man in a Navy hat even yelled: “I don’t have corona! It’s fake anyway!”

The offended party was almost always white. I’m not saying white people do that. But because of the demographics of the neighborhood, most of the people just happened to be white.

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Also, white people do that.

Jakki, my dear, you are white people.

I’m not calling you a racist. I’m just saying that, to me, you are just a white woman. I don’t know if you’ve been tested for white supremacy. You probably don’t even know if you’ve been infected because the symptoms manifest themselves in different ways for different people. You don’t know if your parents passed it on to you or if their “multiethnic” friends were carriers.

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Many of the people who spread coronavirus are sure they don’t have it. They feel fine. They don’t show any symptoms. But they don’t know. Not only haven’t they been tested, but doctors aren’t even sure of the specific coronavirus symptoms. And if you simply try to protect yourself by steering clear of everyone, some will get upset if you treat them as if they are infected. Others, however, will try to assure you that you are safe with them because they don’t have it.

But what if you and other white people lived your lives assuming you were infected? What if, instead of trying to convince me that you are racism-free, you were as fastidious about telling your co-walkers to get out of the way?

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I get it. You’re “different.”

Telling a black person that your life is “filled with people of different colors” is the same as yelling that you are coronavirus-free to a passing stranger. It’s a subtle “not all white people.” Explaining how annoyed you are when people “distinguish someone by their skin color” is a not-so-slight variation of “I don’t see color.”

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Your parent’s multiracial wrecking crew, the insignificant distinction of being Jewish, your activist background—they mean nothing to most black people because we are practicing racial distancing. For most of our existence in America, the only way to protect ourselves has been to assume every white person has it. I love that you are “part of the Resistance.”

I would never be dismissive of your work. There’s nothing wrong with working with DemCast or running on the elliptical. It is a perfectly legitimate exercise. I wouldn’t even say it is less effective. Everyone who exercises their anti-racism muscles is doing their part. But there is “something we can work on together to bring everyone together.”

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You see, Jakki, I didn’t veer off the sidewalk and into the road to protect myself. I was doing it because I don’t know if I have coronavirus. I was struggling up the long, winding, hilly road, tired as fuck, exhaling all my spit, air and germs into the air. And because I don’t know if I have coronavirus or not, social distancing was the best thing I can do to protect the other people. I wasn’t worried about me.

And here is my ultimate point: Black people don’t “need to educate white people.”

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Educate them about what? Do you think such a widespread, insidious sickness can be so pervasive and white people don’t know about it? If every white person in America assumed they weren’t infected, don’t you still think they know the disease exists? Don’t you think they know why black people keep their distance? Don’t you think they’ve heard that they can be carriers even if they don’t show symptoms? And, since when have white people ever listened to us about anything?

It’s not that we don’t need to educate white people. It’s that black people cannot educate white people.

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But you can.

The biggest thing a white person can do to further the cause of anti-racism is to get white people to be anti-racists. Every second you spend writing DMs to a black person about your colorblind, love-for-all background is a moment wasted. When you see a black person, you might feel the urge to convince them that you are virus-free when they purposefully avoid you. But instead of getting in your feelings and recounting your resistance, there is something you can do that might one day create a world where we don’t have to practice racial distance. Tell your people: When they see a black person, exhausted and depleted from running uphill, most of the time the black person is not looking for help or solidarity.

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We just need you to get out of our way.

Not because you care about yourself.

But because it’s the only way to stop the sickness from spreading.


And then, there’s the well-meaning “race is a social construct” guy who thinks it’s all a hoax that he can see through.

From: Theo
To: Michael Harriot

Dude! I just read your quiet part load article. One of the best, spelled it out clear as can be. I’ve been trying to better understand our privilege better (being white and mostly around that culture it becomes hard to see... like a habit!) and really struggling my whole life with our history of native genocide and slavery and the whole “race” issue.

This really was an aha for me, so thank you. And I do talk openly and honestly when I can, so this will help me describe my problem with America and why I can still love it. I say “race” because, while it’s a real social construct, and in that way is “real”, the fact is the differences between people are cultural, there is no real way to describe the physical differences of people as being some race!

Not even genetically. We are all a mish mosh. Truly a rainbow, if you will. How did PE put it? What is pure? Who is pure? Is it European, I ain’t sure.

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Dear Theo,

Most people who know me would say that I am even-keeled as fuck. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I rarely worry. I’m not a “glass half-full” type or a “glass half-empty” type. I’m more of a “Were you planning to drink that glass of water? I’m thirsty.”

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But coronavirus has me paranoid.

At least once a week, I wake up in the middle of the night because my throat is dry. Usually, when this happens, I simply walk to the kitchen and take a sip of water. But lately, I wake up in the middle of the night absolutely sure I have swallowed a pregnant coronavirus that is now replicating in the back of my throat, so I run through all the possibilities in my head.

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“Did I wash my hands after the girl at the drive-thru handed me my credit card? She looked a little coronavirus-y. Wait...Maybe the package I received from Amazon was covered in coronaviruses. I should have sprayed that shit with Lysol. I probably walked through an invisible cloud of COVID droplets when I was walking the dog. They say coronas can hang in the air for 3 hours. I bet that woman who jogged past me at the lake had just coughed. She was probably spraying me with dat ’rona.”

I know it doesn’t make any sense.

I also know race doesn’t make any sense.

What makes a person white? Why are the descendants of African slaves from Haiti regarded as black but the descendants of African slaves in the Dominican Republic considered Hispanic? What’s a difference between a Northern Mexican and a Native American? Trust me, Theo, every black person in America knows race is a social construct. It is stupid and arbitrary.

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And it is real.

I don’t have the privilege of thinking about race or privilege in theoretical terms. I have to be paranoid because, like coronavirus, race will kill you.

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When I wake up with a tickle in my throat, the first thing I worry about is passing it on to my family, not myself. Ultimately, it’s my duty to protect them. That’s why I wear a mask and use Lysol wipes at the drive-thru window. I’ll be OK. I quite literally have a doctor on call 24 hours a day. I also probably won’t be killed by racism. I don’t live in a redlined neighborhood. (Did I mention I live near Lake Wypipo?) I didn’t attend an underfunded school. But the reason I write about racism is the same reason I write about coronavirus.

My mama.

My mother is the strongest person I’ve ever met. She might also be one of the smartest. She is the only person on the entire earth who has ever beat me at Jeopardy! (Which, by the way, is not a game about intelligence. It’s a game about figuring out how to figure out the shit you already know.) I remember when she had four children in college at the same time and willingly took four more children into her house. She cries at all the right times. I’ve seen her weep at a stranger’s funeral and stoic when she knew she couldn’t pay the light bill.

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She also has every sickness that makes coronavirus deadly. She has suffered multiple heart attacks. She uses an oxygen machine. She has high blood pressure and a weak immune system. If my mother gets coronavirus, I would have to prepare for her inevitable death. She knows this. We’ve talked about it. She worries about it so much that my sister has asked me not to talk about it so much because thinking about the coronavirus might make her sicker than the actual coronavirus.

My mama is black people.

Most black people do not have to face the direst consequences of racism. The smartest black people are probably going to excel. The hardest-working black people will also be OK. The unrepentant criminals will still end up in jail. Racism will doom the others who are not as lucky. And even the ones who are lucky must still be paranoid enough to think about it every day. We must be careful how we walk in dark parking lots. We practice how to reach for our wallets. Every time we fail, we have to wonder if it is on our own merits or because we are black. We must interpret every look and examine every action for its consequences.

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But not you, Theo.

You get to be white. Oh, how beautiful it must be to contemplate race and privilege in such existential terms. To know it won’t kill you. To be able to examine it as if it were an ant under a microscope. To think of it as invisible or abstract.

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Theo, I am not condemning you for a thing. In fact, I applaud you for your curiosity. But if you want to understand your privilege this is all you have to know:

You are not going to die.

Isn’t that the most wonderful privilege of all?

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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DISCUSSION

detroitkidelo
kidelo *if you support racists, you're a racist too*

Michael, once again thank you.

When will white people realize that they cannot self-diagnose being racism-free? Not even a tiny bit. Even with all the best intentions and kindest hearts, it’s something you would never see within yourself. But you can use those good intentions and kind hearts to fight from the inside.

I also had to cover my mouth when a young (white) family passed me on a dune pathway last week without giving me any kind of clearance. The father snapped at me, “We aren’t contagious!” and I snapped right back, “But maybe I am!” You should have seen his face. I think he gets it now.

I keep looking around me and wondering who will be here this time next year.