An Old Lesson for a New World
by Samantha Harvey
Like many Americans privileged enough to shelter-in-place while we wait out COVID-19, I find myself going down more than a few virtual rabbit-holes each day. One of my favorites is the reassuring deluge of articles and tweets on “silver linings,” which run the gamut from creative home cooking to reduced traffic accidents. But there’s one silver lining that comes up a lot and doesn’t really belong — not because it isn’t objectively positive, but because taken alone, disconnected from its drivers, it could actually undermine our future. I’m talking about lowered climate emissions.
True, clouds of smog have subsided in major cities over the past few weeks, and the two million people who usually board a domestic flight on any given day has shrunk to under 100,000. But championing this as a hidden positive of global pandemic reinforces an oft told right-wing lie that people and nature are tethered antagonists, a win for one being a loss for the other. It also discounts a history of racism and fails to connect the facts that Black and Brown communities, suffering higher risks of infection and death from COVID-19 than Whites, are the same communities cast as sacrificial lambs of the climate crisis.
The good news is, (ugly as it may be), revealing white supremacy as the connective glue between COVID and climate will help us attack these interlocking crises at their roots rather than batting them off piecemeal. Understanding how the illusion of whiteness has historically weakened cultures can help us rebuild the civic muscle we need to vision and achieve a green and equitable post-COVID world.
Culture holds communities together, allows people to think boldly. When you have a “home” that’s bigger and stronger than your four walls, you have back-up, the assurance that even if things don’t come out all right in the end, someone will care and remember. Culture assures your actions and risks were worth it, that your roots can’t be pulled up so easily because they’re entangled deep in the beds of those ancient, dusky rivers Langston Hughes wrote about in 1920. Hughes was talking specifically about the African experience in America, and I the broader spectrum — from the first inhabitants of Turtle Island, to new immigrants demanding rights, to those who feel more connected to online networks than the actual neighbors with whom they share buildings and blocks.
Whatever your starting point, the current health crisis is highlighting in hyper-speed how important community-minded care is, and how far this age-old practice has drifted from mainstream American culture. The escalating climate crisis will only demand more of us, but the people packing Florida beaches in late March, emptying supermarket shelves and threatening healthcare workers at right wing-backed lockdown protests point to a troubling reality: many of us have grown addicted to consumption and estranged from our neighbors, more devoted to our Amazon wish lists than one another.
But a veil has been lifted, if just for this moment. We can now see clearly that a centuries-old system of white supremacy — a system currently using the health crisis to recast pipeline construction in Indian Country as “essential,” a system that tells us not to worry about “criminals” trapped at the border in camps vulnerable to a wildfire spread of COVID-19 — this is the same system that sells consumption-as-distraction and spurs misinformation about climate change. This is the system that uses racism to keep us focused on suspecting “them” so we won’t notice what’s being done to us. It has also deliberately weakened the community fabric we need in order to come out of this crisis a better society with a chance for all to thrive.
What is whiteness, after all, but a construct? Pressure to “become white” in exchange for access to opportunity created rifts among the oppressed, especially when some groups were able to slip into the privileged identity more easily than others, albeit at the cost of compromising their culture. Hierarchies of whiteness occupied us with one another while the ruling class moved on behind closed doors.
What is whiteness, after all, but a made-up way to justify the amassing of wealth — or in simpler terms, hoarding? A Venezuelan friend living in the U.S. tells me in all the years of crisis in her home country, phone calls with family never broached the subject of toilet paper. Is this a metaphor for Trump’s America — that a trending fear at the outset of coronavirus concerned how we’d dispose of our shit?
If we want to emerge from the COVID crisis a stronger society on a healing planet — and we must — we cannot allow white supremacist culture to lull us back to “business as usual.” We must use the new perspectives of this time to re-root in our communities and prioritize care for one another.
To be clear, I am not advocating a renewed insularity or return to any “good old days.” Cultures evolve in complex and beautiful ways, especially in places where multiple traditions are represented together. But what about a renewed opening of a closed book, a rewriting of the way things went? What about a rewind? How often do we get that chance in any significant way?
After the worst of this is over, we will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape the world we live in — a sacred privilege to rethink what we want our “normal” to be. Recognizing that caring for the environment and dismantling racism are not silver linings but interconnected, interdependent goals in their own right is the first, beautiful step.
Samantha M. Harvey is a freelance writer living in New York, where she supports grassroots movements pushing for systemic change. Her work has appeared in Grist, Orion, Earth Island Journal, Dark Mountain and more.