Originally posted to Facebook on May 9, 2020
I’ve been sitting with my thoughts about Ahmaud Arbery, and about the racialization of Covid-19 in the US, and the reopen protests. And I am hardly the first person to note that the preponderance of straight cis white men (and the straight cis white women who have placed their faith in the patriarchal bargain) at those protests is a reflection of entitlement to a world in which they are accustomed only to their safety; what they are protesting is not social or economic hardship but a new reality in which formerly easy activities, like leaving the house, are now fraught with threat.
Black Americans have lived with this reality since their arrival on Turtle Island. Masks and social distancing and computer simulations about the fluid dynamics of viral droplets have many of us considering whether going for a run or a jog might be deadly, in this era of corona — but Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in February, before quarantine, because for black Americans, deadly threat is omnipresent.
Many of us know this already. My feed is lit up with outcry. But my feeds have also been lit up lately by another concept, given to us in this time of quarantine: allostatic load. It is the technical term for why we are not using this time more productively, why we’re all overwhelmed; it’s stress, the stress of economic uncertainty and food insecurity and inaccessible basic services and omnipresent threat, and now that so many upper- and upper-middle-class white people are experiencing such stress we must be kind to ourselves for it; now, we are willing to understand it.
But millions of people in the US (and billions globally) have lived their entire lives with dire economic uncertainty and food insecurity and inaccessible basic services and omnipresent threat. That the concept of “allostatic load” is being popularized now, alongside admonitions to offer ourselves grace in this moment, speaks to the insidiousness of white supremacy, that behavior which we have long pathologized in marginalized groups coping with their enormous allostatic load is suddenly excusable when it appears in college-educated white homeowners. After all, it’s cute and charming when Ina Garten makes and chugs a a gallon-sized quarantini — how relatable! — but that unhoused black person on the corner with a paper bag, ah, clearly their fate is deserved; we imagine immediately that alcohol must have been a cause, rather than offer the grace of understanding that it is likely a coping mechanism, the same way it is for so many of us right now, facing a hardship that is still so much less than what so many people knew even before this virus.
I am not suggesting that we deny ourselves self-compassion. But our narratives of individual pathology and individual heroism need to be pushed back against if black lives — and trans lives, queer lives, brown lives, indigenous lives, poor lives — are truly to matter, because if we insist that the only way a poor black child in an underresourced school can experience a stable life is through relentless exceptionalism, we are denying that child their humanity; if we demand grit from others where we would offer grace to ourselves we are not offering grace at all, but only selling ourselves indulgences.
And: these manifestations of white supremacy are insidious indeed, and pernicious, but if reading about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery leaves you feeling frustrated and powerless I would politely suggest interrogating some of the structures of whiteness in yourself, in places where you might not expect. For example: there is a lot of talk, during this quarantine time, about weight gain or loss, and not just because of Adele. And let’s unpack that for a moment. Because it’s not a coincidence that higher body weight earned headlines as correlating with Covid-19 risk at the same time that Covid-19 was racialized in this country. We typically associate fatness with ill health, but consider that researchers who have dived deep into the data have determined that the link between the two is not causative, but rather mediated by medical fatphobia — which is to say, doctors and nurses, heroic as they may be, provide later, lesser, and generally worse care to people at higher body weights than they do to people at lower body weights; they tell fat people to lose weight for complaints that earn biopsies in thin people, and so discover cancers later in fat bodies.
And fat bodies are also vastly more likely to be black or brown bodies, which is also not accidental, for a whole range of reasons, not least of which is that our contemporary, healthist construction of “fatness” is an outgrowth of late 19th/early 20th century efforts to normalize the northern European body as the human ideal — this is explicit in the history of the BMI, and for those suspicious of what I’m saying here than I recommend reading Christy Harrison, a nutritionist who writes about this; she’s also a thin white woman, so she is widely regarded as an objective source of authority. And if “body positivity” seems an inadequate response to the murders of black bodies, understand that the Macklemore-ization of black liberationist thought is not an excuse to disregard it, and using it as such is, in fact, a key part of how white supremacist capitalism operates to maintain its hegemony, through co-option and dilution of radical black feminist ideas (see also: self-care; and to dive deeper into some of these ideas through a black feminist lens, Ijeoma Olou and Sonya Renee Taylor are rigorous-but-accessible starting points).
As so many of us are discovering, our bodies respond to our allostatic loads, in ways beyond our control. White supremacy pushes an enormous allostatic load onto black bodies and then punishes them for it. White supremacy ensured, through centuries of marginalization, that the coronavirus would disproportionately affect black and indigenous communities; that disproportionality has now become the excuse to ignore its effects, to “reopen,” because valuing white wealth at the expense of black and indigenous lives is, quite plainly, the founding premise of this country. And in the face of such omnipresent threat, the threat that a black man might lose his life just for going on a jog, what can we possibly do?, because as necessary as it is to share and protest we know that white supremacy does not sleep in between its outbursts but only invisibilizes its violence. And we can (and should, if we are able) financially support black-feminist-led efforts for collective liberation, like Critical Resistance and the Movement for Black Lives; we can listen with them, and organize with them, and understand that arresting two white killers, while a vital step forward, makes for a feeble vision of genuine justice.
Our greatest task is one of co-imagining, and then collaboratively building, a non-punitive, abundant, radically loving future in which black lives (brown lives, indigenous lives, trans lives, poor lives, queer lives, disabled lives) truly and powerfully matter, and that work happens as much within ourselves as between ourselves. I discuss body size here not because it is the only or the best example of needed interrogation but because the concept of “health” has been so normalized and valorized that it has come to seem value-neutral, apart from white supremacy, even though its anti-blackness is fairly obvious — white supremacy is the ideological amniotic fluid for nearly all of Western intellectual history and so seemingly innocuous and apparently objective ideas are often the most pernicious, are often the ones most badly in need of unpacking. There is no social currency that is value-neutral, and if we want to truly rid our landscape of the poison of white supremacy we must not only prune back its regular and most obscene blossoming but tear it out altogether, root and branch, from the dense soil of our own hearts.
It is easy to believe that racism — white supremacy, anti-blackness, oppression, injustice — looks only like two bearded white Southern white men with guns. It is easy, too, to imagine it looks like nothing at all, like abstract structures, like language — but institutions are collections of people and choices and so racism, and white supremacy and anti-blackness and oppression and injustice, looks most often like ourselves; and if that sounds despairing or condemning we should recognize that it means the most potent site of divestment from the structures of oppression is our own beliefs and patterns.
So let’s run with Maud, and let’s say his name — but we don’t know the names of the tens of thousands killed by Covid-19, by those for whom white supremacy has proven equally deadly, if less spectacularly so; let’s agitate and interrogate and radically restructure and give grace on their behalf as much as on Ahmaud Arbery’s (or Sandra Bland’s, or Tamir Rice’s, or Mike Brown’s, or Eric Garner’s, or, or, or…) — let’s become abolitionists, of ourselves and of each other, and follow black feminists to run together towards something like freedom.