I don’t have any friends — or acquaintances for that matter — who would even think of going to the rally to reopen Pennsylvania. In fact, many in my circles vehemently condemned the protesters on social media. And when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced opening businesses like hair salons in his state as early as Friday, among my friends, there was a collective cringe.
The rally is an extreme example. But it points to divides that couldn’t be more important right now.
My friends come from different experiences. They are a mix of races. Some are financially well off. Many are able to work from home. Others are going to the front lines every day. And the stories they’re telling about their lives right now are very different.
And in these different experiences, there’s conflict. Conflict about what’s true, about what’s important, about what should happen next. But right now, even though our conversations with friends are our lifeline to the world, we have to make room for the uncomfortable ones.
We’ve got to do better.
Right now, not only are we living in a pandemic, we are in the midst of an infodemic — a phrase coined by the World Health Organization that describes the glut of coronavirus information — not all of it accurate — we are receiving ad nauseam from social and conventional media.
And more than ever, it feels like we are forced to take sides, says Jie Xu, an associate professor in the department of communications at Villanova University “So many of us are stuck in echo chambers listening to the opinions we already mostly agree with. We aren’t giving people a chance to talk so we aren’t growing,” Xu said. “We are losing touch with our humanity.”
Let’s face it. We came into this crisis more divided than ever. The nation’s ideological differences over politics, race, religion, and more meant we’re coming into many conversations deeply entrenched.
Even in my circles, there are divides: A lot of talk on my timeline is centered around class. There are my friends who are still working and have the luxury of staying home (and have even had fancy new stationary bikes delivered) and those who risk their lives going to work every day or are worried about paying rent next month.
Yet it’s the conversations from across the racial divide that reveal the most about who we are as a country, even though those insights are, in all honesty, par for the course for many black Americans. We know these conversations. Back in the day when there was no social media, we were having these conversations in living rooms, barbershops and beauty salons. These were personal conversations, not for the white gaze.
That’s why we weren’t surprised when we learned that COVID-19 was hitting the black community so hard. Our experience in this strange world is new to other communities, but familiar to us.
It’s been well reported that African Americans — including black Pennsylvanians — make up a disproportionate amount of the country’s coronavirus cases. That’s because black people are more likely to hold those “essential” jobs in transit, hospitals, and supermarkets that keep the world going. And when black people are exposed, we’re likely to get sicker since we tend to to have preexisting conditions, like diabetes, that exacerbates COVID-19.
It should be no surprise that the prevailing perspective among black people is that we are again risking our lives to put food on our table and keep those who are better off — the majority of whom are white — comfortable and safe. And although there is truth in this myopic view, it’s limiting. The truth is people of all races are working the front lines in hospitals and grocery stores. And people of color do have the luxury to work from home.
“Different communities have always had an understanding that big events affect their lives differently, explained Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology also at the University of Pennsylvania “In this case, the middle class is passionate about staying home because they can be, and black and brown people tell another story. The difference is now we can’t help but be aware of it because we have a democratic access to information, but not to wealth, health care, protection, and safety.”
If we’re not careful, this crisis will deepen the divides that already seem so insurmountable right now.
So what we do we do about it?
As unprecedented as this moment feels right now, we have to decide what we want the world to look like on the other side of it. And so, we have to get better at listening.
We have to learn how to broaden our perspective and feel like we aren’t doing it at the expense of our values, Xu said. The goal has to be to let new information in, not close it out. It’s important that we just don’t listen to conservative and liberal voices, Xu said, but we should read media from other communities — perhaps the Philadelphia Tribune or Al Dia. We should follow different voices on social media, too, to break the bubble and be uncomfortable.
“Even when you don’t agree,” Xu said. “It’s important that you hear people out. That is the only way our humanity can survive if we listen to each other.”
And most importantly, said Dustin Kidd, professor of sociology at Temple University, the more privileged you are, the more important it is to move beyond the bubble, because your opinions and decisions have a greater impact on those who are less fortunate. “These businessmen are in rooms making policy and decisions that are impacting people whose lives they know nothing about,” Kidd said.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to listen more. I’m listening to my friends who can’t work from home. I’m listening to my friends who work on the front lines. I’m listening to my friends who are figuring out how to parent now. And I’m even listening to those people who want to reopen our cities, and whose ideas about what needs to happen next make me uncomfortable, or even angry. But we have to make space to listen widely right now.
I fear my humanity depends on it.