We are not your lab animals

I have a lot of criticisms about how race is handled (OK, mishandled) in America thanks to white supremacy. Part of that is because I lead an anti-racism organization in this country but I’ve been doing this website since before so mostly it’s because I live here.

I live and breathe racism and white supremacy and will almost certainly die with both going strong still.

But let’s take a quick stop in France (virtually speaking) and check out the pic of the tweet over on the left here with two French doctors talking about possible trials of a potential treatment (or maybe vaccine?) for the new coronavirus that’s shutting much of the world down right now. The original poster provided a small bit of the interview in translation, but it was a pretty damning portion, as Dr. Mira says, “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like it has been done in some studies in AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and .they don’t protect themselves, what do you think?” To which the other doctor in the live interview, Dr. Locht, readily agreed.

Well, if live interviews are good for anything, it’s allowing people’s racism to slip out unfiltered.

France, like the United Kingdom like the United States like dozens of other white nations, has a history of colonialism in countries where brown-skinned people are native and enslavement of brown-skinned people. White supremacy and racism exist in all these places that were former colonial giants, and can often serve as a mirror for us to look into.

After all, the United States pulled off atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment using Black people like experimental animals, and that’s just part of the legacy of Black people being used unethically for experiments (and often other marginalized or unprotected groups). And what’s worth looking at here, in this French interview, is how easy it is for white people to just suddenly start talking about brown-skinned people as if they were objects (and sex workers, too). No talk of what they might want or their humanity or autonomy. Just, “We should use them like lab animals, shouldn’t we?”

And this interview could just as well have happened in any mostly white nation—including the United States. In fact, given our current administration, I’m surprised we didn’t get to this level of open medical/experimental racism before France.

What is even more offensive about this is that Africa is currently one of the least hard-hit areas of the world with respect to the virus and COVID-19. I might be less infuriated if they had framed it as “Maybe we should start something like this in Africa where perhaps we can really get ahead of the curve and do some good.” I still wouldn’t fully trust in their intentions and honesty, because why not focus on where you are and where your fellow people are and where you have a lot of cases already? But at least it would sound more humane and compassionate.

Because the fact is these doctors are talking about African people like disposable objects. They are acting like all of Africa is living in total poverty with nothing at all (not true) and they are looking at “advantages” like “no resuscitation.” What the hell?

A whole continent of people is just a collection of lab animals to them. Medical commodities.

At a time when a nasty disease could be bridging us and connecting us and uniting us we have this: Doctors dehumanizing people and saying they should be first for the experimental risks. We should go over to a whole other part of the world to do our studies when we have disease right on our doorstep. We should use the brown-skinned folk.

The more things change—even when the entire world just about has been turned upside down—the more things stay the same.

And no, I don’t think all medical and research people are like this. But racism is a big problem in medical care and in research. And the fact is we’re already seeing evidence in the United States of Black people not getting access to tests or treatment for COVID-19 and being disproportionately impacted (by death and suffering) by the disease.

We’re all human and we’re all in this together. No one should be set aside as expendable just because they aren’t white.

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Image of lab vials by Bill Oxford via Unsplash

Lessons from a virus: The political is personal…and the empire is crumbling

We are living in interesting times and I don’t mean that in a good way. This new coronavirus is spreading across the globe and here in the United States, it is safe to say that the current administration is uniquely unqualified to handle the threat that COVID-19 poses to our citizens and to our very way of life. 

As the number of infected people rises, we have an administration that is hell-bent on stumbling at every stage of this growing pandemic, and a leader who is steeped in ignorance, narcissism—with no one on his team who is willing to speak truth to power (even if they wanted to, which I presume at this point most do not). As Americans increasingly realize that they are on their own, we hold to the childish belief that our standing will protect us from the greatest harm along with a year’s supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

Of course, given the growing insanity around the handling of the pandemic and with this being an election year, many are focused on the idea that if we can just get rid of Trump and his bumbling group of sycophants that order will be restored. That if we can coalesce around a single person, we can return to when things were good and when we had a leader that didn’t legislate by tweet and who used his manners. 

Yet that belief, should it come to fruition, will leave millions of Americans out in the cold. In 2016, the year Trump was elected, the poverty rate in the United States was 12.7%, and the last figures that I can find for 2017-18 put the poverty rate at roughly the same rate, give or take a point or two. To be clear, the poverty guideline is $26,200 annually for a family of four in the United States. The wage that is truly needed to live in almost every corner of the United States is significantly higher than the poverty guidelines, which means a lot of Americans are living hand-to-mouth. 

Despite the media spin, the gig economy is not just something that young people finding their career path are participating in. Have you noticed the median age of your Uber drivers or  Grubhub delivery people? I have and increasingly, they are people who look a lot like me. Middle-aged and older people who are cobbling together a living with jobs and gigs where there are no benefits, no retirement, no raises and no futures. Even for those of us who are “making” it, many of us are working multiple jobs that are referred to as consulting or creating revenue streams. A nifty little way to hide the fact that our “comfort” requires a lot more than 40 hours a week. When my husband and I split up in 2015, BGIM Media was born out of the necessity that I could no longer afford to write and speak for free or the occasional honorarium or tip. 

While we have heard daily blathering for years about the strength of the markets, and social media most certainly presents an image of many Americans living well, the truth is, many of us are not living well and our lives are simply about daily survival. But self delusion and American’s naive faith in the possibility of everyone moving up keeps most of us from acknowledging this uncomfortable truth. 

In a country built on the myth of meritocracy and boot straps, personal failings are seen as singular and the result of the individual; as a result, we rarely hear about those people. Yet their numbers are reflected in the number of uninsured people, the increasing numbers of people who are putting off necessary healthcare, the rapid increase in crowdfunding for necessities, rising student loan debt and the proliferation of how student loan debt is squeezing people as schools continue to charge astronomical prices. 

A decade ago, when my son entered college, his school—a small Catholic college in northern Wisconsin—was charging $39,000 a year including room and board. The only way that he was able to attend was via a debate scholarship that shaved off half the price along with family help and loans. When I graduated from DePaul University in 2001, I left with a BA and $28,000 in student loan debt, and I thought that was bad enough.  Of course, that was before attending graduate school where my debt soared far beyond that. 

We have also created a society now where a high school diploma is virtually worthless and increasingly companies want applicants to have multiple degrees for positions that do not pay a living wage. I experienced this in 2008: With a graduate degree, I took a position where my starting wage was $14 an hour and at that point I had almost six figures worth of student loan debt. However, it was a position that would move my career and I had a husband who did earn a decent salary, so I could afford the gamble. It still hurt, it still left me falling behind, and most people don’t even have that “luxury” that I did.

I grew up poor. Occasionally, we had a good year and we could be considered working class but my childhood was not the stuff of middle-class memories. When I was in fifth grade, we spent six months living in a homeless shelter. My childhood memories have one common theme: material scarcity. Times so hard that occasionally we could not afford toilet paper and ate tuna mixed with mustard because there weren’t enough pennies in the sofa cushions to buy mayonnaise. 

My early adult years were marginally better because I married up. In fact, both of my marriages are what would be seen as marrying up. I married into families that were not poor. Thus, access to resources via marriage allowed me to chart a different course than what a poor, Black girl could ever usually imagine. 

However, as income inequality has grown, there are fewer opportunities to mix and mingle across class or economic lines. In other words, we live not only racially siloed lives, we also tend to live economically siloed lives in a country that feeds us a false narrative of what we could be, if only we worked harder. Rather than a country that actually provides a basic living to all people or at the very least, some healthcare that is accessible (not simply “affordable,” mind you, because affordable is often still not accessible). 

As a result, we have a country that is conditioned to vote against its own best interest under the guise of maintaining the status quo and what is realistic. Rather than what is in the best interest of our citizens. 

Therefore when people do speak up about inequity with any level of anger, it is off-putting. We don’t like angry people. Yet not feeling our anger and expressing it is yet another way that the system of whiteness keeps us all trapped, regardless of our respective races. 

Frankly, in a country with the level of resources that this nation has, there is no reason for the increasing homeless camps that proliferate in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. People should not have to put off healthcare because they cannot afford it. We live in a country where for millions of school-aged children, their only reliable source of meals occurs at school. 

This coronavirus only makes even more clear how large the class and economic gap is in this country. Americans are currently being advised to stay home if they don’t feel well, and to consider working remotely. Yet, paid time off is not universal and millions of low-wage service workers and gig workers, these very unseen and necessary people don’t have that luxury. 

I have friends in the service industry who are scared shitless about the coming weeks and months and yes, they go to work when they don’t feel well, because as a friend told me last week, she needed the shifts to pay her rent. While some of us have the luxury of stocking up on toilet paper and bleach wipes, others are scrambling just to pay the rent and keep the lights on. And honestly, if they don’t go to work because of illness it’s not just lost wages for a few days—it often means they get fired.

As someone who grew up with no pot to piss in or window to throw it out of—and as a first-generation college graduate who has had to financially help family countless times—I will stay angry about the way we treat our fellow Americans. As anyone who struggles financially knows, survival is day to day and while Trump may be a madman poised to destroy our nation, even the ability to worry about that threat is a matter of privilege. Your Uber drivers may not care for Trump but at the moment, they just hope to earn enough to make a profit today. 

This is a divided nation and it’s not just a matter of voting on the left or right. We are a nation where millions struggle and are not seen. We have created a country where, just like with racism, we can choose what to see or not see. Yet our inability to not see others harms everyone and has created a system of both racial and economic apartheid. Our collective survival and growth will require us to see everyone and to consider our shared needs as a society. 

Hard times and hard moments can destroy us, but they can also be the catalyst for great change if allowed. The challenge will be moving beyond the me to the we. 

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Not everyone’s cup of tea

“I find myself disagreeing with much of the content and becoming agitated, when I had hoped to become more educated. This just isn’t working for me.” – exit survey of now former BGIM patron

I started writing about race back in 2003, back when writing about race as a non-academic was far, far less of the thing it is today—and almost not a thing at all in Maine. I received my first death threat less than a year after I started writing about my life as a Black woman living in the whitest state in America.

I say that to say this: I have had to develop some thick skin to stay with this work, especially at a time when the average white person assumed that white supremacy meant I was talking about the Ku Klux Klan and not an entire intentionally designed social-political-economic system.

My work and my writing is not everyone’s cup of tea. I know this. However, this platform is about honest conversations on race. Those conversations often use personal narratives that, for myself and BGIM Media’s Black and POC writers, allow us to be real about how racism affects us and how we navigate life. For my white writers, this space allows them to share their personal narratives on their continuous journey to dismantle whiteness within themselves and their white communities.

As the creator of this space, and as the executive director of Community Change Inc, one of the oldest anti-racism organizations in the nation, I strive to make the basic tenets of anti-racism work accessible, understanding that the process of truly being an anti-racist is a lifelong journey.

We live in the house that white supremacy built. Racism will not end in our lifetimes and we cannot love our ways out of this racially inequitable system—nor can checklist our way out of racism. While I am not white, I do know from my white anti-racism colleagues that their commitment to being anti-racist is a daily struggle. Whiteness is seductive and if you aren’t diligent, you will fall back into its luring arms. To truly work to become anti-racist requires sitting with uncomfortable truths—to understand that much of what you thought to be true as a white person was a half-truth at best. Given the state of today’s textbooks, it often might all be a lie (since enslaved Africans were never “immigrants” to this country and Indigenous people didn’t just give up their land).

Racism is internal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural. Once you start to have a new lens of seeing and understanding racism and the levels at which it operates in this country, you will notice it everywhere. Our work on this site serves to shine a spotlight on the crevices where racism hides that it becomes easy not to see, much like the dust bunnies that many of us ignore in our corners.

As a Black woman, my work can assist in providing an anti-racism education, but it is ultimately up to individual white people to do their work. With that in mind, if my work or the work of our writers is upsetting and agitating to you, it can be either a potential breakthrough moment…or a sign that you aren’t ready (or willing) to go deeper.

Losing patrons is a fact of life. We hate to see people go, but circumstances do change. However, I have never had a patron tell me that they found my work upsetting (as in the introductory quote to this post). To be honest, it begs the question: How did you end up as a patron to begin with? I would hope that people support this work because they have already found it to be valuable and have some sense of what they are supporting beforehand.

To those who have stayed with BGIM Media on this journey, I thank you for your readership and support and hope that our work continues to be a part of your commitment to being an anti-racist.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide from Unsplash