Black Folks Know Social Distancing
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
I was out jogging the other day. As I approached an older couple walking toward me, they smiled and stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass - giving us all a wide berth. During these days of COVID-19, we understand that as an act of simple self preservation. While this current crisis is new, the choreography of that encounter seemed very familiar to me. In fact, as an African American male, I’ve experienced it my entire life.
My family first moved to Massachusetts in 1967. On my first day of kindergarten, a group of white boys - apparently feeling compelled to enforce greater social distance - threatened and chased me down the street on my way home. Throughout my school years, there were a myriad of instances where both teachers and students demonstrated their need to create social distance. This was often literal, sometimes not wanting me to study or play with them. Other times, it was the social distance created out of the belief that I was somehow inherently less than they were.
Growing up, when I walked into stores, sales people frequently found the need to “distance” themselves. It was common to simply be ignored; so infrequently did I hear the words “may I help you?” Once in the mid-90’s, I went to a car dealership with the intent of buying something. After 45 minutes I realized that it was no accident, or mere oversight, that not a single person had come to help me. I went down the street and bought something else instead. In that instance, apparently, social distance was more important than food on a sales person's table!
Early in my career I lived in a suburb of Boston and rode a commuter train into town. I saw social distancing pretty much every day. My stop in the morning was early in the train's route. I would always get my choice of seat. The train would quickly fill to the point where commuters were packed in like sardines; jammed in the aisle. Despite that, curiously, the seat beside frequently me would remain open. The entire train car would be packed, except for the seat beside me.
Other times, I’d be alone in an elevator. Someone would walk in - apparently realize they were alone with a black man - and then hurriedly, nervously, rush out. Or I’d be walking down the street approaching someone, and the very prospect of having to walk past me would compel them to cross the street in front of me.
I've had the blessing to live in some beautiful communities. Twice over the years, when I was cutting my lawn, in front of my house, neighbors came up and asked how much I charged. The social distance that they had created between us in their minds couldn't allow them to imagine that I actually lived there.
I could go on, and on, and on, but you get the point.
While often painful, I tried not to take personally any individual instance of social distancing. There’s no doubt that it had an impact on me though. In fact, if I’m honest, on occasion I find myself subconsciously trying to defuse the stress that others might feel around me. Even though I am the victim of someone else's biases, I shift the onus for fixing the situation onto my shoulders as opposed to where it belongs. I’ll slow down to create distance with people in front of me. Getting off a hotel elevator, I'll quickly scamper past anyone heading in the same direction so they don't fear that I'm following them. I admit, this admission embarrasses me, but being on the receiving end of a lifetime of social distancing has had its impact.
I’m, of course, well aware of the broader, societal fixation on social distance as it relates to black people. Think about it, entire neighborhoods “distanced” themselves from black families when they moved in. To "protect" their children, parents created whole systems of private and parochial schools to create distance from black children. During my lifetime, "social distancing" was enforced around things as fundamental as earning a living, going to the bathroom, having a meal, or getting a drink of water.
Heck, in 2015, I experienced one of the most egregious forms of mass social distancing that I had ever seen. We lived in an Atlanta suburb and my oldest son played high school football. We traveled a few hours to southern Georgia for a playoff game. It took me almost half of the game to realize it, but the stands were segregated. All of the white home fans were on the home side. All of the home African American fans were on the visitor side with the integrated group from my son's high school. In 2015.
So, I “get” the tactical social distancing necessitated by the pandemic. I'm not questioning the current efforts to stay safe. But I’m also clear that the mechanics - the choreography - that the country is now using are very similar to the way that it has always tried to protect itself from African Americans and others who are different. The context is different now, to be sure, but for African Americans - some of this social distancing feels very familiar.