I woke up at 11:01 this morning. I was too tired and too sad to go on a long walk with my pitbull, Nala. But regardless of my physical and emotional state, she still needed to go outside. I struggled with the only decision I make these days: “To wear a bra?” or “Not to wear a bra?” Bizarrely, I decided to put one on and subsequently put Nala’s bra on (read: harness). As we stepped outside, I began my morning social media scroll, as Nala approached her first pee spot.
As I waited for Nala to do her business, I suddenly felt someone staring at me from a car that slowly approached our left side. Normally I’m hyper aware of catcalling, so I quickly assumed it was a man trying to get my attention and/or fawning over Nala’s cute little face. I purposefully became more engrossed in my phone—hoping to avoid this becoming my first human interaction/altercation of the day. After Nala kicked up the grass to mark her territory for her fellow St. Louis canine competitors, I glanced up slightly to see who was staring at me. As my eyes met with the driver’s, I could immediately tell by the furrowed white brows and angry blue eyes that this was going to be much worse than an unsolicited morning catcall.
“Aren’t you going to pick that up?” said the older white woman sharply while sitting in a 2007 cyan colored Hyundai blocking the middle of the one-way street. “Pick what up?” I retorted. “Your dog’s poop, that’s WHAT!” she yelled from the car. Honestly, this is when 30 years of racism suddenly feels like being gaslit, because for a split second I thought to myself, “did my six-year old pitbull suddenly break from her firmly cemented routine and shit before she peed?” But before I could even gather my thoughts, I looked back at where Nala had peed and snapped at “Karen,” “My dog didn’t poop! She just urinated and as you can see *gesturing to my leash* I have poop bags. So, if my dog had pooped I would’ve pick …” And before I could complete the “it up,” Karen flipped her hand at me as if to dismiss me and awkwardly sped off down the 20mph residential St. Louis street.
Many ironies exist in that interaction, but the one that stands out the most is not the fact that my own disbelief in myself made me look back and see if Nala really had pooped in her pee spot. But the mere fact that, as I attempted to defend myself against a senseless racist encounter, Karen refused to hear me defend myself against the harassment she initiated. And I think it is that reality that makes this current moment during the COVID-19 pandemic (aka “The Rona”) so painful as a Black queer woman situated in the United States. Not only are we all trying to make sense of everything in the midst of a “dystopian hellscape”; but even in this hellscape that is ravaging lives around the world, white people still refuse to listen to Black people.
I have been wanting to write something for the past six weeks about Black women and coronavirus. But every time I try, I get so fucking angry, and then I get so fucking sad. Did you know the first three deaths in the Greater St. Louis metro area were Black women? Not the first three cases, but the first three deaths. This is not shocking, but it’s painful, serious, and speaks volumes about not only this place, but the structures that inscribe and shape St. Louis historically, politically and culturally.
Judy Wilson-Griffin, a Black woman in her sixties was the first person to die of COVID-19 in the Greater St. Louis area. Professionally a nurse, Wilson- Griffin oversaw and implemented the St. Mary’s Hospital’s maternal transport team for over 10 years. The program was designed to provide ambulance or helicopter transportation to women in need of care from high-risk specialists during birth. The irony is that while reading the news coverage about Wilson-Griffin’s death, I was also reading Dána-Ain Davis’ book Reproductive Injustice with my undergraduates at the University of Missouri St. Louis, where Wilson-Griffin was a doctoral student in nursing. Davis explores the reasons that Black women have higher rates of premature births and more adverse birth outcomes than white women in the United States. She ultimately argues that “historical structures and conceptions of race are inextricably tied up in contemporary medical understandings of prematurity and pregnancy in the twentieth century, drawing our attention to the existence of a medical racism that continues to operate today, often similar to ideas and practices that originated during the era of slavery”(pg. xvi). Davis’ extension of Saidiya Hartman’s “after-life of slavery” calls our attention to not only the past and present concerns that form medical racism but also the particular situatedness of U.S.-brand medical racism.
But, the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is showing us that the existence of medical racism is much more pervasive than just Black women’s reproductive issues. Now, in St. Louis and throughout the U.S., data shows the damaging effects of systemic inequality and institutionalized racism entangled with the current pandemic. In Michigan, where the state’s population is 14% Black, Black residents made up 35% of cases and 40% of deaths as of April 3rd. In Milwaukee, half of the county’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths were Black people; although the population is 26% black. In Chicago, while Black residents make up only 23% of the population, they account for 58% of the COVID-19 deaths. Similar trends have been cited in Louisiana and New York City, as Black Americans are overrepresented among COVID-19 cases and deaths in both locations. Now, a disease that for the first weeks of the pandemic many dangerously joked Black people were immune to, is wreaking havoc in Black communities—and killing Black women especially.
The reasons for reproductive injustice are quite similar to those for COVID-19 inequities among Black women. Coupled with extraordinary medical racism since slavery, the American healthcare system does not listen to Black people. And then that same system is hyper focused on telling us the diseases that it “thinks” Black people can or cannot get, widening the gap in care and increasing systemic inequities. Thus, it becomes devastatingly unsurprising when an advanced-degree-holding Black female nurse with pre-existing conditions is the first to succumb from COVID-19, followed by the deaths of two other Black women, Jazmond Dixon and Juanita Graham. By the end of the 4th week of the pandemic, all COVID-19 deaths in the City of St. Louis were of Black residents.
My Blackness is central to everything I do, which unfortunately for my health means I’m always mad (Hey, high blood pressure). White people often think of racist moments as calculated racist epithets or intentional acts of violence against Black and Brown people. But it’s the moments of racism where Black people ask for COVID-19 tests and are denied, or when Black people say they aren’t feeling well and are told to go home because it’s the seasonal flu, or when Black people are trying to explain their symptoms and aren’t listened to, that are also remarkable acts of violence. These moments, rendered “invisible” by white supremacy, are equally racist, annoying, and painful, and they are often the deadliest.
And when people die unjustifiably, I get mad. But then I/we get criticized for being mad. I/we get reprimanded for being angry. And devalued for cursing. I/we are then I asked to find nicer ways to package that anger, and all the while white supremacy continues to put its foot on our necks until we perish. The calculus of death is ignored when Black people are primarily affected. Frighteningly, what the past and present reveal is that the United States doesn’t know how to humanely care for Black people or even where to begin. And Black women keep trying to save everyone, including ourselves, even to our own harm.
We keep trying to save us, but even when white people are wrong, and even after we’ve proven our history (and yours), and we explain our experiences, and we do the research, and we get the statistics, and we get the degrees, and we get the job, and we get the tenure, and we finally speak the same language… this morning reminded me that you still won’t listen to us. And that’s infuriating. But regardless of this Karen and the Karens to come, I won’t stop talking until they listen, and I hope you won’t either. Because, as Audre Lorde wrote, not only will silence not protect us, “silence [has] never brought us anything of worth” at all (pg. 8).
For Jazmond Dixon, Juanita Graham, and Judy Wilson-Griffin. I’m so sorry the system(s) failed you by simply not listening… among other things.