In watching the COVID-19 crisis and the enduring Black Lives Matter protests across the US, I keep thinking about earthquakes.
Not because earthquakes are violent and destructive — though they are, as are the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism. And not because earthquakes tell us a lot about the relative resilience of our communities, with some buildings reduced to rubble and others left standing.
Both of those aspects of earthquakes are very relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of institutionalized racism, but not quite what’s been on my mind.
No, I’ve been pondering earthquakes as a way to think about narrative shift and how the current COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police violence have opened up opportunities to upend unhelpful narratives that have long stymied social change work in the U.S.
When an earthquake strikes, the destructive power of tectonic shifts deep beneath the earth’s crust causes stone and earth to move like liquid. Things that were immutable and solid one moment become fluid and dynamic the next. They flow and shift. The ground can collapse, or shoot up; rubble piles together, or gaping holes form. The scale and scope of change — and destruction — can be breathtaking. And then, after a matter of seconds, it’s over, and everything solidifies once again and we have a new, seemingly immutable landscape.
We operate amidst narratives so entrenched they are hard to see — until, like the earth beneath our feet, they shift. Narratives like the power of the individual and importance of individual responsibility in determining one’s success in life — or the parallel belief that poverty is a sign of individual weakness, not systemic injustice. The notion that the private sector is more efficient and effective, and government means bureaucracy and waste. The idea that all people are treated equally, that police are essential to community safety, and cops are local heroes.
The pandemic and mass protests against the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others are giving these entrenched ways of seeing the world a violent shake. And as a result, we’re all seeing things a little differently.
Just like that, we’re more aware that our lives are truly interdependent. The behaviors and actions of people in our own communities and around the globe can have profound impacts on our lives and the health and safety of the people we most care about.
All of a sudden, facts, science, and expertise matter a lot more too. We understand the importance of trained health professionals and seek out their guidance to keep our families and communities safe.
And in the wake of videos capturing the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and of Amy Cooper’s attempt to weaponize white privilege against Christian Cooper, a Black birder, in Central Park, millions more white Americans are opening their eyes to the world experienced by Black people. The story so many white Americans have wrapped themselves in — of America as the land of equal opportunity and justice for all — has been revealed to be just that: a story, carefully crafted to uphold their relative privilege and mask the violence, systemic oppression, and brutality experienced by Black Americans and other people of color in this country have experienced for centuries.
Consider this: we are still in the middle of the earthquake. The narrative landscape is fluid. Much has changed, but what stories will we tell when the world solidifies around us again?
Over the next weeks and months, we have an opportunity to ensure that as we reach the next solid state, we are telling different stories about the world. About our interreliance. About the importance of science and expertise and the role of government in keeping us safe. About our ability to do great things in the face of great challenges. About white supremacy and the myriad ways our current systems and institutions undermine the health, wealth, and wellbeing of Black people and communities of color — and the things we can do together to create an America that lives up to its promise.
Even as we endure the destruction of this moment, let’s recognize our collective opportunity to re-envision and reshape our shared future. Like it or not, we’re now living in the “Cool Zone,” and that means everything is possible.
Don’t forget: Together, with the right stories, we can remake the world.