Imagine walking into a crowded auditorium. You scan the room with your eyes and notice different groups of people, huddled in small circles, engaged in conversations only they can hear. What do you do? Where do you go? Most importantly, how do you join an existing conversation?
In some sense, we are learning powerful lessons about conversation through the presence of COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the smaller and more private conversations that characterize modern life. It’s like COVID-19 suddenly walked into that crowded room and hijacked all of our agendas.
In the process, we are presented with the rare opportunity to engage in a collective conversation and for good reason. The fact that this novel coronavirus indiscriminately attacks human beings—irrespective of wealth, social status, or country of birth—has forced many people to recognize their own vulnerability. COVID-19 single-handedly shifted our gaze, away from more mundane considerations, to its mysterious performance on the human immune system. In many ways, COVID-19 is a biological artist, and when it seized the mic, it took our breath away. It disrupted all of the small conversations that were taking place in different parts of the auditorium and it forced us all to pay attention to our vulnerability.
It’s been interesting to see the conversation shift to our shared vulnerability. But no sooner did this shared experience of vulnerability set in than quiet caveats followed: maybe some people are more vulnerable. Older people. People with preexisting conditions. People of color. This zip code, that hot spot. Data trickled in too: in Georgia, eighty percent of hospitalized patients are African American. More than half of Maryland’s deaths have been in nursing homes.
Conversations about vulnerability—especially our own vulnerability—can be deeply uncomfortable, and they are not always conversations everyone wants to be a part of. For some people, learning that other groups might really be the vulnerable ones in this pandemic provides a false sense of security—and the off ramp they’ve been grasping for to get themselves out of this conversation. I’ve been disappointed, but not surprised, by how some people have responded to that discomfort. Rather than stay in conversation, they’re searching for a justification for their escape.
Turning away from an uncomfortable conversation is understandable. After all, few people willingly run toward conversations focused on their own vulnerability, and even fewer turn toward conversations about other people’s vulnerability.
I do hope we remember that these are conversations that many scholars, organizations and individuals have been having for a very long time. In fact, many of the groups deemed most vulnerable understood their own vulnerabilities long before this pandemic.
For those who are willing to remain in this shared conversation—despite the discomfort—I applaud you. Joining an ongoing conversation takes skill and social grace. You may have been forced into this conversation by a novel coronavirus, but you are here now.
So, what will happen after the storm?
The conversations you choose to enter, where and when, will matter.
Note: The title of this article was inspired by the book When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula J. Giddings, an African-American historian.
About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.