Have you ever empowered someone?
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game”
(T. Morrison 2003).
“The modern plague is social inequality and poverty”
(P. Farmer 1999).
These two citations pinpoint the ways in which I see my role as an anthropologist: Listening and amplifying the voices that have been at the margins.
Even though Paul Farmer´s citation dates back to the 1990s, it is not difficult to see that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the social inequalities and systemic inequities that have persisted over generations. Examples of these disparities between the privileged and the disenfranchised are manifold: access to health service, education, living and social conditions, job security and food, just to name a few. While the privileged could stay “safely at home and work remotely”, the underprivileged, usually racial and ethnic minorities, had to work for a low-income salary and expose themselves to carriers of the virus. As an essential worker, they did not have a choice to stay at home.
In order to better grasp the current inequalities and injustices, a historical perspective is needed. North America will serve as an example. The U.S. response to COVID-19 illuminates these power differences on a day-to-day basis; the relentless impact of social unrest represents just the tip of the iceberg.
The history of colonization in a North American context is an example of how ethnic identity played an important role in creating very distinct boundaries between European settlers and Indigenous peoples. After 500 years, ethnic stratification based on the superiority of Euro-American descendants still maintains these seemingly impermeable categories that communities of color have difficulty bridging. These categories result in unequal access to resources, not only for Indigenous peoples, but also for different ethnic groups in North America. What drives these social inequalities? Is it the reinforcement of racial stereotyping by policymakers, institutions, or some other unacknowledged cultural forces? The Constitution of the United States affirms the most fundamental principle for all human beings that “[a]ll men are created equal,’’ what’s observed are continuous disadvantages and discriminations in all areas of life towards African Americans, Asians, Latin Americans, LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, inter and anyone not included) people, women, recent immigrants, and the original habitants of North America. By the same token, we can also witness the unwillingness to hold white people accountable with the same scrutiny as BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color). But what does that have to do with the current crisis, you may wonder? If the Navajo Nation, one of the biggest native reservations, cannot guarantee access to clean water for their community, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, that indigenous communities, people of color and other marginalized groups are at a higher risk of being infected than whites.
In general, the implementation of specific policies contributes to the wealth, power and prestige of the white American society. Even if race is not based on biological grounds, but a social construct, it is still deeply embedded in everyone’s psyche. The United States claims to be a colorblind society, but often does not openly discuss the social disadvantages enforced because of the cultural concept of race. Over the decades, many immigrants of color tried to assimilate into American society, yet they often failed because naturalization was limited to ‘‘free white persons’’ (Naturalization Act of 1795). In the 1930s, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant applied for U.S. citizenship; however, he was denied naturalization because of his non-Caucasian origins (see Takao Ozawa versus the United States). Still to this day, the asymmetrical circumstances due to the color of the skin are the primary reasons for the equity gap between whites and non-whites in similar socio-economical niches, argues sociologist Dalton Conley (2009). Disparities and systemic barriers are also visible during the current pandemic. Not only has the curfew been heavily imposed with communities of color, but also accessible health care is limited in poorer and rural areas.
Nonetheless, stereotyping is not one sided. Everyone has preconceived notions and one cannot avoid ethnocentrism. One has to be aware of their cultural lens and critically reflect upon. Unfortunately, the perception of the “Other” as different has often been used to create power relationships and is currently perpetuated as we have seen in the previous examples.
The good news is that the pandemic has forced us to look at our own failure of accepting this dystopian reality, based on inherited injustices that have served the privileged for far too long. The current situation has highlighted these inequalities. This piece is not about the USA per se, because it happens in our own backyard. Longstanding inequalities around the world are not fading away, if we do not ask ourselves these questions: Who benefits from human rights, while others are still oppressed, who benefits from the cheap labor of migrant workers, who benefits economically from climate change, while others already struggle, who benefits from restricted access to education, etc.
Needless to say, many voices continue to be missing, yet to be outspoken. We should look and listen to these voices as a source of strength in order to create a more just society. The privileged should not be silent anymore, but help to amplify these voices, pass the mic and look reality in the eye. The question Morrison would ask is: Have you already empowered someone today?
Dr. Noémie Hermeking
Hermeking holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Indiana University in Bloomington, USA and an M.A. in social anthropology and ethnology from l´École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. She has done extensive research with Indigenous communities both in Canada and the USA. After her return to Germany, she is currently working as an intercultural trainer, project manager to empower disadvantaged youth and lecturer at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.
Conley, Dalton. 2009. Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America. Berkely and Los Angeles:University of California Press.
Farmer, Paul. 1999. Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Morrison, Toni. 2003. “Interview with Pam Houston”, O Magazine. Accessed 7/11/2020.http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/toni-morrison-talks-love/4.
Picture by Zulmaury Saavedra.