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On My Mind | May 2020



It’s 7:45AM on a Saturday. I’m at my table with a piping hot cup of pomegranate tea with fresh lemon and ginger, honey and a splash of unfiltered apple cider vinegar. I’m in Reggio Emilia, Italy staring at these few lone lines against the infinite white expanse of yet another new Google Doc. Ever since the season was postponed in mid March, I’ve tried and subsequently failed to write this post a handful of times. 


Impossible as it is, each attempt feels like there might not be enough 0’s and 1’s in Google’s cloud, not enough of these empty white pages to hold everything that’s coursing through my mind. I feel like I could write forever. For this month’s On My Mind, I want to untangle a few threads from my experience, from a weave (or knot) of thoughts and themes I’ve been journaling about since 2014, my first year living abroad. Today is my last day in Italy. I want to spend some time writing about going home. To America. 


Back in March, our basketball season was postponed due to covid-19. At that point, there was still some possibility, however slim, that we would restart and complete the season. I’ve been packed since then. My three or four bags have been stacked in the corner of my living room, ready to go at an moment’s notice ever since all team activities were prohibited in mid March. 


At that point, northern Italy had taken over the reins from China as the epicenter of the pandemic. When foreign players (and my own American teammates) began leaving, I weighed my situation, weighed my options, and decided to stay. I wrote about it in an extra post (here). I spoke to the health considerations and the idea that the virus would unfold much worse in America. I spoke to logistics and my personal circumstance as a single person with no significant other or children waiting for me. I spoke to feeling safe.


A number of media outlets found that blog post and ran with that statement. I think I gave the same interview, expressing my decision to stay, a handful of times to different newspapers and websites across the country. Part of me couldn't comprehend why. In my mind, I didn’t think I was doing anything novel. At the time it felt plainly logical. I continued with the interviews anyway. At one point, I even asked our press officer if the incoming interview inquiries were all the same. Yes. Perhaps I thought my actions were a bit over sensationalized, but I guess I best understood the significance during one of my grocery runs a few weeks into total isolation. 


It happened at my local Conad. I was on a mission, masked and gloved, headphones drowning out any viral contagion anxiety, when this tiny Italian woman, clearly uncertain and a bit nervous, shuffled up alongside my cart in the produce section. It took a few frantic waves to break me out of my grocery shopping trance. Besides some weekly small talk at the check out, I couldn’t recall the last time I had had a face to face conversation with another human being. 


Seeing I was a bit startled, she apologized for stopping me then proceeded to thank me for staying in Italy. She said I may not know it, but it meant a lot to her and to the city that I felt safe and that there was nothing to fear. Still a bit rattled, I awkwardly thanked her for the kind words. I shared my hopes that Italy’s virus situation would improve and I expressed my general gratitude for being able to remain (even with the season all but cancelled). I spent the rest of that grocery run and several days thinking about that conversation and things I might’ve told her had I had the time or capacity for the Italian language.

I just ran into writer’s block, or rather a bottleneck, as I again grappled with the scope of what I want to say in this post. I’m out of tea and I’m now nervous munching through the granola bars that are supposed to be snacks on my flights tomorrow. I just got off a half hour long FaceTime call with my little brother. It’s 3-something in the morning in Atlanta. He’s on call as a firefighter and first responder. His message that prompted the call. “I can’t sleep. I’ve had multiple sleepless nights. I don’t know why.”


I’m thankful that call broke my train of thought. In a lot of ways, it pointed me in the right direction for clarifying the remainder of this post's scope. I’m writing about that feeling.


When I talk about safety, I think it’s easy to view that through the timely lens of the coronavirus pandemic. And certainly, in my past posts and those recent interviews, I’ve purposely put that lens in the forefront. Safe from covid-19. But in many ways, it goes deeper than the virus.  On the surface one might look at the numbers, look at the United States taking over as a new epicenter, the most cases, staggering deaths, lack of testing, absence of coordination and leadership, etc. and say yes, I get it. Safe from covid-19.


But the virus wasn’t worse in the United States by chance or simply because the country was caught off guard. Go a level further. You start looking at the systems. You might look at government, healthcare, the economy, socioeconomic dynamics and cultural factors that make such terrible outcomes possible. Jobs tied to healthcare, a consumer economy, vast income inequality, the list and nuances go on. And then I go a step further and think about who all of this affects. 


Disproportionately this pandemic terrorizes communities of color. We see it in the infections and deaths in major cities on account of underlying health conditions, living situations, and access to healthcare. We see it in the essential workers unable to work from home who so often are in lower paying, service line jobs and forced to take on added risks. On the flip side, we also see it in the cohorts of non-essential, low paying, service industry jobs that the pandemic decimated. 


A step further, you might think about the protests for opening up the economy. You might think about who’s protesting and how. You might think about the types of businesses they’re demanding to open and which people are most likely to work there. Perhaps you think about masks and social distancing and against whom those laws are more actively enforced in public places. 


If you are a person of color in America, chances are you are at a greater risk for the negative health and socioeconomic impacts of this coronavirus. Not because covid-19 itself differentiates between race and ethnicity, but because it exists in an environment, in a system, in an America, that so often does. 


When I talk about safety, I’m not necessarily concerned about a virus so much as I am concerned about the systematic forces that put people that look like me at greater risk for anything from once in a century pandemics to multigenerational police brutality. And it’s these systematic forces that have long made me thankful for the opportunity to spend time outside America long before covid-19 spread across the world. This is what I’ve written about (and continue to write about) so often in my personal journals ever since that 2014 season in Tel Aviv, my first significant time living away from the United States.


Given the time, clarity of mind, and appropriate language skills, this is what I imagine I might’ve explained to the Italian woman in the Conad produce section. Sure, I understand how my staying represents an act of good faith in a country struggling with a pandemic. I would’ve expressed that yes I’m thankful for my stay in Italy during this time, but I’m also thinking about how thankful I am for all the countries I’ve lived in over the last 7 years--Italy, Israel, Turkey and Greece. I feel safe not from just the virus, but from some of the systematic oppressions present in America every day.

I started and stopped writing that a number of times since late March. And perhaps that would be fine to stand alone as a small collection of thoughts. It was one of the strands I thought I could neatly untangle from a knot of thoughts and years of journal entries. I saw a certain alignment of long held feelings about America with a voluntary choice afforded by a pandemic. An active display of a wariness that partly inspires my nomadic lifestyle, longer international vacations directly after the season, temporary rents in New York City during the offseason, my general refrain from purchasing a home, some sense of guilty relief when I board my flight to training camp. But thoughts are never neat and sometimes you can’t just pull one thread without unravelling others. 


I want to dedicate the rest of this post to unpacking some further thoughts and visceral feelings I have as I prepare to return to a country that is burning, literally and figuratively speaking. As I write this, protests are emerging in major cities across the country in response to a recent string of racially motivated violence and police brutalities. More on those below. 


I will say that this post is not to teach you, the reader, about the nuances of these tragedies or systematic racism and white privilege. Nor does this post serve as a guide or source of solutions. There is no quick fix to understanding the depths and intertwinings of the institutionalized forces at work here. That is in many ways a never ending process that demands time and an active commitment to continually questioning and learning. At the bottom of this post I’ll attach a few resources that I think can be valuable if you’re reading this and asking yourself how you can begin to learn more, be an ally and an active part of the solution. Again, I want only to frame a narrow slice of my thoughts on these matters as they relate to my thinking as I return home. I want you to know how I’m feeling.

Two or three days ago, in light of the headlines in the United States, I received a direct message from a young woman from Turkey. We’d met randomly one evening 3 or 4 years ago in a lounge in Istanbul. There are few things I like less than loud, crowded, and smokey  nightlife lounges, but I was there with friends and we ended up meeting and having a pleasant conversation. We haven’t really spoken since that lone chat passing time while our friends were drunk and dancing, so I was quite surprised to receive her message. It gave me pause and motivated me to take the time to pull and sort some more threads.


“I remember when all these terror attacks were happening in Istanbul and your comment was: well it’s still less safer in the states at all times. That really hit. I had never thought of it like that.”


I often joke with my family members, especially my siblings about not coming back to America. I quip about finding a plot of land abroad and leading a simpler life than the one I already have. There is something about life that I enjoy overseas. Each year I look forward to the time when I can bring my mom, or one of my siblings to come visit during the season. I am thankful for the opportunity, for the privilege, to share so many of the things I’ve loved about my experience living abroad. And while immersing in other cultures, the trips to historic landmarks, authentic cuisines, world renowned museums etc are all great, one of the simpler, unspoken experiences that I appreciate sharing is a certain kind of ease (though not elimination) of tension afforded by being outside of a systematically oppressive environment. 


That’s not to say the countries I’ve lived in don’t have issues and oppressive systems of their own. The conversation I had with the woman from Istanbul happened at a time when terrorist bombings were on the rise across the Turkey. Much like my family worried about me as covid-19 broke out in Italy, they worried about me during that time in Turkey. The same could be said when tensions flared between Israel and Palestine while I was living in Tel Aviv. 


One thing living abroad so many years has taught me is that each place has its own issues, racism included. There is no “running” from these things. I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of that abroad. They just happen to manifest systematically in different ways. While much of that is the discussion of my journals and beyond the scope of this post, I’ll simply illuminate that ease I spoke of, or that feeling of safety, by talking about thinking.


Personally, these past weeks have run the gamut of emotions and thoughts about how systematic racism manifests on an individual level. When I first attempted to write this post, I had heard about Ahmaud Aubrey’s lynching through social media, but video footage had not yet launched the case onto the world stage. He was targeted as a “neighborhood thief” while out for a run. This was soon followed by the news of police storming the wrong home and murdering Breonna Taylor in Louisville. I made another attempt at organizing my thoughts and failed. No sooner there was the incident with Christian Cooper in New York’s Central Park where a white woman tried to weaponize the police simply because he had asked her to follow park rules and leash her dog. Shortly after, four policemen in Minneapolis publicly murdered George Floyd in broad daylight for “resisting arrest” and what is reported to have been writing a bad check. Today, in light of these recent tragedies, protests are spreading across the country.


I’m only highlighting these cases because they are current events and successively demanded so much attention in such a short period of time. I also think they simultaneously speak directly to the breadth of ways systematic racism manifests on an individual level. Highlighting them for any other reason would be a disservice to the countless other cases and victims of racism over the years, headline news or not, recorded on cell phone or not. Certainly any number of those cases could tell the same story. But in just a few weeks time, these four cases have spoken to the expanse of risks in their varying forms that black people and other people of color experience daily. 


What do I mean by that? What I mean is that when I land in Atlanta tomorrow, my daily thought processes will inevitably change in response to the added risks taken on by stepping into America. How? A short exercise for your consideration.


What do you think about consciously or subconsciously when you wake up? When you have a work meeting? When you’re socializing with a group of friends that all look like you? When they don’t look like you? When you’re out shopping? When you go for a run? When you’re out for a walk or bird watching? If you have kids, when you send them to school? When you interact with police? What considerations do you make about your behavior? About your appearance? How much do you think ahead about what other people might wrongly perceive about you? How much thinking do you try to do for other people? How do you define risk when partaking in any of these daily actions? What’s the most you wager you could lose on any given day?


As I pack up the rest of my few belongings and prepare to fly back to America, I’m thinking about the safe space I’ve had the last couple of months while isolated in quarantine. I’m thinking about the call from my little brother. I’m thinking about how so often when these tragedies occur, black people and other people of color are put in the position of simultaneously grieving, defending, questioning, teaching and surviving. I’m thinking about that mental and pyschological weight that keeps my brother and me and probably many other black people awake at night. I’m thinking about my older brother who just started a new corporate job after a three year entrepreneurial stint out on his own. He doesn’t know if he feels crazy or enraged that his new coworkers are oblivious to what is happening. I’m thinking so much about the place of incredible privilege I’ve had during the season for the last 7 years and some of the things I’m relieved not to think about regularly (see the exercise above). And I’m thinking about all those things that exist independent of location that I still think about on a daily basis no matter where I am.


When I was a bit younger than my little brother and I first started internalizing some of the mental and psychological weight of America’s systematically oppressive forces, I used to think being black was exhausting. I had many more days like the ones he’s describing. Days where I didn’t understand why the world felt so hopeless or why I’d continually enrage myself by overconsuming traumatizing media and ignorant comments or days when I felt like it was my responsibility to teach every good-intentioned or ill-intentioned white person that engaged me about the depths and nuances of racism and white privilege. Even here in Italy, with the privileges I’ve been afforded, those days aren’t lost on me. 


Before I hung up with my brother, I joked that I’ve been in a zenned out meditative state for the last few months in quarantine. I told him we have to learn how to demand, create and protect our mental space especially in times like these. That it’s ok not to feel ok, to not want to talk to people, to take your time to feel. In a lot of ways, spending time away from America has helped me learn how to create that space. It’s allowed me to experience that easing, that lifting of some weight and helped me realize my skin, my melanin is not exhausting even if on days like today I’m not exactly ok. Still I am, always have been, and always will be proud to be black. It’s America and institutionalized racism, it’s white privilege and oppression that are exhausting. 


I’m going home tomorrow hurting, grieving, exhausted, and angry to a country that feels less and less familiar each offseason. But though at times America causes me deep, gut wrenching pain, that doesn’t mean I don’t still love it--that I won’t still come back. It’s when you give up on a place, stop returning, that you relinquish that hope and ability to help instigate change. So long as my family is there, America is still home. I just want it to progress towards growing safer, more equitable, a little lighter and less exhausting for my family and black and brown friends that I worry about everyday and for all people that look like me. 

If you made it this far in the post, thank you for taking the time. I hope at the very least it sparks some of your own thinking, healthy dialogue and action on these issues. And if nothing else, I hope it makes you feel something. Through much of the pain I’ve been enduring the last days, I’ve tried to respond and engage messages I’ve received from white friends, acquaintances, fans, followers etc. about everything going on. A number have checked on me, continued to offer their support and committed to using their voice and privilege to affect change. I’m truly thankful. 


There are many others who are unsure and looking for answers about what they should do. I want to just say that your black friends do not have all the answers, nor the capacity to direct you (or all their other white friends) every step of the way. As I mentioned earlier, change is an active and continual process. It’s a commitment. Perhaps before asking your black friends what you should do, at the very basic level ask you what you should do. Starting with empathy will go a long way in informing your questions and actions.


Stop and honestly ask what you would do if your mother, father, sister, brother or child were a victim of one of these tragedies. When you can feel, you can really begin to open up to wanting to learn and understand without the precept of “other”. Here is a small collection of resources I’ve been passing along in my own circle to those wanting to learn how to be an ally. It’s not all the answers, but it offers some direction for taking a small step forward in this long journey. I need you. We need you.


Blessings.


-jo



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