Illustration by Angelika Manhart
Corona Chronicles Standard Deviations

Heartbreak, Hope, and George Floyd’s Legacy

By Amicha Robertson

My COVID isolation story, in the beginning, went pretty much as I expected it would. I picked up yoga to deal with the constant feeling of dread and anxiety. I baked sticky buns with my roommate. I tried (and often failed) to get some semblance of work done. What I didn’t expect was to have an epiphany that would shake me to my core and change the way that I perceive the world and others forever.

Before I get into it, I should mention that I’m an immigrant from Antigua, an island in the Caribbean. The population there is pretty homogenous, with most of the people being Black. As a result, I grew up in a society where I was part of the racial majority, meaning that I was rarely the target of racial discrimination. I always knew that I was privileged to have that sort of upbringing and grow up in a place where almost everyone in a position of power or prestige was Black. I even thought that my upbringing would be enough to “inoculate” me from feelings of inadequacy and otherness that I knew I might face when I became part of the racial minority moving here. I have never been more wrong in my entire life.

I began to realize the true extent of my otherness about a year before COVID at a diversity retreat organized by students in the graduate school. During that retreat we did different activities and had discussions that were centered around diversity both in and out of STEM. One of the activities involved writing down stereotypes that students had heard about different ethnic minorities on sticky notes and placing them on this huge pad under the name of the ethnic group; the goal being to interrupt bias and break stereotypes. However, as I read all of the stereotypes under the “Black” heading which included (but was not limited to) “criminal”, “lazy”, “stupid”, “angry”, “violent” and “rapist”, I was near tears. While I trusted that my peers themselves did not believe these stereotypes, it was the first time I really realized that there are other people out there who believe them; the first time I realized that there are people who would take one look at me, and assume that I was at least one of those things. When the retreat was over, I put that feeling into a little black box in the back of my mind, to be processed at another time. But then, George Floyd was murdered.

Don’t get me wrong, I was by no means oblivious to police brutality against Black people. I watched the news and saw the hashtags. While these incidences were always tragic, there was something about George Floyd’s murder that was especially heartbreaking to me. Was it because all eight minutes and forty-six seconds were caught on camera? Was it because there was nothing else happening to distract me from truly processing what happened and what that incident really meant? Regardless of the reason, I was in shambles. I had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t focus on work. I would spontaneously break down in tears in the middle of the day. What made it worse was the fact that the first few days after it happened, it seemed as if no one else cared. Lab meetings, journal clubs and group chats carried on as normal. I had never felt more frustrated, helpless and alone. The thought of George becoming just another hashtag made me sick.

But then, more people began to notice in a way I have never seen before. Segments of lab meetings were used to discuss the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and how labs could help promote diversity. Book clubs discussing anti-racism literature began popping up. There were conversations department-wide about systemic racism and microaggressions. Some of my colleagues and I even got the opportunity to bring some of our concerns about diversity in the institution to research leadership, which actually resulted in some drastic changes being made.

At the beginning of this pandemic, I had hoped to maybe learn a few new skills. What I didn’t expect was to come out of quarantine looking at the American way of life in a completely new way and with an overpowering desire to actively combat the systemic racism surrounding us. I’ll take that over learning how to bake sourdough bread any day.