positive but not tone-deaf

My goal right now, personally and professionally, is to stay positive without being tone-deaf. Not the toxic positivity of “it’ll all work out!” that comes from the worst kind of Karens, because it’s not all going to work out. As I’ve seen stated over and over on Facebook, we’re all in the same boat, but we’re not all in the same storm. I’d argue that we’re not only facing different storms, but we have different boats. The most vulnerable among us are clinging to driftwood in a hurricane. Folks like me who’ve seen no change in income or opportunity and can self-isolate… I’m in a comfortable sailboat, learning how to sail on a windy day. Our so-called leaders in the federal government appear to be sitting on their yachts on a sunny day. They’re safe. I’m safe, if working hard to stay that way. Not everyone is, so being hyper positive isn’t helpful to anyone.

I’m focused on the kind of positivity that looks at our reality and recognizes where we’re growing and learning. That recognizes the destruction, but sees opportunities in it. That aspires to be a phoenix rising from the ashes. What do I mean by that? Speaking personally and politically, I hope we take a good damn look at how we pay, value, and respect our Essential workers. I hope we recognize the damage done by not funding healthcare in meaningful ways as a culture and country. I hope we recognize the value of our schools and teachers, and of our right to vote. And I hope we collectively act on those revelations.

But professionally, I mean this: Look at what we’ve learned. Look at what we’re trying in a time of exigency, on a shoestring and on the fly. Look at what we can do when we need to. Look at who we’re proving ourselves to be.

  • Entire universities of faculty, many of whom have vowed never to teach online, doing it anyway. And while I won’t predict that anyone’s loving this, lots of those folks learned a lot of new things, fast, and will use some of them come fall even without teaching online.
  • Faculty and staff raising enough money to send a $25 gift card to every single laid-off food service employee on our campus. Those same folks sending hundreds of care packages to students and staff through the bookstore.
  • Self-admitted “not a tech person” staff learning a half dozen new tools, and leading Zoom meetings and planning virtual events.
  • Staff running 3D printers and sewing machines in their homes, delivering PPE and comfort aids to local businesses because they noticed they’re uncomfortable, unprotected, or unhappy.
  • Organizations looking at the coming budget year, recognizing that it’s going to be bad, and choosing to prioritize their people anyway. Continuing with cost-of-living raises. Continuing to provide health insurance. Continuing to creatively redesign positions to resist layoffs.

We’re revealing who we are. We’re learning who we are. And we’re learning who our fellow citizens are, good, bad, and despicable. Public libraries are continuing curbside service, sometimes because the administrators say “it gives our hourly staff a job to do” without acknowledging the contagion risks of that job. We take the most vulnerable among us, the hourly employee with minimal job security or benefits, and put them on the front lines of a pandemic while those of us with a salary and a contract sit back and figure out how to use Zoom.

Protesters gathered at the Statehouse on Monday in Columbus, Ohio.¬†Credit…Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch, via Associated Press

People are marching in states like Michigan not because, say, Flint still doesn’t have have clean water (five years in), but because the Governors are shutting down their states in the interests of public health. Why protest that? Because “some of us can work safely”, the implication being that the people who are sick didn’t work safely. The people who are marching are largely white and middle class. The people who are sick are often in parts of the states that are disproportionately poor and not-white. You do the math about racism and classism in America.

In a country where these things are true, we can’t just “stay positive.” My daily affirmation is “stay sane.” I can manage sane. But blindly, willfully positive? That ignores the storms that many are struggling in. That ignores the deadly reality of this pandemic. That ignores the costs we’re all paying for this, and leads to people protesting our governments trying to save us despite ourselves, and organizations trying to save their employees by endangering them.

Some days, I can also manage positive. Positive comes from seeing how many of us are digging deep, putting on a mask, and moving outside our comfort zones. And we’re going to take that learning with us, emerging from this as a new version of ourselves. New skills, new knowledge, new self-knowledge, new cultural awareness. I can be proud of that, be cheered by that, take courage from that.

But positive cannot mean being tone-deaf to the struggles of the people clinging to driftwood in a hurricane. Positive cannot mean publishing stories about job hunting after graduation without noting that this class of seniors – college or high school, it doesn’t matter today – is set to graduate into the worst American economy ever. Positive cannot mean thanking Essential workers without acknowledging how little we pay them for their essentialness, or how little we’re actually protecting them while we protect ourselves. Positive cannot mean protesting governors who protect everyone because you’re pretty sure you’re way better than the idiots who got sick. Positive has to be real. It has to be rational.

Stay home. Stay curious. Stay sane. Stay rational. And if, in the face of that, you can, stay positive.

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