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Kate MacDonald: Cracking open empathy during the pandemic

Illustration by Kordeena Clayton

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – I have been stuck writing this next piece. Topics seem to be presenting themselves daily. Things are constantly changing within, in community, with the environment, within the government. The only thing constant is change. 

We have watched the world go from highlighting kindness and loving thy neighbour to character-shaking fear. 

I got my first taste of this on a grocery run at Sobeys. I said excuse me to a middle aged white man and when I approached to pass him he screamed in my face to stay back. 

I honestly thought my first reaction would be to lunge. But instead my heart began to ache. Oh my god. What is wrong with people? My partner took on the fire for both of us. As we continued shopping I flash backed to many other times in my life I had been yelled at unprovoked. I started to shake. We are all afraid and some legitimately have the right to be more afraid than others. But also, privilege doesn’t disappear in a pandemic, it amplifies. 

We got into line and I could see him at the other end of the store. I went outside and waited for him. Calmly. But I must have looked like I was waiting with a mission because everyone who passed looked at me. Finally he walked out. I said “I hope when you are in a time of need you remember how you treated people.” 

Full well knowing I have felt the backlash of karma. Those lessons are hard and levelling. I asked the universe to hear my wishes for his karma to return. He told me I couldn’t read and was a moron. I then told him I hope he doesn’t receive the help he needs when he needs it. To be so afraid you forget humanity…this was my first taste of it. 

The second time was at Dollarama. I had to purchase activities for the kids to keep it together and explore while we are all locked in the house. An older man was unable to navigate the robotic self check out. The man approached the employee confused and bewildered as to why this wasn’t working for him. The employee then yelled “Stay back sir!” 

Everyone was shocked. Fuck the rules. I went over and paid for him. Bagged his cat food and returned to my place in line. When I finally raised my gaze, folks around me were crying. My face was hot because I’ve been this person truly since I was a kid. Soft and touched by others’ emotions. I just wanted to pay and leave. I hate the way this place is looking right now. Dollarama, the mall, the city, the world. I hate how we are treating each other. 

And then, icing on the cake, Stephen McNeil placing blame on Black communities for the spread of this virus. I couldn’t even listen at first. I couldn’t read anything about it. Black people are so familiar with the drill of being scrutinized with every move and over-policed. Remnants of caution tape from years passed still plague Black communities everywhere. This is effectively no one’s first drill. Not our first imposing illness we have survived. We are seasoned in high stakes situations. I knew this was coming, as others must have expected. 

The government doesn’t know how to honor us, repay us, see us. So am I shocked? No. But I’m disappointed every single time that our brilliance has to be so loudly self proclaimed. 

A virus that has been linked directly to travel and exposure now needs a home to grow its roots of blames in. Of course that blame falls on the bodies of Black folks. 

This last piece…along with calls from the community that aren’t feeling well has me burnt out. My heart is hurting and I miss the closeness of my people. Especially the children. 

I’m not too worried about the virus killing young Black folks. I know we’ll make it through, like we have for hundreds of years before, against all odds. But a medical system that has so long ignored the cries of Black health and wellness needs leads to conversations around comorbidity, environmental racism and just access to the healthcare system. 

When looking at our elders, long exposed to the environmental injustices in this province, my heart breaks. I’ve always felt a sense of urgency around gathering our knowledge, stories, recipes and secrets. Now I feel like time is moving so quickly. Community efforts are surfacing and I hope we lean into them wholeheartedly so we can save ourselves. We are our saviours. Time to have faith in that. 

Trayvone Clayton said we will come out on the other side, different, but we will come out. They can’t really arrest and they can’t really kill us dead in the streets either. But I am worried about the pain, the blame, anxiety and fear grabbing a hold of us while we wait in purgatory for this to be over. I worry about the heartache taking hold of us. 

I am sending this article out in love. In hope. In trust in a new tomorrow and another day. In gratitude for those who are around me and how we are holding each other up. And to my Black folks and marginalized communities, you’re the backbone of this country. Don’t let anyone trick you into forgetting. 

See also: Kate MacDonald: Step parenting

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