Inside my body, I now have molecules that will teach my immune system to recognize the COVID-19 virus. As I sit here waiting in the pharmacy, my body is gaining the knowledge of how to dismantle the threat that has held us hostage for the past year. And my ability to access the vaccine that is teaching my body shows my privilege.
I had the spare time necessary to search out this appointment. I own a car and could drive to the suburban location where it was administered. I and those who look like me consistently have positive experiences with the medical establishment, and thus I have few reservations about trusting the vaccine’s safety.
There are disparities with the vaccine, just as there are with every other aspect of our social and political systems in this country. In Illinois, Black people are 14% of the population, 18% of those who have died from COVID, and only 8% of those vaccinated. Across the nation, Black people are 13% of the population but 40% of those incarcerated and 23% of those living in poverty, while Black high school graduation rates are suppressed 10% below those of white people.
I have never been blamed for the spread of the COVID virus, unlike Americans of Asian descent. In spite of the fact that our nation has been a key driver in the growth of COVID and the number of deaths, no one looks at me and accuses me. No one tells me to go back where I came from. No one verbally or physically attacks my elders.
I am not safe from the virus, but I am safer because of my identity, my history, and my experiences in white skin. I am considered a “regular American” who both completely belongs here and who deserves access to the best this country has to offer: education, safety, and — of course — health care.
Some might point out that it’s not as bad as it once was. We white people used to legally segregate and discriminate. We were forced to abandon those policies and turned away from explicitly racist politics. But now with our words we say, “We all belong here,” but with our actions we communicate, “This is not for you.” We communicate that Asian and Latinx immigrants can come if they can give us something of value. We communicate that we are stuck with Black people but that we will never share the bounty that has been given to us. We communicate that even something like a vaccine — an advancement that we all deserve not just as Americans, but as humans — will be given or withheld based on the usual markers of status: income, class, and race.
We were told early in the pandemic that COVID doesn’t discriminate. There is a kind of truth to this, as our bodies are biologically and genetically almost identical. The virus and the vaccine interact with our bodies in nearly equal ways.
But as a nation, this crisis has not played out equally for everyone. Those with advantages have been allowed to wield them and those without have been given what’s left. Our bodies are conceived and born similar and connected, but we continue to treat them as distinct and separate. Or we lean into the color-blind lie that our differences do not matter at all when it is self-evident that we have made them matter.
Instead, we need to truly give all people what we need to survive and thrive in the face of crisis. This may mean that those with more — those like me — will give up some advantages. Perhaps my wait for the vaccine is a bit longer. Perhaps my ability to skip to the front of the line in gaining educational access for my child will be somewhat curtailed. But that is justice — that I must give up my unearned advantage to benefit others.
And in fact, I cannot truly thrive in a world where others are held down and back. I cannot truly dwell in peace while others live in want. I cannot be whole while benefiting from a nation and society that breaks others for profit. So let those who deserve so much more rise up and demand it. Let those of us who have gained unjustly step away from our inequitable profits.
Let us make a nation and a world where the education of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits does not depend on our identities. Where we have access to the truth, bounty, and beauty we all need and deserve.
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