Social Isolation: A Welcome Intervention

Chelda Smith and her daughter, Ava

My husband and I met at the University of Minnesota while in graduate school a decade ago. When the opportunity to return to our educational home surfaced, we hesitated but eventually accepted the call, landing in one of the many self-identified progressive Twin Cities communities nestled between several universities.

We moved in early July — a little more than a month after George Floyd was slowly murdered by Minneapolis police. Upon arrival, nearly every house on our block had a lawn sign professing “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for George Floyd,” “All Are Welcome Here,” or a mix of those sentiments. The church, sitting kitty-corner from our home, showcased all three signs and a row of Adirondack chairs.

Initially, our family went for leisure strolls in the community every day. Rarely did we see folks who looked like us, but the signs were an indication that our neighbors might humanize us. Our two-year-old daughter, Ava, is especially fond of the daily walks.

The first time Ava led us to the chairs on the lawn of the church, I hesitated. Traumatized by the sometimes-fatal effects of being Black in white-dominated space, I was wary and I carried her home. Later that evening, as I watched other families sit in the chairs from my backyard, I thought maybe it was okay to sit there.

The following day, Ava led us to the church lawn. Cautiously, I allowed us to sit. A few minutes later, a white family approached us. A woman stepped forward and asked, “May I help you?”

I was dumbfounded. I could not imagine what assistance I might need as my daughter and I sang nursery rhymes on the lawn. Perhaps if she had said “Hi,” or introduced herself, but “May I help you?” was cold, formal, and boundary-setting. My retort was, “Well, this is awkward. I’m not sure how you expect me to respond. My daughter and I are sitting on what we presumed were welcoming grounds. Is that not the case?”

She tripped over her words as she said, “Yes, yes, it is.” She and her family walked to their car and drove away.

Pride kept me sitting there, but only until they were out of sight. Then I picked Ava up, held her tight, and briskly walked home. I understood what it meant: unknown Black people were not welcome there.

White liberal women often classify their microaggressions as awkward moments. That summer day, no matter the intent, the impact was racially disenfranchising. Microaggressions are instances of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. I believe most of my neighbors, self-identified liberals, are not intentional in their microaggressions. But the very fact that they identify as liberal often creates a barrier for accountability and repairing harm. When allyship is claimed, it is nearly impossible to address missteps and discrimination.

For weeks, Ava cried when led away from the church. At two, her racialized conditioning has begun. I wish she had more time.

Between COVID-19, the racial climate, and winter, my experiences of isolation are exacerbated. Still, I have no desire to interact with those who treat me as an outsider. Oddly enough, the mask mandate is a welcome intervention in an exhausting performance of white pacification. I don’t have to engage in as many dehumanizing conversations, and with our nanny facilitating Ava’s daily walks, I have outsourced some of my discomfort.

I have to perform a lot less. But many lower-income essential workers are people of color with limited access to quality healthcare and the burden of existing in white spaces. It is exhausting to be Black in “nice,” white, liberal Minnesota.

Seven months after relocating, significantly fewer Black Lives Matter signs appear on neighboring lawns. Although they never guaranteed humanization, the signs represented inclusive possibilities. Their casual removal implies disposability of black bodies and highlights the meaninglessness of this whole allyship performance from the start.

Chelda Smith (she/her) is a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert with over 15 years of justice-oriented experience.