Social Distancing: Not a Free Pass for “Othering”

COVID-19 a/k/a Coronavirus has embedded a new term “social distancing” in our everyday vocabulary. This however is not a new term to the medical and scientific communities. According to Wikipedia, “the objective of social distancing is to reduce the probability of contact between persons carrying an infection, and others who are not infected, so as to minimize disease transmission, morbidity and ultimately, mortality.”

What does that mean in layman’s terms? #stayhome #selfisolate

As an unconscious bias expert, that edict to “hunker down” and separate yourself from others along with things I’ve seen on social media got me thinking …

Social distancing is fertile ground for our unconscious biases to raise their ugly heads.

Unconscious Bias is snap judgments we make about people or situations. Every second our brains receive millions of bits of information. But we can only consciously process about 40 of those bits. Those other bits get stored in our unconscious or as I like to say our junk drawer. And when we hear, read, see, and experience people and situations our brain rummages around in that junk drawer and makes assumptions. We then base our decisions about how we respond to or interact with others based on those assumptions, many times false ones.

In these times of information overload – some intended to inform others intended to scare – how do we disrupt our unconscious biases to ensure we do not weaponize social distancing to “otherize?”

Here are 3 easy things we can do:

Watch your words and actions. Words matter and words have power. It has been reported that this virus originated in Wuhan, China. The medical and scientific community have identified the virus as COVID-19 a/k/a Coronavirus. Despite that fact, many people, including elected officials, have chosen to refer to it as the Wuhan virus. With the virus having a technical name, the only reason to refer to it by its origin location, is to attach it to China and its people. This type of rhetoric invites people to attach a racial or ethnic component to the epidemic and potentially unfairly villainize people of Asian descent, whether or not they’ve been exposed to or infected by Coronavirus.

Making “jokes” about Chinese restaurants and nail salons is not funny and in fact is demeaning, dehumanizing, and discriminatory.

And don’t point, stare, or whisper. We can see and hear you!

Self-isolate not Ostracize. Yes, there’s a difference. To isolate means to separate or cut off from others. That’s what is being recommended with the 6-foot rule, working remotely, and avoiding crowds. On the other hand, ostracize means to exclude from society or from a community by not communicating with them or refusing to acknowledge their presence. In other words, to shun someone. This is not what is being recommended. However, when we don’t watch our words and actions or we make false assumptions based on stereotypes, we can easily cross the line.

It’s absolutely prudent to physically separate from others during this time for your safety and others. However, it is inappropriate to weaponize social distancing as a tool to further an agenda of bias and discrimination.

Reconnect. We have no idea when or how this will end, but we know it will. When that happens, we will have to resume our lives – likely in a new normal – just as we did after other catastrophic events such as 9/11. Part of that new normal will be reconnecting with those from whom we have been isolated.

How do we do that when for weeks or months we have been “self-isolated or isolated with our own” and bombarded with images and sounds, some of which are intended to scare and divide us? We act on facts not fiction. We have conversations with “others” to dispel any myths or stereotypes. We attribute the devastation and disruption caused by Coronavirus to the virus and not people. And the simplest answer of all, we treat others like you want to be treated.

I know people are scared and we are living in a time of great uncertainty. But that’s not a free pass for “othering.”

Take care of yourself and others.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay human.