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The Girls Are Not Alright

If your life is anything like many of us who work at The Lighthouse, whenever your phone buzzes lately, it’s one of a few things: someone looking to start a conversation with “WYD?,” a question about work, (despite the fact you have some intra-office communication medium, like Microsoft Teams), or the “Do you have time to talk?” text. It’s the last one that is almost always someone in distress or mid-mini-crisis. They’re often looking for “clarity” or “just feel off.” The more they describe these feelings, the more it sounds like entrapment.

Photo credits Sirita Render

COVID-19 has impacted Black girls and women in ways we might have never imagined a couple months ago. It’s also the thing we haven’t heard much about. Yes, we’ve read and aren’t surprised by statistics that tell us Black women are being affected by COVID-19 at higher rates than women of other races. But what about the effects that are not necessarily associated with being infected with the virus? What about the implications of being at home with family all day every day? The consequences of losing your job and still having to take care of your family while teaching your own children? Or planning for the future?

As we deal with the daily challenge of 30 million Americans filing for unemployment and the mass shutdown of the world economy, we may be missing some equally troubling problems awaiting young Black women further down the road. It’s easy to miss the iceberg waiting for us while dealing with the current stress. What’s going on right now is pretty serious. Young Black mothers like Ridgeland, Miss., resident Christi Carr say they’re way too distracted raising and schooling kids at home to fret about their daughter’s future.

“I’m just trying to get us through each day safe and healthy,” Carr told The Lighthouse.

The daily struggle to survive is not new for Black folks, especially Black women. Black women have a long history of being the breadwinners, nurturers, and caretakers of the entire family. We’ve had to be. Stressful and traumatic events, such as a global pandemic and the loss of a job, add even more strain to Black women, compounded by the damning reality of social, economic and healthcare inequality. We know this, but it’s worth reminding that stress itself—particularly over extended periods of time—can lead to poor health outcomes, a corporeality Black women are all too familiar with.

Carr said she’s terrified of COVID-19 and the countless ways it can apparently kill you, which include respiratory problems, pulmonary issues and even organ failure. The virus has a lot of bullets in its gun. For that reason alone, this single mother has nightmares about the virus bouncing back for a second round of murder in the upcoming months. Naturally, she’s worried for her family, friends and her daughter.

“The premature reopening of the economy is not helping in my current anxieties at all,” she said, suggesting a mass reopening could bring people together and exacerbate spreading, while some of her white counterparts are rallying for the release of sheltering in place orders across the country with expediency.

Lashara Varnell is an administrator at a high school in the Memphis School District, who’s helping to lead the school district from her living room, while also acting as the full-time schoolteacher for her daughter, Grice. Like Carr, Varnell said she’s too busy getting through the present to obsess over the kind of world she’s sending her daughter to roughly 10 years from now, after her graduation.

Education, as a sector, is in a state of limbo as its professionals and healthcare experts debate about whether or not it will even be safe for schools to reopen their doors, as an expected second wave of coronavirus threatens autumn. This state of uncertainty puts even more strain on parents and caring adults who may find themselves new to academic instruction and/or insecure about their new roles as stewards of their children’s academic careers and subsequent, potential success.

In a system already engineered in contradiction of our wellbeing, how do we ensure our children—daughters and sons—and those who care for them are taken care of themselves? Their futures are full of obstacles and opportunities; the most likely option is opportunities mired with those obstacles.

“I haven’t allowed myself to go down that rabbit hole yet because I’m just dealing with the day-to-day,” Varnell said. “I don’t have the luxury right now; I have a 9-year-old running around here, and I’m about to pull my hair out. Can we just get through breakfast this morning?’

Though it’s reprehensible that Varnell has to view any of this as a luxury right now, she’s right. She, like other professional educators and those who work in transportation, healthcare and public administration have little space and time to consider anything beyond a day or two at a time. She’s not alone. Black workers, in fact, are overrepresented in the aforementioned fields. Jobs in these industries are, what we’ve come to understand now to be, essential. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black women have been the least affected by unemployment during the pandemic compared to every other race and gender. In some other context, this may have the potential to sound economically advantageous, but it’s not. With many states lifting their stay-at-home orders while the number of COVID-19 cases increase, prematurely reopening the economy—and governors and legislators across the country are—could greatly impact Black women who make up a large portion of the essential labor force, which it will.

For a recent story on our healthcare system’s insufficient response to COVID-19, The Lighthouse spoke with Hattiesburg resident and college graduate Ariel Lewis. Since that interview, it’s overtly clear the professional (and, therefore, economic) trajectory for her and many young Black women like her are on hold. Or, at worse, derailed altogether.

Lewis, for example, recently earned a business degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. The degree comes with a $270 monthly bill for college loans. In the meantime, she had a plan: use her savings to relocate to a Tennessee city where the robust restaurant industry could use her business acumen, skills and degree. The last time Lewis spoke with The Lighthouse, however, both of the restaurant jobs she was working had evaporated and rent and other living expenses were gnawing away at her savings. At a time when she would ordinarily be establishing her career, furthering her training and making the kind of connections from which you can build a life—the things American dreams and fairytales pre-COVID were made of—imminent prospects are bleak. Even this early into the first or second iteration of a new normal, the most optimistic and science averse among us knows there’s no guarantee the restaurant industry will recover enough to support Lewis or any of the millions like her within the next year.

Still there’s plenty in the future for young Black girls to stress about. Our daughters already had to deal with difficult odds, but now they’re likely growing up in a world with even less security. The fact of the matter is young Black girls are starting adulthood in the worst business environment probably since the Great Depression. And just because the powers that be aren’t regularly acknowledging or having this conversation—or at all?—doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And if we, the ones who living and fighting against it feel helpless … god.

Margaree Jackson also contributed reporting for this story.

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