Exceptionalism and the Pandemic: Enacting Allyship through Social Distancing

Graphic courtesy of Washington State Governor Jay Inslee

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on and reshaping my idea of personal accountability, specifically in relation to my individual response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people have had enough of quarantine. They long for access to their community, they want to disrobe the rhetoric of fear and run naked from its claustrophobic mantle. I long for this, too. And, if individuals were all acting on this desire, we would not have successfully curbed the disease as much as we have. This sense of exceptionalism — largely, white, American exceptionalism — has become alarming to me. While many are, to some degree, uncomfortable with the loss of “normal” socializing and community contact, I want to challenge people around me to get more creative than simply flouting social distancing mandates.

Social distancing practices during the pandemic have become emblematic of Americans’ personal and political standpoints. The choice to wear a mask has become a particular centerpiece in this, because it can be seen with such easy immediacy. In my own city of Portland, Oregon, in rallies held by opposing sides of the political spectrum, this has been evident. And indeed, social distancing is a political issue — especially since the effects of Covid-19 have greater impacts on minority communities. Calvin Baker (2020), writer for The Atlantic, points out that because of the disparities in environmental pollution, health care, and socio-economic status, the pandemic has hit communities of color harder. Black people are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. Latinx and Native American communities have been affected similarly.

Kimberle Crenshaw (2020) explains that when approaching activism work from a standpoint of intersectionality, we have to acknowledge, for example, that African Americans have different life experiences than, say, white people, and how people from different walks of life have “different vulnerabilities.” While social distancing itself is a privilege some communities around the world cannot afford to enact, I also believe that intentionally or neglectfully cutting corners on social distancing is an act of privilege. The pandemic has served as a crucible in which we get to test our own sense of accountability — accountability toward change, toward our communities, and to our collective well-being.

One of the responses to the Covid-19 pandemic I’ve seen in my own community is the tendency to spiritually bypass its massive impact, on both communities of color and the world at large. I’ve heard many people proclaim that the pandemic will inspire the reflection, growth, and the change our society has so long needed. While I myself have hopes for the changes for which the pandemic may help lay a foundation, I am skeptical about any blanket ideology that involves magical thinking. The only changes that Covid-19 will create are the concrete changes we enact ourselves. Rather than imagining that this may happen passively, Andrew Jasko (2020) suggests that Covid-19 tasks us with the ultimate spiritual test. He asks, “Will we accept the personal responsibility we always have to care for our neighbor? Are we willing to inconvenience ourselves by socially distancing and tending to the elderly and those less fortunate than us?”

There is no one on the right or wrong side of the debate; as Ann Russo (2018) points out, there are no “bad apples” ruining society for the rest of us (p. 9). Rather, as Chris Crass explains in his anti-racism work, we are all complicit in the “gravitational pull” of systemic oppression, and it is up to us to minimize the strength of this system. And while we have been programmed to normalize our participation in oppression, we simultaneously blame the so-called bad apples for causing it, calling them out, enacting cancel culture, and punishing them as though we ourselves take no part (p. 32). What I propose instead is dialogue and self-accountability.

I am guilty of admitting only a modicum of personal responsibility, and instead placing the onus of responsibility for lack of social distancing on folks outside of my own community: for example, the anti-mask protestors in Michigan, whom Maia Hoskin (2020) quoted as saying that they felt “oppressed” by the social distancing mandates. I myself am guilty of sliding on some social distancing strictness. I assume many of us have diverted from the suggested guidelines in order to maintain some sense of normalcy. But the more guidelines each of us ignore, and the more people each of us see, our chances of minimizing risk decreases. A team of network epidemiologists led by Steven Gooreau (2020) at the University of Washington explain this in easy-to-understand graphics, citing “why these connections matter more than they may seem.”

I am just now beginning to engage more comfortably in direct and honest conversations with people around me about where they’ve been, how they’ve been protecting others, and how they are protecting me in return. As bell hooks (2003) points out, white people’s work with oppression “does not mean they never make mistakes…but that when they make a mistake they are able to face it and make needed repair” (p. 61). I know I need to do better and have these conversations more fluently, more often. As I step forward with a renewed sense of accountability toward the Covid-19 pandemic, I am curious as to how to tackle this in my community. While I want to validate the need for community and connection during an isolating time, I am striving to learn how to talk about more responsible social distancing in a way that doesn’t scream virtue signaling, moral high ground, or what Layla Saad (2020) calls enacting “optical allyship,” performative allyship, or ally theater (p. 157).

Ann Russo (2018) describes how challenging it can be for individuals to step in and act rather than just being bystanders in circumstances such as these. She emphasizes how important it is for us to practice these responses, to normalize responding to situations, which will in turn allow us to create more creative approaches to these encounters — combating oppression is not a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all process. In the coming months as we head toward winter, I hope I can continue to refine these sometimes difficult conversations in a way that is empathetic, productive, honors all sides of the conversation, and humanizes each one of us.


Baker, C. (2020, June). In a Pandemic, All Some People See is Your Color. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/coronavirus-racism/610609/.

Crenshaw, K. (2020, February 14). The 2020 Makers Conference [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSTf89pLcl0.

Goodreau, S.M., Pollock, E.D., Birnbaum, J.K., et. al. (2020, April 3). “Can’t I Please Just Visit One Friend?” Statnet Development Team. http://statnet.org/COVID-JustOneFriend/#11_citation_info.

hooks, bell. (2003). Teaching Community. New York: Routledge.

Hoskin, M. (2020, April 25). “The Whiteness of Anti-Lockdown Protests.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/first-person/2020/4/25/21234774/coronavirus-covid-19-protest-anti-lockdown.

Jasko, A. (2020, March 16). “Please Stop Spiritually Bypassing the Coronavirus!” Life after Dogma. https://lifeafterdogma.org/2020/03/16/spiritualizing-coronavirus/.

Russo, A. (2018). Feminist Accountability. New York: NYU Press.

Saad, L. (2020). Me and White Supremacy. Naperville: Sourcebooks.

Leah resides in Portland, OR, USA and teaches English at a public high school. She is a current PhD student at the California Institute for Integral Studies.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store