Coronavirus and Neo-Diversity Anxiety

How many-splendored is social distancing in the time of this pandemic?

Posted Apr 11, 2020

In my Interdependence and Race course, in lecture and in Chapter 5 of our textbook, "What Rough Beast: Interpersonal Relationships and Race” (1), my students learn about the social psychology approach to social distance. They learn that in the context of intergroup-relations, since the early 60s, social psychologists have defined social distance as “… preferred types of interactions between groups.”

One of the stunning effects of the coronavirus pandemic is that attempts to slow the spread of the virus has introduced into our everyday language the concept of “… social distancing.” Although when it comes to the virus, social distancing refers to preferred types of interaction, that social distancing is about keeping actual physical distance between individuals sharing a social space. Still, to the ears of students in, or students who have taken, my course, hearing the phrase “social distancing” must feel a bit eerie. There is good reason for that.

Although a biological threat, the coronavirus fits well into the central concept of my course: Neo-diversity. About that my students learn that neo-diversity is the new interpersonal-situation of America, where we all have to encounter and interact with people not “… like us” on some group dimension (sexual orientation, religion, race, bodily-condition, political-affiliation, mental-health condition, and so on). Grappling with that idea, my students learn that this neo-diversity is driven by rapid social change; going from legal racial segregation, to desegregation, to women-at-work, Title IX, to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to an African-American President (2).

No one can deny that the appearance of the biological threat of the coronavirus has caused rapid, overnight, social changes. When we hear of, when we talk about, the virus and social distancing have no doubt that what has been activated socially is the classic neo-diversity question: “Who are among the ‘we’ and who among the ‘they’?”

Go to the grocery store and you can feel the neo-diversity anxiety. “Can’t stand too close because ‘they’ might have the virus and pass it to me and mine.”

Quick to emerge was what is being called “quarantine-shaming.” A story from the Associated Press read this way: “'Quarantine shaming’—calling out those not abiding by social distancing rules—is part of a new and startling reality for Americans who must navigate a world of rapidly evolving social norms in the age of COVID-19.” (3)

Another social dynamic quick to emerge during this coronavirus pandemic has been neo-diversity anxiety of the pandemic being attached to ethnic group membership. Chinese versus non-Chinese and then to the unsophisticated, Asian versus everybody else. When our national leadership calls the biological coronavirus “… the Chinese virus” that cognitive shortcut attaches to the classic intergroup dynamic of social psychological social distance; preferred types of interactions between groups.

In an essay titled “Coughing While Asian,” one writer lets us in on the issue as it has already affected their social-psychology as a “… half-white and half-Filipino.” In the local Indy Magazine, Cole Villena wrote:

“Do I look Asian enough to freak people out? I’m ashamed to have even had that thought. I’m extremely proud to be Filipino, and I know I’ve taken the same precautions that anyone else has to stop the spread of COVID-19. But because the disease originated in China, Asian faces like mine are the ones people associate with the threat to their health. At a time when a united response to the disease is the only thing that will keep our most vulnerable people safe, that is a disgrace.”

Going on, Cole wrote:

“You don’t have to look very far for examples of anti-Asian rhetoric right now. It starts, predictably at the top: President Trump’s first formal address to the nation about the coronavirus made multiple references to ‘… the coronavirus outbreak that stated in China’ and efforts to ‘confront a foreign virus.’” (4)

Students in, or who have taken, my “Interdependence and Race” course have analytic tools through which they can see the coronavirus as a social-trigger for neo-diversity anxiety that activates interpersonal-intergroup tensions in general. Or with the coronavirus on people’s minds in that us versus them neo-diversity frame, how that might awaken bigotry in a social interaction where there are Asian and non-Asian people having to interact with each other.

Hibernating-bigotry is a concept that comes out of understanding neo-diversity anxiety, and is another concept my students learn. Hibernating-bigotry is bigotry that a person holds to themselves, reveals only to “friends” that roars awake in public when the right stimulus comes along to disturb its closeted slumber. (5)

Since it spreads through social contact, right now we are doing social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining to slow the reach of the coronavirus. We must be aware, though, of the intergroup dynamics that the virus has activated. Those neo-diversity group dynamics are in hibernation right now. But when the social-distancing, self-isolation, and quarantining are over, we must be ready to deal with what was growing during the hibernation period: coronavirus bigotry.

References

1. Nacoste, R. W. (2020). What Rough Beast: Interpersonal Relationships and Race. (NC State Bookstore course packet).

2. Nacoste, R. W. (2009). Post-Racial?: Something Even More Bizarre and Inexplicable. Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity, 11, 1-10. (peer-reviewed)

3. Flaccus, G. (2020, March 19). 'Quarantine shaming': US navigates radical new social norms, Associated Press, MSN.com (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/quarantine-shaming-us-navigates-radical-new-social-norms/ar-BB11pLMl?li=BBnb7Kz)

4. Villena, C. (2020, March 18). “Coughing while Asian,” Indy Week (p. 24).

5. Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books)