It’s easy to make any conversation about yourself. I do it unconsciously all the time. At dinner I’ll sit across from my roommates as they talk about office politics or grocery bills, half listening half waiting for my turn to talk. Waiting for them to mention something that allows me to make a nice segue into a conversation topic I’m more interested in.
But sometimes someone is sharing something that’s actually really important to them. They’re considering quitting their job, someone in their family got a diagnosis of cancer, or the story of how their big date went last night. And even though I’m listening with genuine interest, I’ll still catch myself mid-story prattling on about a similar thing that happened to me.
And once again I find the conversation is becoming about me.
And if I don’t stop myself, the conversation doesn’t drift back to them for quite a while.
Unfortunately Americans have begun to make the Ebola outbreak about us. And it needs to stop.
Last Sunday, a woman in her mid-sixties walked into our church. Her dark skin and the African kaleidoscope of colors and shapes on her dress made her easy to spot in our mostly Euro-American congregation. I watched as she walked up to our Pastor and asked what our church was doing to help Liberia.
“I have lost three family members and twelve friends to Ebola. And I’m just wondering if this church can help me fill a suitcase full of medical supplies to ship back to my family.” Our Pastor nodded as she pulled a mint green church bulletin out of her robe. She pointed at the words West Africa in bold and read the short paragraph detailing how the congregants could give to Phoebe Hospital in Liberia. “And we’ll see if we can help you fill up your suitcase.” The woman smiled from under her tired swollen eyes as she turned and walked into the sanctuary.
In the last month I have watched as the Ebola news coverage shifted from stories of thousands of families suffering from the deadly outbreak in East Africa to fear of Ebola in America. After Liberian American Eric Duncan died in Dallas, suddenly thousands of African lives were scurried off stage, replaced by cable news statistics of American quarantine sites and zombie apocalypse style thought experiments.
American compassion disappeared into fear and self-preservationism.
And while I agree that we need to talk frankly about quarantines, protecting health workers, and screening travelers. I think that we are shifting our focus away from where it needs to be. We are making this about America and it needs to be about West Africa.
On Tuesday I was driving my After School bus route and Jacob* was waiting outside his brownstone apartment building. With a basketball under his arm he ran onto the bus and sat down next to an older boy. The older boy stood up. “Hey! No Way!” he shouted palms up. “I’m not sitting by you. I don’t want to die from Ebola.” Jacob looked at the ground. “I don’t have Ebola,” he said, his brows furrowed.
I stood up and tried to explain in my calm teacher-voice. “Jacob doesn’t have Ebola. His family is from Liberia. But you can’t get it unless you actually touch someone who has Ebola and Jacob hasn’t done that.” The older boy sat back down next to Jacob.
A Liberian friend had recently told me “Everyone has lost someone to Ebola.” I wondered if Jacob had lost any relatives.
Changing the Ebola conversation has real consequences.
The older boy saw Jacob as a potential Ebola carrier because he was told to: by the media, by the “news,” and by extension the adults in his life that had begun to see Ebola in America as the real issue.
Jacob was treated with fear and distrust rather than compassion and understanding because Ebola is now about America.
As I drove back to the church I thought about the woman in her floral dress speaking to our Pastor. Perhaps she was asking our Pastor a deeper question.
Perhaps she wanted to know if our church is still willing to let the Ebola outbreak be about helping West Africans or if our church was just another place where Liberians were viewed with skepticism and derision.
It’s easy to make the conversation about us, to just wait for our turn to talk.
And while Americans may find it more interesting to shout about Ebola spiraling the US into a real life episode of The Walking Dead, we have to resist the temptation to make Ebola about us.
People are suffering and dying over 4,400 people have died in West Africa and the most important thing we can say about it is “How can I help?”
*Jacob’s name was change to protect his identity.