On normalcy

God, I wish things would just go back to normal.

If you have ever expressed such a sentiment, chances are that you hold some kind of privilege. Before you leave in disgust that I have accused you of the p-word, consider that privilege is not a bad thing. Privilege is, by definition, a good thing. The bad thing is allowing your fortune to blind you to others’ misfortune. The privilege of normalcy is the expectation that the status quo will make the day-to-day patterns of your life unthreatening. You may experience discomfort, challenges to your ideas or actions, or even real danger depending on your job, but you do so with the awareness that there are systems in place that will support you if things go awry. In other words, you have a safety net, and you know that you can use it. Not only are there individuals out there who don’t have a safety net, for whatever particular reasons things have gone off the rails for them, but there are entire groups of people who don’t, and who never expected to have a safety net. In some cases, these people are the safety net for others. If you are in a position to wish things back to normal, you may have not given a thought to these people for whom normal is not a good thing. Or if you have, maybe you have felt that a return to normal will give you the position you need to help them. But now is the time to listen, and to understand that people without the privilege of normalcy are trying to help themselves, and they are trying to change the systems of our society so that they don’t have to go back to “normal.”

As a historian, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of normalcy, both because of the way the distance of time removes me from the societies I study and because history as a discipline tends to focus on change. When I look at something that happened a thousand years ago, it is harder for me to imagine the tremendous strain of a turning point event (what historians often call a “rupture”) than to accept that things simply changed, because I can see how they progressed. For instance, the rupture of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (the date that my 9th grade history teacher promised me was the only date I’d ever really have to know) is the transformation of England from a society dominated by Germanic-speaking peoples (often referred to as Anglo-Saxons, but see this essay on why that term is inaccurate and lends itself to white nationalist misuse) to one dominated by French-speaking peoples (known as the Normans). It’s easy to write that England experienced a rupture and that the government, the makeup of its aristocracy, and its ruling language were supplanted by a new invading force. But the experience of this rupture was so fundamental to the resulting English culture that a novelist was moved to write about it at length almost 700 years later. My discipline’s shift toward social history has led historians to focus more on the experience of these turning-point events, but we still have a hard time sympathizing with the experience of rupture, perhaps because it’s an experience we don’t want to think about having ourselves.

Many thousands of miles away from England, another Norman conquest at just about the same time was a rupture for Sicily. When the Normans arrived in Sicily, it was a small commercial outpost of the Fatimid Empire with a minority population of Orthodox Greeks still living on the eastern part of the island. For about a century, that rupture resulted in a new normal, a Sicilian society that was made from other Mediterranean cultures, but also uniquely its own. And then another rupture followed. A succession conflict followed by the transfer of Sicily into the Holy Roman Empire, and then a war over the territory that made it a colony of Spain. By the end of the thirteenth century, Sicily was a largely Catholic island, although some Greek services continued, and Muslims and Arabic speakers had either been killed, driven out, or pushed into assimilationist conversion. In the history of Sicily, the Norman period seems like an incredibly short period of time. But compare it to American history. What if the US had ended with the Civil War? That would have been about a century for this country. A blip. But that was enough time for the land and the society to completely change. For the people who lived through it, at least three generations of them, there was a normal America during that time.

If we take on that more sympathetic historical perspective, and understand that we ourselves live within a span of time that will appear to someone else as a small blip in a much longer arc, it is easier to question what we consider to be normal. It is easier to see just how much things have already changed, how much they are always changing. It is easier for those of us with the privilege of normalcy to take seriously the criticisms of those without it, because we can more easily believe that those criticisms are within the realm of possibility to take action on.

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and the civil rights protests enflamed by the murder of George Floyd, those of us with the privilege of normalcy are seeing exposed the missing safety nets in our society. We all could have seen them before, but we can’t ignore them now. We are faced with simple yet profound questions: Why is this virus running rampant in our country when it is not in others? Why are some communities facing more hardship from the virus than others? Why are so many people facing the prospect of eviction and experiencing food insecurity? Why are the lives of Black people at risk from our police force? These questions point to significant structural issues with the normal that many of us long to return to. These crises are not happenstance that by chance are forcing us to reflect on our social ills right now, they are the boiling point of those social ills. The very same normal that makes my life stable and safe and prosperous makes the life of someone else turbulent and fraught. Their suffering is not irrelevant to my success. That doesn’t mean that I should now suffer. It means that in this moment that so many people without the privilege of normalcy are articulating so clearly what they are missing and what needs to be done, I should listen, and I should use what resources I have to help them achieve their goals.

I have been thinking so much recently of the quote by Sarah Grimké that Ruth Bader Ginsberg is so famous for repeating:

I ask no favor for my sex. … All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.


RBG uses that quote to highlight the inequality that has been built into the American legal system to the detriment of women. And with the many gains women have made, we can use this same quote to make a simple statement about what needs to be done for groups defined by identities such as LGBT, Black, Latinx, Muslim, and Native American.* They are telling us what they need, and we need to take our feet off their necks.

*There are many other groups both apart from and within these broad identities that deserve recognition, and this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. My hope is that it will give someone a place to start if they have never devoted serious thought to this before. For instance, please consider groups such as undocumented immigrants, migrant workers, the homeless, those without reliable access to food, and other such social status issues in addition to identities based on ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. One major group that I have left out is Jews. As I have written about before, Jews occupy a unique place of discrimination, and we certainly continue with a precarious status in modern society. Because of the state of conflict within the global Jewish community and regarding Jews generally, there is no easy way to articulate the challenges Jews face and therefore no group that accurately advocates for Jews as a group without also alienating some subset of the community.