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This story has been updated. It was originally published on September 3, 2023.
In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or considering pregnancy to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The updated recommendations were based on a new analysis, the agency said, which had followed thousands of vaccinated participants through pregnancy. According to new data released this week by the CDC, there appeared to be a spike in deaths among pregnant people in the months of August and September, as the Delta variant was sweeping across the country. Now, as the Omicron variant continues to spread, the CDC is concerned about pregnant people who are still unvaccinated.
Pregnant people are especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, and the ongoing and ferocious spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has highlighted just how crucial it is to get immunized. According to the recent CDC report, nearly half the deaths among pregnant people since the start of the pandemic occurred in the month of August. The number of pregnant people who contracted COVID-19 also increased drastically in August of 2023.
COVID-19 poses an increased risk for pregnant people. Data collected by the CDC since the start of the pandemic and updated as recently as December 3, 2023, shows that infection with the virus increases the risk of both stillbirth and preterm birth. Through the early months of the vaccine’s rollout in the United States, though, some unvaccinated people have remained uncertain over concerns that the shots could lead to infertility.
“That’s a big reason why a lot of individuals are hesitant to take it if they’re thinking about becoming pregnant,” says Marc Incerpi, chief of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine with Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles. Fortunately, he emphasizes, researchers and physicians have found no evidence that the vaccines impact a person’s ability to conceive or have a healthy pregnancy.
“Now there’s a fair amount of data that shows that these things really are just myths,” says Richard Beigi, president of the UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh. “The bottom line is that there is absolutely no link at all whatsoever, either theoretical at this point or in reality, with any impact on fertility.”
The misconception that COVID-19 vaccines harm female fertility has been fed by several sources. When the majority of Americans were getting vaccinated back in the spring, some people reported irregular or heavy periods after their shots. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that the vaccines might temporarily disrupt the menstrual cycle, but these changes, if there were any, would be short-lived and wouldn’t affect a person’s fertility.
[Related: Vaccination cuts the risk of long COVID in half]
Furthermore, in experiments where scientists exposed samples of antibodies formed after infection or vaccination to the syncytin-1 protein, there was no detectable reaction.
For its August 2023 report, the CDC analyzed data from its v-safe COVID-19 Vaccine Pregnancy Registry, which includes participants who were vaccinated against COVID-19 shortly before or during pregnancy. The agency found no increase in the risk of miscarriages among nearly 2,500 expectant women who received an mRNA vaccine before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Last month, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and other preeminent medical organizations also released a joint statement strongly encouraging pregnant people, as well as those who were recently pregnant or planning to become so, to get vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccines have no impact on fertility, the statement said.
Meanwhile, Beigi and his colleagues are currently working on a study to “accumulate even more data” by tracking vaccinated women during and after their pregnancies. The team hopes to have preliminary results by the end of the year.
“But the available data at this point is very reassuring,” Beigi says. “That’s why both ACOG and the CDC felt comfortable going from a passive recommendation to an active recommendation for [vaccination during] pregnancy.”
Another crucial consideration is that people who are, or recently were, pregnant face an increased risk of becoming seriously ill or dying if they do catch COVID-19. Pregnant people with COVID-19 also have an increased risk of preterm birth, according to the CDC.
As the delta variant has taken hold over the last few months, Incerpi says, “Pregnant women are getting it at higher numbers, and they’re getting sicker.” For pregnant people who do remain unvaccinated, he says, “It’s really important that they still practice the social distancing, the mask wearing, and all those other things that we know help mitigate the spread of infection.”
In addition to protecting pregnant people from becoming seriously ill, the COVID-19 vaccine may also come with another benefit. Researchers have found antibodies to COVID-19 in umbilical cord blood from pregnant people who received an mRNA vaccine.
“This means COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy might help protect babies against COVID-19,” the CDC has said. “More data are needed to determine how these antibodies, similar to those produced with other vaccines, may provide protection to the baby.”
It’s not entirely surprising that the myth that COVID-19 vaccines harm fertility has taken off.
“Reproduction is a very sensitive issue for so many people,” Beigi says. “If you want to sow doubt, pick something that people are already…sensitive about.”
Some people may also be wary because women’s health concerns often haven’t been taken seriously throughout history, he acknowledges. “I think it’s kind of a deeper issue than what it looks like at face value,” Beigi says.
[Related: All your COVID booster shot questions, answered]
The novel coronavirus, on the other hand, poses an immediate danger. Last week, the number of people in the United States hospitalized with COVID-19 reached a daily average of 100,000 for the first time since January, causing ICU beds to run out in many locations.
Meanwhile, the pace of vaccination has started to accelerate in the United States, the Washington Post reported this week. Millions more people got a first COVID-19 vaccine dose in August compared with July.
“I think the delta variant has reinvigorated people’s desire” to get vaccinated, Beigi says. “I’ve also seen that…in pregnant women.”
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Because of the coronavirus’ novelty to humans, there are many issues that we still haven’t pinned down—like how many different ways the virus can be transmitted and whether its spread will slow when warm weather arrives.
How COVID-19 affects pregnancy is another area where there’s little that scientists know for certain.
“At this time there are more questions than there are answers,” says Ashley Roman, director of the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at NYU Langone Health. “This a rapidly evolving situation [and] we’re being bombarded with new data on a daily basis.”
We aren’t completely in the dark—there are some initial reports from China on pregnant women who were diagnosed with COVID-19. And scientists can extrapolate a bit from what we know about other viruses, including the related coronaviruses SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
These are some of the questions about the new coronavirus that scientists are racing to answer:Can a pregnant person pass the infection on to their fetus or newborn?
In early February, health officials became concerned that the new coronavirus could travel this way too. A woman in Wuhan with confirmed COVID-19 gave birth to a baby who tested positive for the virus 36 hours later.
However, shortly afterwards researchers in China reported in the journal Translational Pediatrics that throat swabs from nine newborns born to women infected with COVID-19 had all tested negative for the coronavirus.
Another team in China also published a report on another nine women who contracted COVID-19 and developed pneumonia during the third trimester of pregnancy. Throat swabs from the newborns and samples of the mothers’ breast milk, amniotic fluid, and cord blood all tested negative for the virus.
This very small group of cases suggests that there’s currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread in utero or soon after birth, the researchers wrote in The Lancet. Additionally, there haven’t been any reports of SARS or MERS being transmitted this way. But we won’t know for sure until scientists have tracked a much larger number of pregnant people with COVID-19, including people who caught the disease during earlier stages of pregnancy.Are pregnant people more vulnerable to COVID-19?
When someone is pregnant, their immune system is suppressed somewhat so their body won’t reject the fetus. Because of this and other changes to their bodies (including hormonal shifts), pregnant people are more susceptible to certain infections, such as urinary tract infections.
Some respiratory infections—including influenza, SARS, and MERS— can also cause pregnant people to become more seriously ill than others who catch the disease. On the other hand, there are also coronaviruses that cause the common cold and have been circulating among people for decades, and they haven’t been reported to cause more severe illness in pregnant people, says Sallie Permar, a professor of pediatrics, microbiology, and immunology at the Duke University School of Medicine.
Based on the very limited information that we have right now, it doesn’t appear that pregnant people are more likely to catch COVID-19 than anyone else or to experience severe symptoms, Permar says.
All of the women that researchers tracked for the report published in The Lancet had developed pneumonia, but none of them became severely ill or died. “The clinical characteristics of COVID-19 pneumonia in pregnant women were similar to those of non-pregnant adult patients with COVID-19 pneumonia,” the researchers wrote.Can COVID-19 affect a developing fetus?
Some diseases have profound consequences on a pregnancy that range from early labor to congenital abnormalities or miscarriage. So far, there haven’t been any reports of COVID-19 causing people to miscarry, Permar says. It’s not clear yet whether COVID-19 has any impact on early pregnancy.
We do know, however, that SARS and MERS do not appear to increase the risk of congenital abnormalities. “In both of those outbreaks, the primary risks in pregnancy appeared to be the risk of more severe disease in the mother and the risk of preterm labor,” Roman says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are some reports of babies born to mothers infected with COVID-19 facing issues such as premature birth. However, it’s not clear whether these problems were related to the coronavirus.Will vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19 be safe for pregnant people?
There is not currently a vaccine or antiviral drug to combat the new coronavirus. Treatment right now is focused on helping the sick person cope with the symptoms of COVID-19. That can mean helping them stay hydrated, giving them medicines to bring their fever down, or giving them oxygen if they are having trouble breathing.
“If a pregnant individual does get diagnosed with COVID-19 and does end up having to seek medical care, the medical care would in general be the same,” Permar says. The main difference is that doctors might also monitor the fetus by tracking its heartbeat over the course of the infection.
Generally, live vaccines—which use a weakened form of the virus—aren’t recommended for pregnant people because of the theoretical risk that the virus could infect the fetus. Live vaccines include the measles, rubella, and chickenpox vaccines.
However, most other vaccines are safe for pregnant people and protect against diseases such as influenza, tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough. These include vaccines that use a killed version of the virus or only include a piece of the virus, which renders it unable to infect human cells and reproduce inside a human.
“What we have come to realize over the last couple decades is how important it is for pregnant women to get vaccines,” Permar says. “Many of the types of vaccines that are being developed for coronavirus should be the type that cannot replicate as a full live virus vaccine.”
This means that when a vaccine for COVID-19 does become available, it’s likely to be safe in pregnant women—but researchers will need to confirm that this is the case.
Similarly, there are certain antiviral drugs that are known to be safe for pregnant people and fetuses. In fact, one of the medications being tested as a treatment for COVID-19—a cocktail of the drugs lopinavir and ritonavir—is often used to treat pregnant people with HIV and prevent the virus from reaching the fetus or newborn.
But in many cases, when a new vaccine or drug is being developed, the clinical trials used to test their safety and effectiveness often don’t include pregnant people or children—despite the fact that these populations are especially vulnerable to many diseases. So when the medicines first hit the market, it isn’t clear how safe they are for these populations, Permar says.
It will be vital for researchers to consider pregnant people early on in their safety evaluations so that they can benefit from any new treatments or vaccines, she says.What can pregnant people do now?
Any insights we have right now about how the coronavirus affects pregnancy are based on very limited, preliminary data. Scientists will need to monitor many more cases over longer periods of time to figure out how COVID-19 differs from other infections.
Follow the standard steps for preventing COVID-19 transmission. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after coming into contact with other people or objects that people frequently touch, such as elevator buttons. Use alternatives to shaking hands like the elbow bump. Keep your distance—at least 6 feet—from someone who is coughing and seems sick.
Check the CDC website for up-to-date information about the virus, testing, and treatment for COVID-19, and guidelines for breastfeeding if you do become ill.
If you don’t feel well, stay home and isolate yourself from friends and family if at all possible. Be in touch with your OBGYN if you feel sick to determine if you need any additional care or monitoring.
Kids are now receiving their first doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, as the company begins phases two and three of their new vaccine trials.
About 6,750 healthy children aged 6 months to 11 years will take part in this two-part 14-month study, dubbed KidCove. In the first segment, each child will receive two shots spaced out by 28 days—the same regimen that was first tested in adults last year—but they will receive doses of either 50 or 100 micrograms each. Children under the age of two will receive shots that are either 25, 50, or 100 micrograms. Adult doses are 100 micrograms, for both the initial shot and the booster.
The first part of the study will inform which dosing size will be used in the second part, where those children will either receive the vaccine or a placebo.
In addition to the shots, the study will involve regular telemedicine check-ins, and will require the kids and their parents to log any daily symptoms into a smartphone app.
“This pediatric study will help us assess the potential safety and immunogenicity of our COVID-19 vaccine candidate in this important younger age population,” Moderna’s Chief Executive Officer, Stéphane Bancel, said in the company’s news release.
Immunogenicity, which is one of the main goals of the study, is different from efficacy, the goal of the original adult studies. Rather, it studies the type of immune response the vaccine provides and how well it works over time.
Pediatricians have been urging officials that even though they’re a segment of the population less affected by Sars-CoV-2, children should not be left behind when studying how well a vaccine works.
[Related: How to prepare for getting the COVID-19 vaccine]
In a letter to the White House last month, Lee Savio Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wrote that “having a COVID-19 vaccine available for children is essential for our nation to end the pandemic” and that “we must make sure that vaccine trials in children are equitable and include those at increased risk who could most benefit from a vaccine, particularly Black and Latinx children.”
According to AAP data, more than 3.2 million children have been infected by Sars-CoV-2 in the U.S., and at least 266 have died.
Moderna gave their vaccine to adolescents aged 12-17 in a phase 3 clinical trial back in December. Those trial results are expected to come in quickly, by the end of the summer, giving parents an optimistic outlook for their teens to return to school in the fall. Given that the study in younger kids will still be underway, children under 12 are not likely to be vaccinated until 2023.
“The reason for that is…you do need to be a little more cautious in progressing and working down dose levels to find the right dose,” Stephen Hoge, the president of Moderna said on the Today Show. Things like sensitivity and side effects will be scrutinized more carefully in younger kids especially, and so naturally these trials will take a little longer.
Other companies are also on the move to test their COVID-19 vaccines in children. Right now, Pfizer and BioNTech are doing trials in children ages 12 to 15, and are currently planning their next trials on younger kids. AstraZeneca began testing its vaccine in kids aged 6 and older in the UK and Europe a month ago, and The New York Times reported that Johnson & Johnson will also be rolling out trials in older and then younger children.
Children under age 18 make up about a fourth of the US population, so ensuring the vaccines are safe and effective for them will be crucial as we continue to make our way out of the pandemic.
How to Overcome the Winter Blues amid COVID Uncertainty As we head into year three of the pandemic, here are scientifically backed ways to keep your mood lifted
All vector imagery by Ponomariova_Maria/iStock
COVID Winter BluesHow to Overcome the Winter Blues amid COVID Uncertainty Heading into year three of the pandemic, some scientifically backed ways to keep your mood lifted
Another COVID winter—with its combination of cold days, dark nights, and surging cases—is the last thing any of us needed. Heading into the third year of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that COVID-19’s mental toll has worsened since the initial outbreak, with researchers from Boston University School of Public Health finding that depression rates climbed from 27.8 percent in early 2023 to 32.8 percent in 2023, affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.
“The pandemic has had a huge effect on mental health,” says Michael Otto, director of the Translational Research Program at BU’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders. “We’re at a particular point of concern when more people need care and it’s harder for these people to find a therapist that’s available.”
This winter, he says, could be a difficult time for many people, especially those already struggling with mental health challenges and pandemic fatigue. Some level of winter blues—mood shifts in the colder, darker months—is very common for people who live in places where it can feel like the season drags on for too long. And those who have seasonal affective disorder—a type of depression caused by the dwindling exposure to the sun—are particularly at risk, says Otto, who’s also a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychological and brain sciences.
Although the staggering surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant appears to be on a steady decline in Massachusetts, experts are quick to point out the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. Between the continuous uncertainty about the pandemic and the sometimes bleak chill of winter, now is not the time to be passive about mental health.
“A lot of people might know the common strategies for what might help make them feel better, but what’s often hard is getting out there and doing it,” says Jordana Muroff, a BU School of Social Work associate professor and chair of the clinical practice department. Muroff researches treatments for various mental health disorders, such as therapies for hoarding disorder, to help make them more effective, and works closely with local community agencies to expand access to services.
The Brink spoke with Muroff and Otto to share five go-to strategies for boosting mood and resiliency during uncertain times.Experiment with small goals
One of the mental health strategies Muroff often suggests doesn’t involve any major lifestyle changes—in fact, it involves just the opposite. Instead of aiming for sweeping changes to dig out of a low point—such as New Year’s resolutions to work out every day or cook every meal, which might be difficult to maintain and become discouraging—she recommends a tool called “behavior experiments.”
“This is when you’re committing to trying out a more manageable step in improving your mental health,” she says. Behavior experiments are a tool based on cognitive behavior therapy—a well-researched treatment known to be effective for a number of mood and anxiety disorders—and are meant to encourage curiosity and exploration of small changes that may lead to an increase in mood and activity: going for a short walk, calling a friend, or even getting out of your pajamas on a day at home.
“The hope is that there is some incremental change,” Muroff says. Even when negative thoughts arise, such as worry or doubt that anything can help, behavior experiments give a person permission to “test out those thoughts and gather information about oneself.” These actions may shift those negative assumptions, bring a quick mood boost, and lay the foundation for lasting strategies for coping with avoidance, stress, and challenging emotions.Sleep at least seven hours a night
“When someone faces chronic stress or disappointment, like those induced by ongoing COVID-related restrictions and less daylight hours, maintaining adequate sleep emerges as a powerful strategy,” Otto says. Sleep, as necessary as it is to function on a daily basis, also works magic on our mood and mental health. Getting enough sleep—roughly seven to eight hours a night for most adults—restores and maintains pathways in the brain related to memory, learning, and emotional processing. On the flip side, poor sleep has been found to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can then make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Prioritizing sleep as part of a regular self-care routine is crucial for mental well-being, says Otto.
“When you have poor sleep, the task of emotional regulation is that much harder—you’re clearing off stress and emotionality of memories with sleep,” Otto says. Allowing extra time to snooze will give you more resilience during stressful times.Engage with your community
Reaching out and helping others in difficult times can be a meaningful way to fight off feeling overwhelmed, says Muroff—and have a positive impact on other people.
“It’s important to have activities that affirm our values, identities, and senses of self-worth in a time when there are a lot of challenges going on simultaneously,” she says. “Helping others and supporting each other can be part of the behavior experiments.”Stay active with regular exercise
“If exercise was a pill, it would be a best seller,” Otto says. He coauthored a book in 2009 called Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders that establishes why exercise is effective at making us feel good, and helps people to use exercise to combat depression and anxiety, as well as overcome negative feelings that get in the way of exercising regularly.
“Exercise acts as an antidepressant, it helps with stress resilience, helps reduce anxiety, and helps you get to sleep,” Otto says. “A good dose of exercise is considered to be 40 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week.” Anaerobic activities, like weight lifting or other high-intensity movements, are also great and have the same effect. For people who don’t love exercising—or who aren’t in the mood for a more intense workout—a brisk walk could be all that’s needed to bring their mood up.
“There are so many physiological reasons exercise makes us feel good,” Otto says. “There’s evidence supporting shifts in norepinephrine, serotonin, and GABA, three of the neurotransmitters involved with mood.” Besides the chemical shifts in the brain, he says, exercise gives people a resilience that carries through to other parts of their lives. And it can be a great way of making social connections.
Aiming to make a workout a pleasant and interesting experience is also key to staying motivated, according to Otto—like trying a new sport or activity, walking or jogging with friends, or group and team games.
“Poor mood calls you to do less, and exercise is so much doing in the face of having the urge not to do,” Otto says.Make time for joy
As a part of experimenting with small goals, Muroff recommends scheduling time for joyful activities, whether a physical challenge like exercising, or other ways of connecting with ourselves and others. Scheduling accessible, fun activities the same way as an appointment or a work meeting can help avoid habits of procrastination. “Reduce the barriers to make it easier to do it,” she says.
Finding fun and meaning, adds Otto, is a proven way of beating the winter—and COVID—blues.
“What can we do to get engaged and find fun? Finding fun and meaning is its own buffer against stress,” he says. “As some people’s activities are limited because of the cold and COVID restrictions, finding other ways to pursue joys is the message I want to encourage.”
Student Health Services has resources available for any BU student seeking support; BU’s Faculty & Staff Assistance Office is available for employees and their family members to access help with work and life challenges.
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Why Is It So Hard for White People to Talk about Race? A conversation with White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, speaking at BU Monday
Robin DiAngelo, author of the New York Times best-seller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race.
Photo by Gabriel Solis
“I’m white—check me out, everybody,” sociologist and author Robin DiAngelo said as she launched into a talk about race at a recent higher education diversity conference.
DiAngelo has led racial justice training for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and educators for more than 20 years. That work inspired her to write the New York Times best seller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race (Beacon Press, 2023), and it’s the subject of the keynote address she’ll give Monday at BU, sponsored by the Associate Provost for Diversity & Inclusion office.
DiAngelo wasn’t raised to think about herself in racial terms, but she has come to understand that she moves through the world with a “most particularly white experience in a society that is profoundly separate and unequal by race.”
“People of color from a very early age have to know my reality in a way that I’m very sorry to say, I don’t have to know theirs.”
A University of Washington affiliate associate professor of education, DiAngelo came up with the term “white fragility” in 2011 to describe the way many white people respond when their assumptions about race (especially their own) are challenged—and how that response continues racial inequality.
BU Today: You write in your book that “white fragility is the inability to tolerate racial stress.” Can you talk more about that?
DiAngelo: The fragility part is meant to capture how little it takes to completely unravel us. For many white people, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause umbrage—in particular, generalizing about white people will trigger umbrage.
But the impact of our umbrage is not fragile at all. It’s a weaponized defensiveness. It marshals behind it centuries of institutional power, and so the impact is quite profound. We make it so hard for people of color to talk to us about their experiences that most of the time they don’t, because it tends to get worse for them when they talk to us, rather than better.
What do you mean when you talk about the difference between people who say they’re “color-blind” and those who “color celebrate”?
My area of research is discourse analysis. That’s the critical examination of everyday narratives and how they function. In talking to white people day in and day out for years, I see two general categories of everyday white narratives that white people use as evidence that we’re not racist—color-blind and color celebrate.
Color-blind is probably number one—that’s some version of: “I was taught to treat everybody the same.” When I hear that from a white person, there’s a bubble over my head saying, “This person doesn’t understand basic socialization…this person is not self-aware.”
No one was taught to treat everyone the same.
Color celebrate is more popular with white progressives, where our evidence is some version of proximity. We’ll say things like, “I have people of color in my family,” or “I used to live in New York City,” or “I’ve been to Costa Rica.” If this is the evidence that white progressives use to establish their lack of racism, then apparently a racist could not take a trip to Costa Rica or work three cubicles down from a person of color or live in a major city.
How did you get to the point of being able to talk about what it means for you to be white?
I grew up in poverty, under patriarchy… With the feminist movement, I began to have a critical consciousness fairly early about sexism. But I had absolutely no critical consciousness about where I experienced privilege, where I actually colluded with the oppression of someone else. It wasn’t until I started working side by side with people of color in racial justice trainings at the same time that I was trying to talk to majority white groups about racism that my eyes were opened. It was a parallel process and it was was profound.
I got a job as a diversity trainer, as we called it in the ’90s, and I had no idea what I was in for. The state of Washington Department of Social and Health Services had been sued for racial discrimination, and as part of the settlement the federal government mandated that every employee receive 16 hours of diversity training.
I applied for the job and I thought I was qualified because I was a vegetarian. How could I be a racist? I had that classic white progressive mentality. Here I get this job and I’m working side by side with people of color. They’re challenging me to the core of how I saw myself in the world. Part of being white is that I could be that far in my life—I was in my 30s and college-educated—and never before had my racial worldview been challenged.
My whole world was blown open. I was working side by side with some very strong people of color, but also going into these white workplaces trying to teach white people about racism, and the hostility was just jaw-dropping. I was very intimidated and very inarticulate in the face of it, but I hung in there. I had some amazing mentors of color who hung in there with me, and after years and years of work, it became clearer and clearer how we white people manage to claim race has no meaning in a society wholly stratified by race. Over time, I got better at laying it all out.
Then I got my PhD. So I could apply all I’d learned; I went from practice to theory. Now, because I’m older, I have a degree of credibility that allows me to push harder.
Has your racial justice work become any easier now, the post-Obama era, as a lot of people seem to have become more aware of structural and systemic racism and inequality?
Yes. That surprised me because I thought it would be more difficult. I think this thin veneer of post racial-ness in the Obama years was just ripped off. I think a lot of white progressives were in shock, and there is a kind of urgency that I didn’t see during the Obama years. That seems to make white people more receptive. At the same time, there is more permission for explicit racism than there was. I don’t think that anyone is in denial anymore that racism exists.
You’ve said that your intention is not to make white people feel guilty and this is not about being a good person or a bad person. Can you expand a bit on that?
As long as we understand racism as individual acts of intentional meanness, we will feel defensive about any suggestion of our complicity. When we understand the systemic nature of racism, however, we understand that our complicity is inevitable. It’s actually liberating to start from that premise, because then we can turn our attention to identifying what our complicity looks like and how we might change it.
I don’t feel guilt and I do not want other white people to feel guilt. It’s a useless emotion, and we are not effective when we feel that way. Quite contrary to guilt, I have found this to be the most intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically rewarding journey I have ever embarked on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In her keynote address, Robin DiAngelo: What Does It Mean to Be White? on Monday, March 4, DiAngelo will explore such questions as What prevents us from moving toward greater racial equity? How does race shape the lives of white people? What makes racism so hard for white people to see? She will speak at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall, 775 Commonwealth Ave., from 11 am to 12:30 pm. This event is free and sponsored by the Associate Provost for Diversity & Inclusion office. Register here.
If you’re one of the unfortunate few who don’t give a hoot about the Olympics, the biennial onslaught may feel overwhelming. After all, most sports fans don’t care about table tennis or pole vaulting when the games aren’t in session, so why should they get so obsessed all of a sudden?
Turns out the appeal of the Olympics is less about the individual sports and more about how the event as a whole caters to different parts of the human psyche. The competition has three key ingredients that spark fervent fandom: curated marketing, compelling personal stories, and an outlet for national pride. Understanding these factors can help you appreciate the enduring power of the games’ tradition—and maybe help you tolerate a few weeks of Olympic fever.A TV bonanza
The first and most important thing to understand about the modern Olympics is that they are, more than anything else, a media product. Yes, host cities like Tokyo spend millions of dollars building bespoke stadiums and tracks, and yes, thousands of people travel from all corners of the world to attend. But the vast majority of people experience them via TV or the internet.
It took a while, but the games themselves have adapted to that fact over the past few decades, says John Davis, a former professor of business at University of Oregon, who’s written a book about the commercial appeal of the Olympics.
“When it really started to shift was in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which was the first truly profitable Olympics,” says Davis. The California games helped to transform the contest into a commercial and media phenomenon. Or as Davis puts it, they “ignited a virtuous cycle—athletes attract fans, fans attract media, and media attracts sponsors.” The stars of the show were the members of the US men’s basketball team, led by Michael Jordan, who himself had ushered in a new era of sports celebrity in the NBA.
Almost four decades later, the Olympics still live or die by their TV success, Davis explains: Six of the 10 most-watched broadcasts in world history are recent Olympics. One of these was the 2023 summer games in Rio de Janeiro, which were dogged by reports of corruption and delay in the lead-up to the opening ceremony. Despite the controversy, though, the games themselves drew 30 million viewers in the US, nearly an Olympic record. The easiest explanation for the outing’s success might have been that Rio’s time zone is only an hour ahead of New York’s, which made it easy to draw big audiences for prime-time events. This year’s event in Tokyo is also expected to draw record-setting viewers despite concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, in part because the main events will be scheduled so as to cater to a US viewership. That means athletes in Japan may compete at odd local times so their exploits can be broadcast live during American primetime or in concert with NBC’s Good Morning America.Making it personal
Still, the Olympics draw far more viewers than one would expect given the relative popularity of the sports involved. Swimming and ice skating don’t normally get primetime treatment, so what compels people to watch them once every four years?
[Related: Surfers are riding a wave of new technologies to their Olympic debut]
The attraction, says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, isn’t the sports themselves. It’s about the narratives we build up around them.
“It does have special meaning because there’s so many amateur athletes [watching the games],” she says. “Anybody who competed in swimming at one point may have thought there would be the next Michael Phelps; almost every little kid tumbled at one point, maybe they could be Simone Biles.”
This focus on individual performance tends to make Olympic viewers “more forgiving” of athletes than traditional team-sports enthusiasts, says Davis. If you’re a Philadelphia diehard and the Eagles get knocked out of the NFL playoffs, you might be liable to stick your fist through drywall. But if a 100-meter runner you love fizzles out with a bronze, it’s easy for your enthusiasm to shift toward the underdog who came away with the gold.For Sparta
There’s another, more primal reason we tune into the Olympics, and that’s national pride.
The idea for the modern Olympics emerged from the brain of one Baron de Coubertin, a 19th-century French aristocrat who thought sports were the perfect way to bring the whole world together under the banner of peace and harmony. That might have seemed possible back then, but two World Wars and a Cold War later, it’s not so practical.
Today, says Jeffrey Montez de Oca, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the Olympics are a bloodless outlet for nationalism and patriotic sentiment.
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“In the United States, we’ve always loved competition,” he says, “and the Olympics has always been a political space. It’s always been about competitions between nations.” When the Cold War was in full swing, says Montez de Oca, the most important challenge for the US was to beat the Soviet Union, as it did in the famous 1980 medal-round hockey game. Now, though, it’s more about dominating the overall medal count to show that we produce more great athletes than anyone. Either way, the games appeal to our innate tendency toward in-group belonging, a habit that has evolutionary roots in our ancestral pasts. Research has shown that early humans were more likely to survive when they associated and identified with well-defined cliques rather than ranging from cadre to cadre. As a result, some evolutionary theorists think that today’s patriotic feelings could stem from that ancient loyalty.
Other countries, meanwhile, have narrower and more specific ambitions. Montez de Oca’s wife is Japanese, and he says that Olympic fans in Japan root for the country to earn more medals than other small countries rather than dominate the overall count. In other countries like India or Norway, viewers may be invested in a less-watched event like archery or the biathlon. (Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon was the underdog Jamaican men’s bobsled team, immortalized in the 1993 film Cool Runnings.)
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