Not Wearing A Mask Is White Privilege

Images of maskless gatherings consist almost entirely of white people. It's a visible symbol of white privilege, as minorities are hardest hit by COVID-19.
People celebrate Memorial Day weekend the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, U.S., May 23 – Screenshot from @Lawler50’s Twitter feed.

People celebrate Memorial Day weekend the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, U.S., May 23 – Screenshot from @Lawler50’s Twitter feed.

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Over Memorial Day weekend 2020, with American deaths edging toward 100,000, images abound of dense crowds, almost exclusively white, almost completely without masks. Though the novel coronavirus has not disappeared, people act as though pretending will make it so.

Meanwhile, Fox News’ Brit Hume mocked forme rVice President Joe Biden for wearing a mask at a Memorial Day event, saying the image of Biden in a mask “This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public. Biden today.” President Trump retweeted the tweet in spite of CDC guidelines recommending masks in public and the broad majority of Americans who support wearing masks.

From the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland to a packed pool in Lake of the Ozarks to the Frio River in Concan, Texas to overflowing Florida beaches, white people, apparently following the examples of Republican leaders, have decided that social distancing does not apply to them. Yes, if you look at the images, you can see for yourself the crowds are densely white.

And yes, their race does matter. White privilege seems to bring with it a sense of a protective cloak, a belief in some sort of special shield. More concerning is the idea that their immediate gratification outweighs the risk of death to others.

While these gatherings will, undoubtedly, lead to increased cases, there’s no need to speculate. Two hairdressers in Missouri, for example, cut hair at a Great Clips despite having COVID-19 symptoms, possibly exposing up to 140 people to the disease. In Arkansas, a pool party led to a spike in cases.

That Ozark pool is looking decidedly less refreshing.

We need to talk about Karen.

Well, we’re here and this will only hurt a little. Few phrases spark instant gut reactions quite like “white privilege,” to the extent some people want to treat “Karen,” the generic name given to women fully, and often angrily, displaying their privilege, like a slur. Of course it’s not only women, as Costco and Pottery Barn can attest below.

While acknowledging the misogyny of giving white privilege a female persona, the idea that literally naming privilege is oppressive goes to the heart of privilege itself. According to Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women Dr. Peggy McIntosh, the very survival of white privilege requires the denial of it. McIntosh, in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

In these uncertain times, as every single commercial trying to sell us something non-pandemic compatible describes them, our knapsacks also hold blinders, allowing us to take or leave the dangers and abuses of the world without much personal risk. It is, for many of us white people, the very first time we’ve had even the smallest morsel of privilege taken from us.

There is no equality without disgorging the unearned advantages gained through others’ disadvantage, and this pandemic has exposed the recalcitrance of white privilege to give even a millimeter. Tiny–but lifesaving–inconveniences like wearing a mask or not getting a haircut are met with comparisons to the worst atrocities in history. In the balance, it appears, the lives of others aren’t valuable enough to miss a weekend in a crowded tourist trap.

To borrow McIntosh’s metaphor, the sign-wavers and the store-yellers believe someone is taking their knapsack, the one they didn’t make or buy, the one they didn’t stock, the one they pretend they cannot see, but nonetheless prize above possibly passing on a gristly disease. The privilege is the driving beat of repeated calls to “reopen” from Republicans with the idea that people should be willing to die for their convenience and profit.

Acknowledging white privilege does not mean pretending lives are easy because people are white, as all people have struggles. It means acknowledging that our lives are made incrementally easier with the tools in the knapsack, and understanding those tools come at a cost to someone else, even as we pretend they don’t exist. And with COVID-19, it’s especially prevalent.

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Shocking racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality

The prevalence of white supremacist groups in the push to end lifesaving coronavirus measures is no coincidence. In Chicago, of the first 98 people who died from the novel coronavirus, 67 were African American, though African Americans comprise only 30% of Chicago’s population. The numbers remain stark; statewide, African Americans make up 13.8% of Illinois’ population, but as of May 24, 2020 1469 of 4856 COVID-19 deaths in Illinois were African Americans. That number, roughly 30% of deaths, is more than double the expected proportionate share.

The disturbing higher death rate for African Americans from coronavirus is far from unique to Illinois. Nationally, African Americans average 13% of the population, yet account for 25% of COVID-19 deaths.

Members of the Latinx community in Illinois are testing positive for the virus at the highest rate, spurring concerns of a future spike in deaths. According to APM Research Labs:

  • 1 in 2,000 Black Americans has died (or 50.3 per 100,000)
  • 1 in 4,300 Asian and Latino Americans has died (or 22.7 and 22.9, respectively, per 100,000)
  • 1 in 4,700 White Americans has died (or 20.7 per 100,000)

Native Americans are also experiencing disproportionate devastation from COVID-19. On May 18, 2020 CNN reported that the Navajo Nation exceeded New York City in per capita deaths from the virus. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem is trying to force Lakota reservations to remove checkpoints intended to reduce the spread of coronavirus. In a move with chilling, ghostly echoes, she even reached out to President Donald Trump to ask him to compel the tribes to open their sovereign land to the possible spread of the disease.

White Privilege in Action

Cashing in white privilege can range from the comical to the downright deadly, from minor cartoonish complaints to attempting to use the police to physically harm people of color. The masks are a stop on a spectrum that turns very dangerous very quickly.

What happens when, most likely for the very first time, someone’s privilege knapsack feels a little light? What happens when entitlement is challenged?

If he’s former member of the North Carolina House Scott Stone, he goes on twitter and rages at Pottery Barn for closing two hours earlier than the mall and allowing shopping by appointment only as the company tries to balance opening with a deadly pandemic. Scott subsequently made his account private.

There was the guy at Costco with “3000 Instagram followers” who declared he “woke up in a free country” when calmly told by Costco employee Tison he could not shop without a mask. He then tries to coerce him into taking payment as the employee rolls away the cart, showering Tison with obscenities for taking away “his” stuff, items for which he has not yet paid.

Bringing back the “Democratic Hoax” chestnut, the Bexar County GOP chair insists the crowd take off their masks and hug one another, as though coronavirus only strikes along party lines. Or there’s the woman who complained she “had to look at” her pedicurist in protective gear. She was glad she could get the pedicure, but “It’s almost more depressing to be in an environment where people act afraid to be touched than to stay home,” followed by “#stopsocialdistancing.”

White privilege also appears in interactions with police officers. In one video, a white woman charges a police officer, screaming; eventually he tases her. In another, a white woman who doesn’t want to accept a citation also resists arrest, fleeing the scene. She too is tased. Note the use of nonlethal force, and the women’s lack of fear in their interaction with officers.

And white privilege is used to menace. On the other end of police interaction, a white woman identified as Amy Cooper, incensed that avid birder Christian Cooper (no relation) asked her to leash her dog in Central Park in a nature reserve, threatens to call the police and tell them “an African American man” is threatening her. She does call the police, and, as Cooper stands far away from her, filming, she claims he is attacking her, her voice becoming more and more hysterical.

Her intention is clear when she threatens him with the police. She knows that the phrase “African American man” coupled with “threaten” could evoke a violent response, and when she doesn’t get the reaction she wants from the dispatcher, she escalates.

Within this context, examine what looks like benign, mild white privilege when a woman has to wear a mask for the very first time, and can no longer hold other people’s babies. She’s outraged that everybody is “living in fear.” “Look at the numbers,” she says. Let’s do just that, and see why this reaction and that of the woman getting a pedicure is much closer to the woman in Central Park than it might initially appear.

COVID-19 protests as white privilege trends to white supremacy

On April 15, supposedly angered over Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order which, among other things, prevented the purchase of gardening supplies from the supermarket, drivers deliberately created gridlock in the state’s capital of Lansing. This “protest,” not long after Trump referred to Whitmer as “that woman from Michigan,” was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which also operated as Michigan Trump Republicans, and was promoted by Michigan Freedom Fund, a group connected to Besty DeVos. Subsequently, “reopen” protests popped up all over the country, with many “protesters” carrying heavy weaponry.

In Michigan, on April 30, armed “protesters” stormed the statehouse, chanted “Lock her up” about Whitmer and demanded to see the governor in an action more resembling an armed insurrection than a protest. In May in Colorado, a reopen “protester” was arrested after making pipe bombs.

Across the country, throughout April and May, at gatherings with pro-Trump messages, people continued to rebel against the lifesaving measures. In California, the protest in Sacramento included far-right hate groups, including the Proud Boys, and the “Boogaloo Boys” who call for civil war. “Protesters” have invoked the Holocaust and slavery while complaining about staying at home, lack of access to haircuts, and wearing masks.

It is here that white privilege slides along the scale to white supremacy. In an almost sardonic understatement from NBC News:

“For many black Americans, the general perception is that the throngs of white protesters are steeped in racism, white supremacy and anti-black sentiments. And so many black Americans would feel unwelcome — and perhaps afraid — given the presence of Confederate flags, swastikas and hangman’s nooses.”

Now that we’ve cracked the privilege code, here it’s impossible to miss. Privilege includes writing a sentence, as did NBC News, that describes African Americans as “perceiving” a protest as “steeped in racism” when the sentence ends with “a hangman’s nooses,” or the implicit threat of murder by lynching.

Are these protests real? They’re about as real as the Tea Party, which was completely manufactured by the Koch Brothers. But like the Tea Party, the artificial feeds reality, to our detriment, leading to people with little to gain doing the bidding of the super-wealthy. It’s also driven online by bots; according to Carnegie Mellon University researchers:

“Many factors of the online discussions about ‘reopening America’ suggest that bot activity is orchestrated. One indicator is the large number of bots, many of which are accounts that were recently created. Accounts that are possibly humans with bot assistants generate 66% of the tweets. Accounts that are definitely bots generate 34% of the tweets.”

While the Carnegie Mellon team cannot pinpoint with certainty the origin of these campaigns, Professor Kathleen Carley says: “We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that.”

White privilege and masks

When is a mask not a mask? When it’s the visible symbol of entitlement. White privilege survives best when everyone pretends they cannot see it, but it is an advantage gained through the disadvantage of others. Nothing reveals it quite as starkly as this pandemic, where people refuse to prioritize their fellow Americans’ lives, particularly the lives of people of color, over slight inconveniences and frustrations. And white supremacist groups have noticed, capitalizing on white privilege to recruit at protests funded by groups who want those same people to be willing to die for their profits.

The trust placed in privilege will backfire, as the COVID-19 cases mount in a few weeks, and people learn that their entitlement does not inoculate them against coronavirus. In a phrase that will never be more true, they have brought it upon themselves. Unfortunately, in seeking to maintain all privilege, they will also bring it upon others.

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Opinion // Coronavirus / Donald Trump / Race / White Privilege