Anti-masking: The Subtext of White Privilege and Addictive Thinking

Whiteness and Anti-masking

It’s not surprising that the population who refuse to accept the full scope of Covid19, the anti-masker group, intersect with the same population who own and deny their White Privilege. It’s not emanating from communities of color. It’s not emanating from non-Western countries. It’s as white [1] and “Ameruh-can” as Apple Pie. That is because to accept either, to concede the reality of this pandemic or one’s own privilege, is to then require that person to act, to require a change in their behavior, or to moderate their own “rights” (or freedoms) for increased responsibility for others. When we wear a mask, we are saying “I acknowledge the effects my body and behavior have on others, and I take responsibility for that effect. I am willing to change myself to help those around me.” Most of us do share community obligations everyday … but it’s by choice of group affiliations and institutional memberships. Yet, Covid19 has demanded we accept that fate in relationship to people with whom we might not have ever cared or considered before now. It forces us to widen the scope of who or what must matter to us. I concur with Indi Samarajiva who argued, “It’s largely white people that won’t wear masks, for reasons of whiteness. If that’s not you then congratulations, welcome to the human race. Be whatever equal identity you want, but white power is out.” The lottery (“will I or wont I get sick?”) of Covid19 that preys on us all is a lottery system of harm, and of life or death that is real every day for people around the globe.

The white privilege of the United States has long been shielded from daily risks to harm and death too familiar to others; from living in war-torn regions where chances of being shot or bombed by drones are as likely as getting Covid19; where children of certain disenfranchised communities live with a precarity of death by drive-by shootings; where women around the globe live with the frightening statistic that 1 out of 4 of us/them (25%) will experience sexual or domestic abuse in their lifetimes; where clean drinking water is harder to get than a bag of diamonds. In regions with absent healthcare and infrastructure, the fears of cholera and malaria have always loomed large, merely compounded now by the impact of yet another pandemic. It seems that everywhere, for everyone- except the beneficiaries of white privilege- the lottery of life or death is played daily … until, now. Until Covid 19. The existential anxiety produced by this pandemic is a new experience for those with such privilege. Covid19 bursts the bubble of privilege, the bubble which until now has isolated white people from the realities that have negatively impacted the poor, the disenfranchised, and the “Other” -since the dawn of western “civilization.” About both systemic racism and Covid 19, white privilege whispers “That doesn’t affect. Not me, and mine. Not here. That is the problem of other people. And probably over exaggerated to begin with. Made up. To make me change. For someone else’s agenda. Well you can’t make me.”

Decades of white privilege shroud it’s beneficiaries from any obligation or inconvenience that connects us to others; Covid 19 reminds us that our own well-being is always tied to the well-being of others. White privilege disconnects, it “protects,” its white people from that fact. With privilege, inconvenience becomes “a choice” (i.e. not having to think about race unless one chooses to). However, Covid 19 is the first time for many who occupy this category, have had to inconvenience themselves in any way for the sake of others, beyond the scope of times or places or people for whom they choose that. The Black Lives Matter movement is another stark reminder that the bubble of privilege is bursting. Likewise, the pandemic does not care if you believe in it or not; it arrives just the same. And as with an addict, confronted with the dis-comfortable facts, they dig in their heels and become more hostile and defensive. The effects of the drinking or drug use however, do not concede to one’s depths of denial. It will destroy you just the same. With or without your consent. The outright persistent refusal to accept basic medical guidelines despite the mounting collective scientific evidence equate to denial at the level of addicts or active alcoholics. Likewise, the world is moving on, with or without white people’s acceptance of the inevitable changes to geopolitical demographics.

White Privilege and Addictive Thinking

The conjectures that follow are my opinions alone. I am not qualified to make mental health diagnosis. But, as one who has a lifetime of experience living with white privilege and over 2 decades in recovery from addiction, the parallels between the two have become increasingly become plain to me, especially in the last 6 months since Covid 19 and the momentum of anti-racist protests around the country (and world). The conjectures made here are worthy of our consideration, especially those of us struggling to make sense of the absurdity of narratives dominating the public sphere these days. And white privilege has its finger prints all over the crime scene. White privilege, like many types of addictions, includes a refusal of reality, of that which is directly in front of you. Addiction allows the fabricated world constructed in your head to transcend shared external reality. The privilege of whiteness has shielded certain people from accepting the fact that the “I” is tied to the “we,” and as such demands change of our behaviors, examination of our own “rights” as they relate the denial of rights of others, and how re-examining this would up-end what we think we know and believe. Addicts make choices out of fear, fear that they will lose something they already have or not getting something they want. Pride says “you need not pass this way” and fear says “you dare not look.” (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pp. 42-54).

By wearing a face mask to protect others, and by following the directions of “authority,” the anti-maskers are conceding that their actions and their behaviors do affect others; it’s an admission, an acceptance to their inner most selves that what they do impacts others. The policies protecting white Privilege may have shielded so many of us from this truth– up until now. We can either accept this truth, and face necessary self-examination and change, or we can dig deeper into our denial. From this latter choice arises many conspiracy theories, created to support the mode of denial; this is not unlike the many conspiracies active addicts construct to justify their “using”, like, “My boss (or my wife) are out to get me. They just don’t understand…”. The parallels to the anti-mask narratives are eerily similar to those clinging to Whiteness. Pushback against the rising tide of systematic anti-racist conversations resounds in statements like, “Now I’m being made to feel guilty just for being white!” or “Now they’re trying to rewrite history!” Both are self-defensive tactics which re-entrench one’s desire not to accept things as they are, or to consider new facts or evidence which might require one to take action to change.

White privilege affords it beneficiaries the illusion that they are in control of their fates, of their world; that their success is always and solely the result “hard work” and “good choices”. The action of wearing Covid 19 face masks also flies in the face of that narrative-it screams, “You are not in control, you are not special, you may die just like the rest of us.” It’s a bitter pill to swallow for many. Denial feels so much easier. And like certain models of recovery, the “I survive” depends on the “We survive.” My ability to maintain sobriety is contingent on my ability to work with and help others. White privilege has conditioned those with it, the luxury of not having to think beyond the “I.” My wellness depends on your wellness. Similarly, all people, not merely People of Color, benefit from a more just and equitable world.

To acknowledge the addictive nature of something is not (as commonly misunderstood) an abdication of responsibility for one’s actions but rather becomes the first step to owning the problem. Denial of the problem does not elevate us from responsibility toward it. The persistence of the dual infections: Covid19 and racism share the same roots in white privilege, and its two cousins Arrogance and Ignorance. Arrogance shouts things like “All lives matter!” while Ignorance denies every bit of evidence (from transatlantic slave routes and police shootings, to mass incarceration) to the contrary. Indi Samarajiva says, “It’s not just masks, white nations are fucking everything up, and not masking is also a symbol of that deadly arrogance.”

Making the Problem Worse, not Better

Like with other addictions, the irony is that such denial actually makes the problems they fear even worse. Privilege, like other forms of addiction, is a disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease. That’s why it is often referred to as “invisible.” The conspiracy believers (i.e. that face masks are a form of authoritarian plot to rob you of your freedoms) ought to consider for a moment that while they are being fed that story, the result being that if we don’t wear masks and we don’t get the disease under control — then more severe freedom-robbing draconian measures of population surveillance will need to be enacted (It is a possibility though I neither confirm nor deny my assurance of its inevitability). But the theory suggests that in order to justify such mass measures, the disease would have to be justifiably out of control. So … “No masks. Party on, dude”. And then it runs rampant.

However, if we all collectively took smaller minor inconvenient measures now, perhaps we could get the spread under control, and thus avoid the intervention by technofascists and global corporate surveillance. If we take care of each other, now… if we do the actions now to stem the tide, interventions by “big government” or “global corporations” might be successfully fought off.  It’s like realizing, “If I quit drinking now, I could avoid death, institutions, or jail.” But sadly, no addict worth their salt concedes the truth willingly without hitting bottom first. While they are fighting the illusory battle for “freedom from masks,” other very real possibilities for real (not conspired) opportunities of crisis capitalism can, and will, use this moment to steer the world and our social networks and our bodies toward greater surveillance and management as human capital. Therefore, to deny the science that wearing masks and maintaining distance to keep others well and to reduce the spread is not an extended awareness of this concern, but a denial- one which will fuel its inevitability.

There are real credible threats to our bodies in a bio-capitalist world which do not require large stretches of narrative to be supported. Read brilliant pieces: The Hologram: Feminist, Peer-to-Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future and Pandemonium: The Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve for more research-based positions on this.

They require that we read credible primary sources and do more than merely grasp the headline from TikTok or Facebook. They require that we think about the complexity of matters and sort out the differences being spoon fed fear-based pandering, and serious concerns that are kept beneath the radar. We must be vigilant in keeping separate real legitimate and well-researched concerns apart from the anti-masking (add QAnon and other surreal parallel universe shit) narratives. Because it serves the benefit of the bio-capital agenda to have warnings against their developing plans to be lumped in with the anti-maskers, where they can be equally dismissed by serious people.

Conclusion

I am not qualified to make the claim that white privilege is an addiction; I only suggest, as one who has decades of recovery experience with addictions, that it shares a fair number of the same qualities. It certainly explains the “peculiar mental twist” (a phenomena familiar to those who can look back on their own addictive thinking and behavior as absurd or illogical) and see similar patterns of thought embedded in the anti-mask movement. Privilege of whiteness is “the disease that tells you it’s not a disease.” It blames everyone and everything other than itself for the state of the world’s problems. Its benefactors will cling to the belief that it doesn’t apply to them with a ferocity of self-defensiveness that defies logical acknowledgement of all proof and evidence to the contrary. It defends its world view in the face of facts and reality that show otherwise. And too many people with white privilege will defend it unto the gates of death (see: gun-toting “give me liberty or give me death types,” and “pull my rifle from the cold dead hands” as two examples).

What is being threatened for them is less their “liberties” than it is the privileges(over or at the expense of others) that their whiteness has afforded them. It’s more comfortable to deny the real ramifications of spreading Covid 19 in order to defend one’s “right” not to change. To accept its real existence is like admitting the addiction; change will then be necessary and it might be scary or painful. Changes to the world demand changes to their own identities. To wear the mask, to comply with behavioral modification (even minor ones like keeping a 6 ft distance) gesture to this larger existential cosmic shift … and they can sense this. It explains the illogical urge to cling to absurd theories rather than globally agreed upon facts, not simply evidenced by research but by using one’s own power of “seeing” (the images, stories and day-to-day personal impact of Covid 19 which is increasingly impossible to evade). The wearing of masks in the face of COVID19 is merely a symptom of the larger broader changes required of their very existence. Owning one’s own complicity in a system that threatens to change one’s entire world view and one’s privileges afforded in that world may indeed be scary for some; but it is nonetheless necessary.

White privilege, like Covid 19 must be fully acknowledged and narratives claiming of their non-existence must be continuously challenged. We need creative strategies to make real systemic change. Remember, we are dealing with additive thinking. Facts alone are not sufficient to change addictive behavior. It is easier for many white people (especially those socially and economically disenfranchised ones who voted for Trump) to swallow an unsupportable conspiracy than it is to concede that perhaps they are not as special (aka superior) as they wanted to believe; that inequality, unemployment, ravages of poverty or drug addiction and yes… even a pandemic are now coming for them too. Welcome to Thunderdome.

(special thanks to Rosemarie Jensen for being my fearless editor)

[1] I struggled with whether or not to capitalize white and whiteness here. See more on the debate at https://www.dmagazine.com/frontburner/2020/07/a-few-words-about-racism-and-style-and-capitalizing-the-words-black-and-white/

Numerous incidents in which antimasking confrontations are also racist rants:

  1. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8537449/Hundreds-armed-anti-mask-protesters-gather-outside-Ohio-statehouse.html
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHaMpVjPhFY
  3. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8537245/White-anti-mask-protesters-caught-calling-black-pastor-RACIST-demands-reparations.html
https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-lgbtq-talk-show-host-tim-gaskin-20200819-7vaujxemsfcsbj6qimuxirtape-story.html
https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/exclusive-anti-lockdown-mums-opposing-22566642
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-30/letters-to-the-editor-racism-bigotry-elitism-mask-resistance

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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