Wearing a mask is an act of anti-racism and radical love
The pandemic is not over.
The mask mandates, however, are.
I am surprised to see how quickly many people have returned to a “business as usual” and “back-to-normal” daily practice. It is rare to see anybody engaging in social distancing or masking anymore even in some of the most crowded places. Was the mandate the only thing holding us accountable to wearing a mask? At least for me, I mask not because the government or my job told me to do it, but because I understand our collective health and wellbeing are interconnected. Is that not what COVID taught us?
As a liberation social psychologist, I am particularly concerned about the normalization of mass death, and how this normalization is tied to white supremacy and ableism.
In May of 2020, we lost 100,000 people to COVID. At the time this was an incalculable loss. Yet, in the past year alone from September 2021 to September 2022, we have lost 400,000 lives to COVID and president Biden just announced that the pandemic is over.
In 1996, during the most lethal year of the AIDS crisis, 1,100 lives were lost per week.
Just a few weeks ago, we lost 4,100 lives to COVID in one week, (4 times the amount of deaths than in the most lethal year of the AIDS crisis) but the media is silent, perhaps because racial capitalism cannot survive without denying this reality and without restoring a sense of “back to normal.”
According to a report from John Hopkins University, the cumulative confirmed deaths from COVID-19 have been steadily increasing in the past 12 months.
According to the NIH, for at least these past 2 years, COVID-19 has been the third leading cause of death in the United States.
When we look at the death rates, a startling finding is revealed. The decreasing rates of positive COVID-tests is correlated with decreased testing. In other words, fewer rates of COVID positivity is not a safe measure that this virus is any less deadly than it was in 2020.
Additionally, although our vaccines have provided us with the comfort of knowing we are less prone to becoming hospitalized should we contract the virus, they do not prevent the spread of the virus. Only masking and social distancing prevent the spread of the virus.
The pandemic is not over, but our ability to recognize the deadliness of this virus seems to be over, and that is perhaps partially a result of the “back to normal” rhetoric in our many social contexts. I am compassionate to the desire many of us feel for things to go “back to normal” and some of the desensitization that has taken place from being overwhelmed by the news earlier in the pandemic. Yet, I don’t want us to become lost in these feelings. I am also compassionate to those who feel that not wearing a mask is a way to socially connect with others and communicate warmth. Yet, there are ways to do that while wearing a mask if we can practice a little creativity (e.g. wearing a clear mask, using other social cues).
In my classrooms, I have many students who are immunocompromised who feel disempowered by the lifting of the mask mandate to share the concern and fear for their wellbeing. I imagine it is hard to learn and be in the classroom if they are faced with the constant worry of becoming sick or perhaps worse. The anxiety that is felt in the classroom relates to my second point.
Aside from the physical, there is the emotional impact of non-mask wearing.
Sometimes, people say that the flu takes lives and we do not make a big deal of it. First of all, I think we should, but also second, the flu does not have a recent and ongoing trauma attached to it. It was only 24 months ago Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency because we had too many dead bodies in California as a result of COVID and no place to put them, and before that we were inundated with images of mass unmarked graves that were built to bury prisoners who had died as a result of COVID.
I do not know how to word this or express this, but there is something about not wearing a mask during the same ongoing pandemic that makes me feel like we are letting those people who died down. I think to myself, how do I honor their lives or their deaths and use my day to day life to build what could be- a future where life and breathing is protected regardless of our country’s economic interests?
That trauma is real and is still felt.
Aside from protecting myself, I wear a mask because I want to let my students and others in our society know that I am educated and aware about the ongoing realities of COVID and that I stand in solidarity with immunocompromised people in our spaces. I remember I had a student who did not have a laptop computer to complete their assignment. I suggested the campus library and they informed me they did not feel safe there because they are immunocompromised. With the lifting of the mask mandate, I imagine that their comfortability of using the library has diminished. This student’s opportunity to an education is thwarted by the invisibility of their access needs.
I wear a mask as a practice of radical love (for myself and for others). According to Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body is Not an Apology, “A radical self-love world is a world that works for everybody […] It is through our own transformed relationship with our bodies that we become champions for other bodies on our planet […] A radical self-love world is a world free from the systems of oppression that make it difficult and sometimes deadly to live in our bodies” (p. 9). Because I envision a world where my body is respected and allowed to thrive to its fullest despite what I look like, my dis/abilities, my identities, etc. I want us to create that world for others. Understanding that I have to practice living the world I want to see allows me to be a champion for other bodies, even if at a relatively small inconvenience to me (like wearing a mask).
Radical love for ourselves and others allows us to envision and practice a future where all bodies are safe. I am thinking of Mia Mingus and other disability justice activists who ask us to rethink access and accommodations for those with disabilities or are immunocompromised from a “burden” to instead an act of love. More specifically, Mingus uses the term access intimacy to describe this kind of love. She describes it as
“that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.”
To me, it is an honor to be able to learn about other people’s access needs. It allows me to be in alignment with my values and to create spaces where people feel that they are fully seen and fully present. If I want a world where I am seen and my needs are met, I need to practice this access intimacy with and for others.
As other disability justice activists have pointed out, individualistic health culture is deeply connected to ableism and white supremacy where there is lack of concern for collective health and manifests in the behavior of “every person for themselves” or “you do you.”
Eugenics cannot be separated from white supremacy as the movement was intended to eliminate undesirable heritable traits (e.g. disabilities, illness/disease), in order to create a pure race of people with only desirable characteristics. The process of “elimination” was enacted via involuntary sterilizations, segregation, exclusion, and in the case of Nazi Germany, through mass murder. Francis Galton was a leader in the eugenics movement as well as a proponent of Social Darwinism- the belief in “survival of the fittest,” or that certain people rise to power in society and survive because they are innately better. According to this logic, people who are not the “fittest” are disposable- we do not care if they die and we assume no collective responsibility or accountability for their death. In other words, if people die that is their problem, not our problem (our unjust collective practices, norms, policies, systems, structures are exempt from examination).
Ultimately, the point I am building toward is that A) Wearing a mask is an act of anti-racism and radical love, but also B) that conversely, not wearing a mask in our social and political context is an act of racial violence that is being upheld. This is not to imply or suggest one’s intentions, but to reflect on outcomes and impact.
This racial violence enacted through non-mask wearing and other forms of minimizing the ongoing Pandemic are further punctuated by the fact that it is Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities who have been the hardest hit by COVID and often have the least access and amount of resources to be healthy.
In short, the target area of concern is not just that people in our social contexts are dis-abled, but that our society is dis-abling. That is, our non-masking practices are disabling, we are fomenting not only the potential increase of disability (e.g. long COVID, anxiety, etc.), but also limiting access and opportunities for those who have a disability, such as those are immunocompromised.
I am deeply listening to the people in our society living with disabilities and are still sheltering-in-place. I hear that you are living in fear. I hear that your fear is connected to your desire to live and breathe without fear of becoming sick. Because I love you, I will continue to wear a mask. Because I love me, I will continue to wear a mask.
Christine Rosales, Ph.D. is currently working as an assistant professor at a university in California.
Special thanks to Dr. Bob Majzler for their support in writing this piece.