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How the mask became a symbol of white fear and Black threat

Amid the coronavirus crisis, many Black Americans fear that wearing a protective mask could make them a target
A protester wears a protective face covering at a gathering in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in London on 5 July (AFP)

As if African Americans have not endured enough in their long and cruel history in the Unites States, during the current pandemic, they have to make yet another punishing choice.  

Consider the following: the US today is one of the epicentres of the coronavirus pandemic, where public health authorities fear new cases could reach 100,000 a day. The same public health officials recommend social distancing and wearing masks when people go for a quick outing. 

'Despite their fears of infection, and statistics showing Black communities are among the hardest hit, many Black men feel wearing a mask is a bigger threat than the coronavirus'

That is a fairly modest, yet vital, recommendation to control this disease. So when going out, many people wear masks - except if they are Black, brown, or any other colour, white people have designated this mask wearing as codification for exercising power and privilege over them. In such cases, wearing a mask has become dangerous to their wellbeing.  

During the last few months, since Covid-19 started wreaking havoc in this country, we have seen instances where Black people have done what everyone is asked to do - namely, wearing masks when going out. But they have been approached by security forces and told to take their masks off for “security reasons”.

Two Black men, for example, recently reported that they were kicked out of Walmart for wearing protective masks. A Washington Post report on the incident notes that other African Americans worry about a similar fate if they do as public health officials tell them to do.  

The incident is not an isolated case, as another report notes: “When the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] issued guidelines in early March asking people to wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the question for many Black men was not where to get a mask or which kind. It was: how do I cover my face and not get shot?”  

The result is clear: “Despite their fears of infection, and statistics showing Black communities are among the hardest hit, many Black men feel wearing a mask is a bigger threat than the coronavirus.”  

A further study concluded that racists who fear Black people just for being who they are “were much likelier to perceive a young Black man as threatening or untrustworthy if he was wearing a homemade mask or a bandanna, compared to a white man around the same age”. 

So if they don’t wear masks, Black people are in danger of catching the virus or spreading it to others, and are thus admonished for not following public health mandates. But if they do wear them, they are subject to harassment, abuse and potentially fatal violence. So what is a Black person to do - to wear or not to wear a mask?   

Downward gaze of the coloniser

In his classic masterpiece, Black Skin, White Masks, the Martiniquan revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon theorised his own experiences as a Black man reacting to the dehumanising effects of racism and colonialism. In this seminal text, Fanon narrows in on the brutal violence inherent in the downward gaze of the coloniser dismantling the colonised person’s sense of selfhood. The power and self-universalisation of colonial institutions are thus internalised by the Black person to the point of self-hatred.  

About a decade after Fanon, Malcolm X also articulated this self-hatred. In a May 1962 speech in Los Angeles, he wondered: “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind?”  

Police arrest a man at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on 4 July (AFP)
Police arrest a man at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on 4 July (AFP)

Between Fanon in 1950s and Malcolm X in 1960s, the internalised colonial gaze was effectively exposed, articulated and theorised, so that subsequent generations of the struggle for justice would de-mythologise and dismantle the downcast gaze of the colonial power.  

Half a century later, in my Brown Skin, White Masks, I carried Fanon’s and Malcolm X’s insights further and brought them to our own time, thinking through the ways in which native informers from the Arab and Muslim world aid and abet US imperial projects, precisely because of this self-hatred and full identification with the ruling white supremacy.

I argued that a critical reading of the exiled intellectual Edward Said had a darker side, which dwelled in expatriate Arab and Muslim intellectuals putting their services at work for the ruling dysfunctional empire.  

Further advancing the argument, in his Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, Glen Sean Coulthard also challenged the rubric of “recognition” as a modus operandi of identity politics in a kind of liberalism that seeks to whitewash the colonial atrocities of settler-colonialism against indigenous people.  

Empty white masks

From Fanon forward, therefore, we have a sustained course of critical insights articulating the psychopathology of the relation between faces and masks in internalised colonial contexts. People are conditioned to hate their own physical truth and to denounce their own parental heritage by way of facilitating a meagre existence in this quintessentially racist world.    

Today, these inaugural insights of Fanon and others have reached a turning point, where embedded in the Black Lives Matter uprising in the US and around the world is the pride of place and dignity of one’s own face and features behind any masks, which now have purely practical purposes, as recommended by public health officials.  

The American republic of white supremacy 
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The struggle of Black Lives Matter is now geared towards a moment when Black, brown or any other colonially manufactured “coloured” people wear their medically recommended masks, liberated from the false consciousness of identifying with their self-designated white masters.

As the statues of European and American racist icons crumble on both sides of the Atlantic, masks have overcome their racist metaphoric sense and become entirely pragmatic.  

Paradoxically, however, masks have assumed an entirely different symbolic meaning today - this time for self-designated “white people”, where the racist followers of US President Donald Trump have turned not wearing masks into a political declaration of their ignorant defiance of public health recommendations.

Their existence is so solidly based on their “white face” that wearing a mask would deny and destroy the very essence of their selfhood. Their white faces have turned into empty masks of their soulless selves, in search of others to define them.      

Precisely at this moment, the proud and confident face of Malcolm X, decades after his tragic death, shines sharper than ever, exposing his face as the singular site of our collective, defiant, happy and confident consciousness.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest books include Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zed, 2020). His forthcoming book, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past, is scheduled to be released by Haymarket Books later this year.