Dr. Jasmin Zine on The Racial Politics and White Privilege of Mask Wearing During the Pandemic

On July 6,  Waterloo Regional Council voted to bring a mandatory mask-wearing bylaw into effect. Starting July 13, masks were required in indoor public spaces throughout the Region. 

For many health care experts, Ontario was already late to the game when it came to implementing a mandatory mask policy. 

On June 9, an open letter was released by a long list of doctors, scientists, nurses, and dentists, alongside other health care professionals in the province urging the provincial government to make masks mandatory in indoor public spaces, on public transit and in areas where physical distancing is challenging due to crowding. 

Backed by data from the World Health Organization, and two scientific research studies, the letter also cited a startling statistic from the recent Leger poll — only 48 per cent of people were wearing masks in Canada. According to a recent study, in order for mask-wearing to have an impact on slowing the spread of COVID-19, 60-80 per cent of the population must be complying. 

This open letter concludes with an inspiring quote: “My mask protects you, your mask protects me, we all protect society.” 

But what happens when wearing a mask doesn’t protect you? What happens when something much deeper, much more sinister, and much more systemic is preventing you from feeling that protection by complying with covering your face in a public space during a global pandemic?

Dr. Jasmin Zine is looking into just that. A professor of Sociology and Muslim Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Dr. Zine is exploring the racial politics of mask-wearing in her recent Op-Ed Unmasking the racial politics of the coronavirus pandemic. The research in this article points to the fact that for many racialized groups, mask-wearing comes at a price, and sometimes that price is too high to pay. 

“There are racialized people who have thought twice about putting on a mask and had to have that conversation with themselves about “Do I wear this and then go out and face harassment?” Dr. Zine asked.

In her article, Dr. Zine focuses on three racialized groups and the different experiences they have when interacting with the public while wearing masks: Asians, Blacks, and Muslim Women who choose to wear the Niqab. Although each racialized group already faces the daily impacts of systemic racism, when it comes to discrimination around mask-wearing, each group’s experience is vastly different. 

The critical takeaway here is the ways in which mask-wearing is perceived depending on the body who is wearing it. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many Asian communities have faced harassment and hate crimes as some citizens portray and label them as “pandemic starters.” Dr. Zine notes that the image of an Asian person wearing a mask has become “emblematic throughout this pandemic.” 

“The act of wearing a mask by an Asian body absorbs different meanings that are very historically entrenched about various types of anti-Asian racism that came up also around the SARS epidemic,” Dr. Zine said.

Many conspiracy theories and false notions about COVID-19 that have been circulating throughout the pandemic have also played a role in the public backlash the Asian community has experienced. 

“People right now are looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame for all sorts of ills and problems in society,” Dr. Zine said.

She also notes that although much of this hate-mongering is taken up amongst far-right groups, we have also seen this rhetoric move towards the mainstream. President Donald Trump is on the record for referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” on multiple occasions. 

A critical issue that perpetuates the association that citizens are drawing between COVID-19 and the Asian community lies largely in the media’s portrayal and coverage of the pandemic itself, according to Dr. Zine. “When we have a certain archetype that is constructed, it has a way of filtering into the public imaginary in ways that can have very destructive outcomes.”

An example of this was seen in the New York Post. When the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Manhattan, a stock image was used of an Asian man wearing a face mask in Queens, NY (In reality, the first case in Manhattan had come from a woman who had contracted COVID-19 from Iran.) 

Mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic has also put the Black community at odds between maintaining their own personal health and fearing for their lives. Putting on a mask and covering their face may put them at further risk of being labelled a criminal or “suspicious.” In her Op-Ed, Dr. Zine references a story of a Black doctor in Miami who was handcuffed outside his home by police while wearing a surgical mask.

Among the Black Clergy in Illinois, the concept of “mask tipping” was introduced in co-operation with their local police department as a way for people wearing face masks to identify themselves as non-harmful bodies. Instead of walking into a store already wearing the face mask, the concept of “mask tipping” would mean that you tip your mask down briefly after you enter the store, to be identified.

What is problematic about this concept is that it was borne out of the Black Clergy’s fear for the safety of their own family members. Dr. Zine explains: “One of them actually had told their son, when you walk into a store, put your mask on when you go in so that they see you first and know that you are not a threat.” 

She believes that this kind of problematic practice is a perfect example of racialized bodies constantly experiencing a need to surveil themselves. “This tells racialized bodies that they need to prove themselves as being innocent first, you need to prove that you are not a threat.”

Dr. Zine draws parallels from the concept of mask tipping to her research on Islamophobia, and how many Muslims are affected by self-surveillance because they are perceived as a threat to public safety by others. 

“If you’re wearing a mask, and we all see this as a kind of pandemic social contract, it gestures to the fact that we are concerned for the greater public good,” Dr. Zine said. 

The face mask in the COVID-19 pandemic is a barrier to transmitting the virus and keeping the public safe. “However, when we contrast that, for Muslim women, it’s being made as a barrier to their social inclusion, because they cannot wear the Niqab in the public sphere.”

Not only does this impact Muslim women’s social inclusion, but it also takes away from their full rights and bodily integrity, and chooses for them how the world will see them instead of giving them their full autonomy. 

According to Dr. Zine, the hypocrisy lies in the fact that while Muslim women who choose to wear the Niqab are being told that they cannot cover their face in the public sector, the rest of Canadian citizens are being told that they must cover their face for the sake of public safety. 

Imagine putting on a face mask and having to think about all the other risks you might be taking. 

Imagine wondering if it is worth the risk to your own personal health to not wear a mask and receive a fine, or wear one and potentially be perceived as a threatening body by the rest of society. 

Imagine being an Asian citizen and negotiating with yourself on whether or not you should put on your mask when you go to work in a grocery store because you might be harassed or have your community blamed for being “pandemic starters” — like a man in Mississauga was, by a person who would never care to think about the privilege that they undeservingly hold. 

Imagine being a Muslim woman, a teacher in a public school who has had her autonomy taken away by the state because she wishes to wear her Niqab, now being told that she must cover her face in the spirit of “public safety.” 

Wearing a mask with little concern about how society is going to perceive you is a privilege that not all of our community members have. 

“We talk about white privilege, but there is also white mask privilege that goes along with not having to ask those questions, not having to do that calculus, and being able to go out and be seen as the ‘good liberal citizen’ who is there to uphold the social contract that we have during this pandemic,” Dr. Zine said.