Right now, in America and around the world, racism portrays the unmasked Asian face as a poisonous symbol.
Illustration by Maggie Denman.
In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, the politics of mask-wearing were deceptively simple: those who wore them cared about their fellow citizens and were dedicated to slowing down the spread of the virus. Those who did not prioritized (illusions of) freedom and pushed (warped) arguments for bodily autonomy. During a time when there seemed to be more unknowns than knowns, the moral delineation that masks embodied was the closest thing we had to seeing the situation in black and white. Masks were synonymous with social responsibility—a show of communal respect, scientific humility, and societal diligence.
But with mask mandates slowly lifting across the nation—and our own mask mandate in Dane County lifting on June 2—it’s become clear that differently abled and racialized bodies will confront varying consequences to our newly-bare faces. Those living with chronic illness are pleading with even fully vaccinated community members to continue to wear masks to accommodate their weaker immune systems, sensing that their needs will once again be pushed to the margins of everyday life. For those of us of Asian descent—who make up the largest group of non-white residents in Madison—the choice to forgo face coverings when out in public might just be the difference between safely running an errand and becoming another statistic in the growing number of Anti-Asian hate crimes globally.
For Asian people, masks have functioned both as physical protection and social defense. Living through the pandemic, I’ve felt as though my wearing a mask has not only decreased my likelihood of contracting coronavirus, but has also signaled reassurance to others that I would not be responsible for transmitting it to them. Whether in the supermarket or out on a walk, the fleeting eye contact I would make with another person was always used to try and communicate the same thing: I am scared of this virus too. I care about your health and safety as much as my own. I am not the vessel of disease that you think I am. The small piece of cloth on my face not only protected me from my own illness, but served as the thin veil between me and a wide array of racist microaggressions and bodily harm.
But this unspoken message has not been successfully communicated in many instances. Incidents as brutal and bloody as the March attack on a 65-year-old woman in New York City are cropping up faster than we can keep count. Thanks in part to the racist slurs and fear-mongering that Donald Trump’s administration encouraged, Asianness has been tagged with a certain level of distrust that has led to hate erupting as verbal and physical assaults, up to and including homicide.
After the horrific Atlanta spa shootings in March, when a white man murdered six women of Asian descent, a palpable fear swept through Madison, Milwaukee, and other Wisconsin communities with significant Asian-American populations. Statements from Madison Assembly Rep. Francesca Hong and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of Wisconsin executive director Jessica Boling expressed unshakeable terror and demands for rightful accountability. In cities farther north like Appleton, Green Bay, and Wausau, which are home to large Hmong-American populations, Hmong-American community members have noticed a dip in support for their businesses and have been victim to verbal and physical attacks and targeted vandalism.
Even when we abide by the rules and do wear masks, Asians are still met with accusations of spreading disease and the panic of contamination. In a Medium article from March, California-based cartoonist Khalid Birdsong tells the story of a trip to the store with his Japanese wife where a white clerk began hysterically asking if she was sick, simply because she was wearing a mask. The idea of our Asian bodies being inherently infectious has left others deeply suspicious, with the threat of our bodies’ imagined toxicity overpowering the scientifically-proven task that face masks are intended to carry out.
In moments like these, face masks serve as an indictment of guilt and disease, an admission to the accusation that our bodies are the primary carriers of COVID-19. Rather than being thanked for doing our part in helping to slow the spread, the very fact that we are wearing masks instead stands as confirmation that there is indeed something to hide, something to cower in fear from.
The double standard of breaking code has always favored the side of whiteness—and at times, even white supremacy. We saw this at the coup staged on January 6, where armed white supremacist protestors put dozens of representatives’ safety on the line as they stormed the nation’s Capitol. The months it has taken to prosecute the hundreds of violent instigators who participated in the riot stand in stark contrast to the months of daily arrests of peaceful BIPOC protestors during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations held last summer and beyond.
Similarly, I’ve watched in awe as one white person after another confidently marches maskless into establishments that enforce mask requirements, and have been doing so throughout the pandemic. When stopped by a store clerk, they feign an unconvincing apology and ask to be supplied with a mask, knowing full well that their carelessness will not only be overlooked, but will in no way be a reflection of their entire race. Rather than being coded as dangerous agents of disease, unmasked white people are treated with pity and deemed worthy of protection from the virus. While Asian individuals run the risk of violence for just existing in the pandemic—whether masked or not—white people’s recklessness and inconsideration prove inconsequential.
Ironically, despite the severe uptick in crimes against Asian-Americans and Asians over the course of the pandemic, many of these incidents have not been labeled as hate crimes. In a The Daily podcast episode about the Atlanta spa shootings that occurred in March, host Michael Barbaro explains that a key part of identifying a hate crime as such is the presence of an explicitly racist symbol. In the absence of a swastika or a noose, it is almost impossible to prove racist motives to the satisfaction of the legal system, with hundreds of atrocities falling through the cracks over a technicality.
With the expiration of our local mask mandate, the symbolism of masks has become more ambiguous than ever, and the stakes of being a target of racialized hate are higher than ever. During much of the pandemic, masks implied an individual’s personal protection and communal respect, and continuing to wear one can serve as an appropriate act of solidarity. The absence of masks can imply illness and guilt. With masking up offering us limited protection during the worst of the pandemic, it is not a stretch to think that unmasking will come with its own set of unique, racially-fueled consequences.
The expiration of Dane County’s mask mandate redraws the lines of safety and social acceptability here in Madison. Especially now, with 65.6 percent of Dane County residents having gotten at least their first vaccination dose, the decision to go maskless can be backed by a wide range of reasons, all differing in complexity and logic. As mandates come and go, one thing remains: the ways in which Asian bodies are read as we move around our neighborhoods and cities has been forever changed.
As we begin to forge ahead in a maskless Madison, we must think critically about the ways in which we have internalized the hatred with which people treat our Asian-American community members. As our worlds begin to face outward again, we must turn inward to challenge the new and insidious ways that hate has festered in our own imaginations and instead, work to build solidarity with and create systems of support for one of the many minority groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.