Racism Against Asian Mask Wearers Is Rising. It Hurts Everyone
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The coronavirus pandemic has already led to a spurt in racism against Asian Americans. The last thing the country needs is racism impacting its health care response too.
In medicine, we value the importance of public health measures — good hygiene, staying home when sick, stopping unsafe practices … the list is long. A technique we aren’t taught, however, is wearing face masks.
I was once asked in medical school, by another student: “Why do Asians wear masks so much?” I was in Uganda, had gotten sick and had suggested I should wear a mask.
That question highlights the cultural differences in something as clinical as wearing a facial blockade to help prevent the spread of infection. And those differences are particularly important to recognize and understand amid a rise in racism during the coronavirus pandemic.
While there may be a debate over whether labeling the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” — as President Donald Trump has done — is racist, there’s no denying the sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans: There have been at least 1,000 such instances since early March, California Rep. Judy Chu told MSNBC last week. These hate crimes are currently averaging 100 a day. Trump has now said that Asian Americans need to be protected and that the spreading of the virus is “not their fault in any way, shape or form.” Nevertheless, businesses have closed, and people are avoiding Chinese restaurants for fear of getting the disease.
But there’s another form in which racism around the coronavirus is playing out in the West: against the cultural practice of wearing face masks. Last month, a woman wearing a face mask was allegedly assaulted and called “diseased” in New York. In the U.K., attacks on people of East Asian origin wearing masks have become so common, they’re being called instances of “maskaphobia.”
Masks in America would never be considered “cute” — they have a connotation of sickness, and they prevent facial expression, creating a potential barrier to social interactions.
The approach to masks in the East and the West couldn’t be starker. In Japan, mask-wearing has been described by sociologists Adam Burgess and Mitsutoshi Horii as an act of “collective courtesy to others,” a way to both protect others and oneself if sick. The increase in hay fever following post-World War II reforestation and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster (and resultant pollution) are among events in Japan’s history that could also explain its contemporary widespread mask usage. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, followed by fears of avian flu in 2004 and then the anticipated swine flu in 2009, likely have helped further entrench the practice.
In Japan, wearing a mask has at times been mandated by employers — violating the rule can get you fired. In America, on the other hand, an Oklahoma City hospital employee last month alleged he was fired for wearing a protective mask. Other East Asian countries have faced similar historic pressures, especially SARS, helping to explain the popularity of masks there too.
There’s also an element of familiarity. Surveys have shown some Asian women wear masks to avoid getting a suntan, and others to cover their faces when they don’t have makeup on. It’s part of their everyday routine.
When I visit my family in South Korea, I see masks sold at almost every convenience store, right where you would expect gum and other last-minute-grabs next to the cash register. They’re worn by everyone of all ages there. My mom recently showed me a “schooltime” mask her friend brought back for her children in the U.S. “Isn’t it cute?” she asked. Masks in America would never be considered “cute” — they have a connotation of sickness, and they prevent facial expression, creating a potential barrier to social interactions that may explain their unpopularity.
To be sure, other forms of cultural stigmatization and xenophobic judgment are dangerous too. Texas Sen. John Cornyn has blamed China for the spread of coronavirus “because [of] the culture, where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”
With masks, there’s an added risk. What if the racial biases prevent widespread use of masks — or face coverings, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended — because their wearers are typically seen as foreign, hypochondriacs and to be feared?
Would a clear message from a top American official or leader help clear the air, or are prejudices, coupled with a sense of individual rights and self-autonomy, making Americans ignore warnings — as some have done with requests to practice social distancing?
Of course, we don’t want panic-buying of masks either — the already rampant shortage of personal protective equipment for our health care workers tells you why the general public should not stock up on these supplies. However, that also doesn’t mean people should put themselves at risk every time they need to buy supplies at the grocery store or drive an ailing parent with cancer to their chemotherapy infusions.
The solution lies in ramping up production of these supplies. In the meantime, there are smart ways to use homemade masks — research shows they’re better than no masks. They can reduce spread and limit the likelihood of touching one’s face, a common way of contracting the illness, as long as they’re worn properly — and accompanied by other measures such as social distancing and good hygiene.
The world around us is changing, and the prejudice against masks needs to go. For a virus already associated with racism, the avoidance of solutions should not be rooted in bias too.