Black Skin, White Masks:
Racism, Vulnerability, and Refuting Black Pathology
By Ruha Benjamin
[Nina Simone singing, “Birds flying high you know how I feel, Sun in the sky you know how I feel, Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel, It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day, I's a new life for me]
Thank you so much for taking time to tune in. It is April 15, 2020, and this is a work in progress, which I’ll eventually be happy to share with each of you in written form once I’ve developed it further.
But for now, I just want to keep this relatively short, so rather than a deep dive, I’m going to offer an initial set of provocations that I hope will create some ripples in what you’re thinking and feeling about the current moment we’re all living through. And as you’ll see, a lot of the writing that’s out there, people thinking aloud has rippled across my own thoughts, so I’m going to be in conversation with a lot of folks that are processing this together.
I want to acknowledge that we’re all experiencing this pandemic with different levels of uncertainty, stress, and vulnerability. And it’s a privilege and a luxury in some ways to even be able to sit down and try to collect my thoughts in this way. Some of us have already lost friends and family, many have lost or are at risk of losing jobs, homes, and so many other things that sustain us. One thing we have all lost is a sense of NORMALITY. And perhaps that’s the point of all this. After all, the good ole days of a month ago, were NOT good, even then, for so many people.
On a personal note, this period has brought back memories of losing my father suddenly in 2014, after he was infected with the HINI virus. Now, like then, I feel the need to MOURN and practice HOPEFULNESS. I say “practice” because hope, joy, love, aren’t simply things to FEEL. They are things to DO.
(CLICK) As when Nina Simone sings, “I’m feel-ing good!” A stubbornness that I can relate to. “It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day, I’m feel-ing good.” Practicing hope amidst despair. And how can we talk about stubborn hopefulness without James Baldwin…
(CLICK) “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.” But how?
(CLICK) And how can we talk about vitality in the face of death, without Audre Lorde, who wrote in her Cancer Journals: “I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change, nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle.”
She goes on to say, “It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside, and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death.” Simone, Baldwin, Lorde, this is just a drop of the ancestral wisdom, which is our starting point, so let’s begin…
(CLICK) With a recent essay titled, The Pandemic is a Portal, by one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Arundhati Roy. She writes: (CLICK) “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next…We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
To do this, though, we have to reckon HONESTLY with the we have been carrying! Because if we’re not careful, we will almost certainly carry with us dead ideas that are racist, ableist, sexist, imperialist, and more.
(CLICK) One of the things that’s coming to light is how the global spread of a microscopic virus is placing the ravages of racism and inequity under the microscope. But the fact is, we don’t all see the same thing! Racism has a way of actually DISTORTING our vision. Intertwined with many other forms of social domination, racism is mercurial, innovative, even viral.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus specifically on how ANTI-BLACKNESS distorts reality, interpersonally and institutionally, exposing Black people to a threatening environment well before the pandemic, even in childhood!
(CLICK) Exhibit A: A recent study at Yale found that when pre-school teachers were asked to look at video clips of children playing, then prompted them to look for “challenging behavior,” eye-tracking technology detected that the teachers routinely trained their attention on black children, singling out black boys in particular, which helps explain why black students are expelled or suspended from school far more often than white students.
For some teachers, it may be “unconscious” and “implicit,” as these headlines say, but for many educators their anti-blackness is very explicit, conscious, and condoned. And this isn’t limited to white teachers, though since the vast majority of teachers are white women, their hostility towards Black children has a far-reaching impact.
Teachers’ inability to truly SEE the inherent and unqualified worth of ALL children, ripples across our education system, through our carceral system, our social welfare and foster care system, and even our healthcare system. Which brings us to the pandemic. Yes, the virus is a threat that should IN THEORY unify people of all backgrounds. But it won’t, so long as anti-blackness continues to distort our vision.
(CLICK) We’ve seen in the last few weeks, how people are trying to play catchup with other nations that were proactive when it comes to wearing masks in public. In our case, since medical masks are still in dangerously short supply for healthcare workers, we’re encouraged to wear homemade masks when in public. So, you see Instagram and Youtube tutorials that show us how to rig them with even just a bandana and two hair ties. Or if you wanna get fancy…
(CLICK) You can also make a face guard in a few easy steps. Here’s my favorite tutorial, created by architectural designer Amina Blacksher, WHO you have to admit looks like the main protagonist of an Octavia Butler novel! At least the future is fly. But it turns out, even these everyday attempts by Black people to protect themselves from viral infection are not immune from racism.
(CLICK) Because YOU may be wearing a mask for safety and solidarity, but your blackness may still be a threat. Remember those preschool teachers! As Aaron Thomas reflected on Twitter: “I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world. I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.”
This is the fundamental tension, isn’t it? Stayin alive, but also staying alive. Black people are not only trying to survive the pandemic, but also the everyday racism of a sick society. In fact, we may endanger ourselves by acting in solidarity everyone else, wearing a homemade mask to the store.
(CLICK) The fact is, surviving systems of White supremacy has often entailed wearing masks in the sense that Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks. Symbolic coverings that attempt to shield the wearer from an oppressive gaze. Though in doing so, mask wearers run the risk of internalizing the distorted image that is projected onto us, a kind of “symbolic violence.”
There’s one passage where Fanon writes, “Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?” Hopeful, I know. But WHAT IF! In this time of social distancing, more people WAKE UP to the reality of how socially DISTANT we have always been. Racism as a technology of proximity and power.
And so while Fanon was mainly concerned with the psychological burdens of colonialism, following Roy, I’m interested in the transformative potential of this global crisis, where we witness different forms of masking converge: that for many people, putting on a symbolic mask before leaving the house has long been a strategy of survival. Biological as well as social threats. But how long must we wear these masks?
(CLICK) Turning to Baldwin again, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live WITHOUT, and KNOW we cannot live WITHIN.” Love, in this case, is not a sanitizing platitude, but a fire-y FORCE that may very well clear a trail through this portal.
I think the only way we can forge a more livable world amidst the ruins of the old, is if we reckon honestly with how business-as-usual has wreaked havoc on people’s lives well before the current crisis. Many people on this planet have ALREADY been living in various states of crisis – ignored, explained away, papered over, endlessly documented and studied. We haven’t “all been in this together.”
(CLICK) We’ve all heard or seen the public health catchphrase, “viruses don’t discriminate, and neither should we.” As an aspirational slogan, I appreciate how this tries to push back on the different forms of racism and xenophobia we are witnessing, from the dog whistle phrase “Chinese Virus” to the verbal harassment, denial of services, and physical attacks on our Asian Americans friends. But as a soundbite, the idea that “viruses don’t discriminate” conceals the fact that the virus is not simply a biological entity, but a biopolitical reality which travels along well-worn patterns of inequity:
(CLICK) U.S. Headlines such as
- Black People Make up 40 percent of Covid-19 deaths in Michigan
- Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate
- Wealthy LA areas have higher rates of coronavirus cases. Why those numbers are deceiving
- The Pathology of American racism is making the pathology of the coronavirus worse
And if we zoomed out the lens globally, we’d find headlines like
- For Many Across the World, Social Distancing is a Luxury
Taken together, one message is clear: “The coronavirus is NOT the great equalizer.” With this in mind, many people are calling for more data on the disproportionate rates of infection and death among poor and racialized groups. And while I tend to support more data collection, I want to offer a caution. The facts alone will not save us.
(CLICK) According to a recent study on criminal justice reform out of Stanford, researchers demonstrated that “Using statistics to inform the public about racial disparities can backfire. Worse yet, it can cause some people to be more supportive of the policies that create those inequalities.” In other words, two people can see the same headline, “Black People Make up 40 percent of Covid-19 deaths in Michigan,” and come to very different conclusions! In fact, that is exactly what is happening.
(CLICK) Exhibit B: The US Surgeon General singled out Blacks and Latinos to urge “no drinking or smoking” as a preventative measure during the pandemic, which plays into a long history of government officials invoking the supposedly bad behavior of racialized groups as the reason for their hardship. We see it with the very different responses to Black and White drug use, one is a crime and the other is a public health emergency.
(CLICK) The “culture of poverty” script is a reliable alibi that lets the bad behavior of powerful institutions off the hook, and goes back to at least the Moynihan Report in which Black women, in particular, are blamed for the so-called disfunctions of Black families and communities.
But it’s important to note that this distorting lens is not just a top down phenomenon. It permeates everyday understandings of racial disparities. Teachers use it, employers use it, law enforcement officials use it, even doctors and nurses use it. For example, a friend of mine, Professor Khiara Bridges, was recently on the radio talking about the racial dimensions of the pandemic, and a nurse who had listened to the interview, emailed her to say:
(CLICK) “I believe you have some huge blind spots. I am white, 64 registered nurse who has worked in critical care for 40 years. I dated a black man from Louisiana. I AM EXPERIENCED at being a bedside nurse and interfacing with blacks in intimate situations. I may have insight that you do not. I take issue with your comment about perhaps blacks not getting good health care prior to admission to ICU.
(CLICK) You made no mention of whether these patients took responsibility for THEIR OWN HEALTH… I believe the black CULTURE increases the likelihood of blacks not being taken care of as well as whites. It is a choice of their own... They damaged themselves before they ever got to the hospital.” It’s almost as if her and the surgeon general were trained at the same school of medicine, or perhaps the problem is the culture of medicine, itself?
[As a quick aside: anyone listening to this who’s tempted to email me with your own objections laced in paternalistic racism, thank you, because it gives me more material to quote. But please be sure to include your name so I can cite you properly.]
Back to the nurse’s email goes, which on and on for several pages, acknowledging health disparities but blaming it on the bad behavior of individuals and the pathology of Black culture. Textbook “culture of poverty” talk.
The point is, two people can look at the same data and interpret them in dramatically different ways. One person narrowing the focus on individual bodies and behaviors and the other zooming the lens out to include ALL of the factors that actually lead to illness and premature death. And I should say, the narrow interpretation is not simply lazy or “just another opinion.” It’s wrong and dangerous.
(CLICK) As my colleague Imani Perry put it, “The white male doctor who strangled and assaulted a Black girl child for not social distancing is also a sign of what African Americans confront in the health care system. It’s not just “structural” racism folks.
So whether we’re talking about the US Surgeon General, or a random nurse, OR the many news reports that mention that pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and heart disease explain why Blacks are dying at higher rates, without mentioning WHY those pre-existing conditions persist in the first place. The effects is the same: to reinforce the myth of Black pathology, which serves as a ready alibi for those benefiting from the status quo.
(CLICK) To speak ONLY of “pre-existing biological conditions” is to normalize and naturalize Black death. So, we must be very clear to also name the pre-existing SOCIAL conditions… in housing, employment, education, and healthcare that have impacted communities well before the pandemic…
(CLICK) As epidemiologist Nancy Krieger’s eco-social model reveals, “eco-social” in that demonstrates the way that our social order gets under the skin and shapes life chances.
It helps explain why poor and racialized people WERE less likely to get tested early on in the first, MORE likely to be turned away from the hospital with symptoms, LESS likely to have insurance coverage, MORE likely to be working in low-paying but essential jobs, LESS likely to have the option of sheltering in place, MORE likely to live near heavy air pollution making them more vulnerable to respiratory disease, LESS likely have paid sick leave, and more likely to die. Not inevitably, but predictably!
This model illustrates how the pre-existing SOCIAL conditions of our NATION, not simply the pre-existing BIOLOGICAL conditions of individuals leads to higher Black death rates. This virus is not simply biological, but biopolitical. It may not set out discriminate, but the structures in which it circulates certainly do.
(CLICK) Exhibit C: In an interview last week, French doctors, one of them the head of an intensive care unit in Paris, had the audacity to suggest on live TV that a coronovirus vaccine should be tested on Africans because they are quote “highly exposed and don’t protect themselves.”
(CLICK) Fortunately, in the age of social media, this particular form of anti-blackness was swiftly refuted by people around the world, almost AS it was happening, by who insisted that Africa is NOT a Laboratory and Black people are not guinea pigs!
(CLICK) Whether we’re talking about France’s 35 year medical campaign throughout central Africa in which people were “forcibly examined and injected with medications with severe, sometimes fatal, side effects,” or the United States 40 year public health experiment on Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, the history of medical racism is much longer than many people realize, as my colleague Harriett Washington’s work illustrates. THIS pattern of medical abuse is one of the dead carcasses that we CANNOT afford to drag through the portal!
In part, because it counteracts the vital work of healthcare workers trying to address this pandemic. As Musa Okwongo writes, “We see a disparate group of medical professionals working together across borders, sharing knowledge and resources: we see them, without fanfare, discarding the old dynamics of Western imposition in favor of an ethos of genuine global coalition. If there can be any vision for a better future, then it is one where nations operate in the spirit of collaboration, not exploitation.”
(CLICK) Likewise, the heightened forms of surveillance that are on the rise will continue eroding public trust when its needed most! I’m glad to see people raising caution about the promises of tech-mediated surveillance of the pandemic, even as more traditional forms of policing are given new license.
The very people who we should be able to rely on to administer policies to safeguard the health of our communities, are instead employing predictable forms of racial profiling.
(CLICK) Exhibit D: the first person in Britain to be arrested and convicted under the Coronovirus Act is a Black woman, Marie DiNEW pictured here. She was arrested and fined for ‘failing to provide identity or reasons for travel to police, and failing to comply with requirements, which authorities now admit were bogus charges.
(CLICK) Or when a Black doctor who works at the University of Miami who had been testing homeless people for Covid-19, was arrested by police outside his home for not showing ID. Or more accurately, for not showing mandatory deference, as the officer demanded:
(CLICK) “You should refer to me as SIR or SERGEANT when talking to me.” It’s worth noting that in the video of the arrest, Dr. Henderson is wearing a mask but the officer is not. Exposing the doctor not just to everyday racism, but possibly the virus itself.
Indeed, the vast public health surveillance structures being rolled out will likely rest on forms of containment and punishment that already target racialized people. And the examples of anti-blackness I’ve shared so far have been relatively straightforward.
(CLICK) But consider the difficult decisions doctors are forced to make when rationing scarce medical resources, where many will be surprised to find a high tech form of EUGENICS alive and kicking in the 21st century. I say “eugenics” because despite the fact that hospitals are not supposed to discriminate based on disability status, race, age, religion, or based on people’s ability to pay, those who are healthier and fitter are given higher priority when it comes to receiving scare resources like ventilators. BUT WHO tends to be “healthier” and “fitter” in the first place? And more importantly, WHY?
(CLICK) As Dr. Hannah McLane explains, “If we strictly adhere to ‘save the most lives’ principle, we will be treating more white people, more men, more wealthy people. Black people are dying in record numbers from COVID-19, so this ethical oversight may already be playing out,” she says. (CLICK) We can’t say that we aren’t discriminating based on race or ability to pay, while algorithmically prioritizing the most likely to survive.”
(CLICK) “Fitness” has long been a euphemism or codeword for judging who is expendable. As disability activist Alice Wong writes, “Were I to contract coronavirus, I imagine a doctor might read my chart, look at me, and think I’m a waste of their efforts and precious resources that never should have been in shortage to begin with. He might even take my ventilator for other patients who have a better shot at survival than me.” But what about the fact that, in Wong’s words:
(CLICK) “Vulnerable ‘high-risk’ people are some of the strongest, most interdependent, and most resilient people around.” This is what gets buried beneath the seemingly objective algorithms that hospitals use to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. These algorithms are codifying a “survival of the fittest” approach to human life in which ableism, racism and classism operate together to make poor, racialized and disabled people’s live expendable. Not inevitably, but predictably.
The goal is not simply to create a more equitable way of triaging people. But to understand that scarcity, itself, is manufactured. The fact that we don’t have the medical resources to treat everyone who needs it, is NOT inevitable, but the outcome of choices people have made. Which means, as we move through this portal, we must insist on different choices! Radically different investments! And these investments, are not simply material, but ideological. So, if the pandemic is a portal, in what direction do we want to?
(CLICK) Of course, there are many changes we have to demand at the level of social and economic policy. And to that end, I encourage everyone visit ThePeoplesBailout.org. It states, “We need a swift, inclusive bailout, by and for the people. As nurses and grocery clerks keep the country running, Congress is developing a relief and recovery package … to return the economy back to a status quo where safety and security are promised only to corporations and the wealthy few. In this moment of crisis, we need to change the rules. Let’s pull together, as we've done in times past, to demand our government provides money and care to those who are hardest hit by this crisis.” So yes, to transformative social and economic policy! Because as Roy put it in the essay I opened with, “nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
For the purposes of this discussion, I also want to focus on the kind of transformation that has to happen, that IS happening, at the level of our social consciousness, where anti-blackness is so deeply lodged, justifying the forms of inequity upon which the rest of our structures are built.
(CLICK) Consider an alternative vision, that Black people are “like the pupil of the eye that is dark in color but is a fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.” Now consider this description, which I’m citing from the Baha’i Writings, against the backdrop of the dominant racist discourse of our society, which would even blame Black people for their own Covid-related deaths!
(CLICK) The distinction I’m drawing is between Black PATHOLOGY and Black PERCEPTION, or Vision. Of course, Blackness doesn’t magically confer perception, as we see when Black elites denigrate poor Black people as a form of pre-pandemic social distancing. The point is, none of us are “naturally” immune to the dangerous lie that is white supremacy. Or the fiction of Black pathology and inferiority, because it infects every single aspect of our lives.
Which is precisely why the designation of Black people as the Pupil of the Eye is potentially transformative! Baha’u’llah did not encourage people to IGNORE race and pretend to be COLORBLIND. As Professor of Literature Derik Smith explains, Quote: “Through His pupil of the eye metaphor, which adamantly centers Black life in the figurative body of humanity, Bahá’u’lláh acted as social Physician, prescribing a spiritual and social concept that must be regarded as something more than a gesture of comfort or solace for a historically burdened people.” Smith writes,
Bahá’u’lláh’s specific and explicit refutation of one of modernity’s most hateful and divisive social ideologies is an instructive prescription addressed to all humanity. Surely, the condition of oneness that is global society’s highest and most urgent aspiration is impossible without the universal internalization of the medicine that Bahá’u’lláh has loaded into the “pupil of the eye” metaphor.”
So, what does this internalization look and feel like practically? For starters, it moves beyond platitudes about “loving our neighbor” and “treating everyone the same.” This kind of lip service does not simply fall short, but it is DANGEROUS when those who benefit from systems of oppression fail to reckon honestly with what plagues us. However, this doesn’t mean that we have to resign ourselves to a somber, joyless pessimism.
(CLICK) Even during this deadly pandemic, there are myriad ways that Black people and communities are engendering justice and joy. Whether we’re talking about all the mutual aid networks working overtime to raise money, deliver groceries, check on neighbors, and the gendered CAREWORK that holds every society together, “essential” but devalued; and those advocating for the release of prisoners who are especially vulnerable at this time, or those workers organizing in warehouses, grocery stores, and the gig economy.
(CLICK) And what about all the de facto music therapy! All the DJs and musicians transporting tens of thousands of people around the globe out of our living rooms onto virtual dance floors. From the spirituals, blues, jazz, and hip-hop, Black communities have always harnessed the therapeutic power of art. Channeling the willfulness of Baldwin and the stubbornness of Lorde that we started with because… JOY is not just something to feel, but something to DO.
(CLICK) Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness…”
So if racism distorts our vision, then perhaps joy is one way of clarifying it, helping us to discern what we want to KEEP and what we must LET GO OF, as individuals, as societies, as we move through this portal.
(CLICK) And finally, speaking of “letting go,” if you’ve made it this far, please consider making a donation, however small, to the NYC Black Folk Mutual Aid Fund, organized by BYP 100, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Decrim NY. And please look out for a more developed version of this talk in book form, in the months to come. Thank you for listening!