Last weekend I was very uncomfortable during a Saturday Night Live sketch in which the one Asian guy in the cast was put in the role of being China’s corrupt health minister talking about the coronavirus. Then I read that UC Berkeley had created a scandal because they said that “xenophobia” was a natural result of the coronavirus hysteria. So I wanted to reflect on the hysteria around this virus because something feels very white about it.
It may be that I just have a very specific vantage point being born into a family of doctors and growing up in a spotless household, but there seems to be something about whiteness that feeds off of hysteria about germs (and people who eat bats with their chopsticks and people who poop into holes in the ground rather than white porcelain toilets, etc).
When I say whiteness, I’m not talking about skin color; I’m talking about a collective neurosis that makes certain ones of us look for a very specific kind of neighborhood when we’re moving without being aware of the intangible categorizations that are continuously happening in our mind. I’m talking about a hypervigilance for safety and cleanliness that feels disproportionate to the actual threats in the world but seems to consume so many white people. I know it’s not all white people; it’s a very specific sub-population that is defined not only by our wealth and privilege but also by a cultural scientific worldview which divides the world between safe, sterile environments and places of risk for infection (like rusty seesaws, outhouses, open air markets that don’t wrap food in plastic, any house whose grass isn’t mowed regularly, floors that are a little bit sticky or stained, etc).
There’s an anxiety that relishes its own frenzy at the heart of whiteness. Sometimes the purity hysteria is explicitly racialized, like the obsessive fear in the segregationist era that a black boy would climb into a white girl’s bedroom window at night and leave his germs inside of her. I’m convinced that the segregationist obsession with the purity of “white womanhood” is the sublimated core of “family values” today.
But it’s not just “family values” people who are afflicted by the neurosis about safety and cleanliness. I also see this neurosis articulate itself in an analogous manner among the white progressive woketivists who understand activism primarily as a question of being untainted and disowning anyone who seems like they’re “infected” with one of the -isms. It’s interesting (though unsurprising) that black women have become the scapegoated purveyors of “cancel culture,” because the most radical black women that I’m close to are adamantly opposed to disposing of anybody. There’s a tremendous difference between speaking out about ugly truths in a way that punctures the veneer of niceness in a community and dissociating from impure people in order to remain pure.
I understand that some people reading this will be too offended to hear anything constructive. But whether I’m off-base in my unproveable assertions about whiteness or not, there is nothing useful to be gained from hypervigilance about another country’s health system. Whatever corruption exists in China’s response to the coronavirus, it’s pornographically destructive for white people to ruminate about it.
We can and should do the best we can to stay healthy. Hysteria is not healthy. If somehow the coronavirus becomes a global pandemic that kills millions of people, it will not be because there wasn’t enough hysteria to stop it. In fact, I would hypothesize that the hysteria of people who think they are entitled to live in a germ-free world results in ideologies that cause more death globally than any particular virus. So if there are practical policy solutions that need to be implemented to protect people, great! Putting your energy into that seems like a more mature response than wringing your hands about the “germs” from “corrupt China.”