I Cannot Spread Contagion: On Masks, Racism, and Boundaries

I Cannot Spread Contagion: On Masks, Racism, and Boundaries August 1, 2020

Since my husband is a British citizen, we’ve traveled outside the U.S. to see his friends and relations many times. When we have flown into the U.K. or the Republic of Ireland in the past, he goes through the citizens’ line: the rest of us go through the other line, where they question us briefly about the length of our stay and whether it is for business or pleasure. Once (flying into Stansted) they asked me to show my online ticket to prove I was going to go home. (I was.) I don’t know exactly what they do in the citizens’ line, but it doesn’t seem to take very long. We do declare what goods we are bringing, but this usually consists of just wheeling our baggage cart through a green lane, being trusted that if we had anything problematic we would go through the actually-staffed red lane instead.

When we come home, we have to fill out a very long form for the U.S. about where we have been and precisely what we are bringing and how much it costs. (OK, 15 questions, but longer than I have ever filled out for any other country I’ve been to). We are questioned at much more length (remember, this is in the “citizen’s line”); our baggage is sometimes screened again; and once, when my husband told them he’d been hiking on a farm – which he had done about two and a half weeks before we were re-entering the U.S., and he’d walked at least 20 miles since – they cleaned his shoes.

I think it was after the shoe-cleaning incident that I began to understand that some of this was not simply motivated by security; it was motivated by a ideology. Since I study and write about American history for a living, it didn’t take too long to identify the idea behind the ideology: the concept that, as a nation, America maintains its purity by maintaining impermeable boundaries, and only letting in things that are certified contagion-free. White Americans are not used to being viewed as a source of contagion. We will go to great lengths to not view ourselves this way. I have read many household manuals from the nineteenth century and studied them in conjunction with explicitly eugenic literature of the era. You can trust me on this.

Which brings me to masks.

The science is still in flux (because science is in flux this early in a pandemic, people; the scientists are not jerking us around as part of some vast conspiracy), but it seems clear right now that masks are most valuable, not by protecting us from the other people who might possibly pollute us, but by protecting from us the people we might pollute. And there is nothing that could be calculated to make the exact subset of American citizens who are mad about having to wear a mask madder than being told they might be a source of contagion. We will scrub our mail all day, because that’s a contagion coming in; it’s something we choose to let through our neighborhood gates and our locked doors and our border walls. We will go absolutely ballistic if we think of ourselves as a site for germs to flow out.

That applies whether the contagion is COVID-19 or years of structural racism baked right into the WASP apple pie. For the record.

But anyway, Edwin has really clean shoes now.

Image: Unsplash

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