Why white men in America are refusing to wear masks
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Why white men in America are refusing to wear masks

President Donald Trump did not wear a face mask while touring a Honeywell International Inc. factory on May 5, 2020, in Phoenix. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

What Trump’s refusal to wear a mask says about white masculinity in this country.

When reporter BrieAnna Frank showed up to a Honeywell plant last week in Arizona to cover President Donald Trump’s visit, she was sure to wear a mask.

Masks were the reason the president was there: The former aerospace plant in Phoenix has pivoted to producing them in recent months amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

But the dozen or so people who had gathered outside the facility to cheer on the president were not there to support masks. They had their faces uncovered, Frank told Vox.

As she approached members of the crowd to interview them, the conversation quickly got heated. “They started to yell that me and the other journalists there were trying to incite fear and panic and paranoia” by wearing masks, said Frank, who works for the Arizona Republic.

One man in particular seemed to take issue with the male journalists wearing masks, she recalled. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak,” he said, “especially for men.”

“I felt that it was a statement that people should know about,” said Frank, whose tweets about the encounter went viral. To the crowd in front of the factory, she said, “Masks clearly symbolized something beyond, ‘I am trying to protect my health.’”

They’re not alone. Trump himself declined to wear a mask while being photographed at the plant, though he claims he wore one “backstage.” Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for failing to wear a mask during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in April. And when armed protesters showed up at the Michigan State House on April 30 to protest stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, many were mask-free. One shouting, bare-faced man who was photographed at the rally later said he was “not at all” worried about the virus and would never wear a mask — “ever.”

Since the pandemic began, the issue of wearing masks has further exposed America’s racial and gender prejudices. Earlier on, wearing masks was associated with Asian countries and often dismissed because of racist assumptions about those countries. Then, as many cities began to require residents to wear masks, police began targeting black men for covering their faces, profiling them as criminals rather than as people trying to abide by health guidelines. And for a certain subset of mostly white, conservative men, not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of manliness.

For unmasked protesters like the ones in Michigan, “There’s an assumption of a kind of invincibility that is tied to this idea of white masculinity,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, told Vox.

It’s not just men — Frank noticed many women among the unmasked Trump supporters gathered at the Honeywell plant. And, of course, many men are happy to follow the CDC’s recommendation to cover their faces in public. Still, a narrative has emerged on the right that wearing a mask is weak and refusing to wear one is somehow strong. And that narrative could put everyone at risk.

“One thing about [being] macho is being fearless,” Melanye Price, a political science professor at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox. “But that fearlessness comes at a cost for every single person around you.”

The CDC recommends masks. Not everyone is listening.

Long before the pandemic hit, masks were common in East Asian countries, where they’re were seen as a simple way to protect oneself and others from disease, as Connie Wang writes at Refinery29. Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, started requiring them in January. The US was much slower to recommend masks for the general public, but in early April, with case counts of the virus jumping by the day, the CDC recommended that everyone wear a cloth mask in certain public settings. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, began making the masks mandatory in certain settings as well.

Like much about the novel coronavirus, the impact of mask use on transmission isn’t entirely clear. But experts believe that even cloth masks may offer some degree of protection for wearers — and perhaps greater protection for those around them. The virus seems to spread when germ-containing droplets travel from one person to another, as Vox’s German Lopez reports, and “masks stop people from spreading their own droplets.” That’s why if everyone wears a mask — including those who are asymptomatic, but who may still be carrying the virus — it could help halt the spread of Covid.

 Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
People wearing face masks wait in line to receive food in Queens, New York, on May 11.

Most Americans appear to be on board with the CDC’s recommendation. In a Morning Consult poll conducted from April 7-9, 72 percent of respondents said they planned to start wearing a mask in public places over the next two weeks.

Others, however, have chafed at the CDC’s advice. As people around the country protest their state’s shelter-in-place orders, many have appeared in public without masks. The Michigan protesters were one example. The state has been a hotbed of resistance to social-distancing restrictions — resistance encouraged by Trump with his tweets about “liberating” Michigan and other states. And on April 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state capitol in Lansing, some of them armed and many of them eschewing masks and standing close together in violation of social-distancing guidelines, according to Reuters.

One of the mask-less protesters was Brian Cash, who was photographed shouting during the event. He later told the Detroit Free Press that he believes the coronavirus was released by the Chinese government, and that social-distancing restrictions are useless because people still go to grocery stores and pharmacies, “so what is the point of staying at home?”

This resistance to masks also has support in the Trump administration. Pence, the head of the federal government’s coronavirus response, said he did not wear a mask when touring the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota because he is tested for Covid regularly. He later back-pedaled, saying he should have covered his face. But on Friday, Pence showed up to two events in Iowa without a mask, even though his press secretary had recently tested positive for the disease, according to the Intercept. At one event, CEOs were even asked to remove their own masks before appearing onstage with Pence.

Trump, meanwhile, has consistently appeared in public without a mask. After he was photographed without one at the Honeywell plant in Arizona, he said he had been wearing one “backstage” before the photo opp.

“But they said you didn’t need it, so, I didn’t need it,” he went on. “And by the way, if you noticed, nobody else had it on that was in the group.”

But after aides tested positive for the virus last week, officials will now be asked to wear masks on the White House grounds, according to the Washington Post. Trump, however, is still unlikely to wear a mask himself, aides say.

For Trump, not wearing a mask be a way to project masculinity

The Trump administration’s behavior around masks has gendered overtones. For Trump and Pence, not wearing a mask may be a way to project a macho image, Metzl said, playing into “tropes of indestructibility.”

“Appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,writes social science professor Peter Glick at Scientific American. “Defying experts’ warnings about personal danger signals ‘I’m a tough guy, bring it on.’”

Trump’s messaging has also helped promote ignoring the risks of coronavirus as the tough or strong thing to do. Despite the warnings of public health experts about the dangers of reopening the country too early, he said during his appearance at the Honeywell plant that “the people of our country should think of themselves as warriors,” because “our country has to open.”

 Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Trump’s militaristic, tough-guy messaging around masks may be encouraging people to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus.

Such militaristic, tough-guy messaging, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, may encourage ordinary people — especially men — to minimize the risk of coronavirus for the sake appearing manly.

While the refusal to wear masks isn’t an exclusively male phenomenon — a Michigan woman was arrested last month after police said she attacked a grocery store employee who told her to leave because she wasn’t wearing a mask — there is some evidence that men may have viewed mask recommendations with more skepticism than women. In the April Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of women said they planned to wear a face mask in public over the next two weeks, compared with 67 percent of men.

And while Trump’s narrative around the virus may be reinforcing gender stereotypes, the issue of masks is revealing Americans’ racial biases as well. While white men have been able to appear in public without masks — and with guns — as part of a protest, black men have been targeted by police both for wearing and for not wearing masks. In Philadelphia, police officers were caught on video forcibly removing a black man from a bus for not covering his face, just a day after the city required it, Fabiola Cineas writes at Vox. And a police officer in Miami arrested and handcuffed Armen Henderson, a black doctor who tests homeless patients for Covid-19, while he was wearing a mask and moving equipment.

Black Americans often have to engage in “social signaling” to make white people feel comfortable in public spaces, said Price, the political science professor. “You say good morning first, you smile first,” she said. “None of that can be done with masks.”

White people already often perceive black people as dangerous or not belonging in public places, Price said. “But a black body with a mask is something that somehow expresses even more danger.”

For white protesters like those in Michigan, meanwhile, not wearing a mask may signal a kind of immunity from danger — or at least a perceived immunity. As white Americans, they were unlikely to face the same kind of police brutality that black people have faced when they engage in protest. “Imagine 10 black men and rifles walking up to any state capitol in the United States,” Price said. “They would be shot before they ever made it up the steps.”

But congregating in crowds without masks is also a statement of perceived immunity from the virus, Metzl said. The unmasked protesters seemed to be sending the message that “nothing’s going to happen to me because of my whiteness,” he explained. “If you thought you were really going to get the coronavirus, you wouldn’t act like that.”

The fact that black and Latinx Americans have been disproportionately likely to become infected and die from the virus in many communities may be influencing such attitudes. “I think for a lot of the country, people feel like this is something that’s happening to someone else,” Metzl said.

But people who refuse to wear masks may be putting others, not just themselves, at risk

Obviously, the feeling of invincibility that leads protesters to avoid masks could backfire if they get sick. Pence and Trump may also find themselves rethinking their stance in the coming days since White House officials have tested positive — Pence himself is reportedly keeping distance from Trump and other staffers to avoid potentially exposing them.

But some say the especially disturbing thing about refusing to wear a mask is that, while it may seem like an expression of toughness, it actually increases the risk to others more than to oneself. While some may feel that not wearing a mask expresses their own invincibility, “you could also think about this in terms of all the other people you’re putting at risk by not wearing a mask,” Metzl said — your family, friends, colleagues, the rest of society. The failure to wear one is “symbolic of a kind of loss of a bigger common sense of responsibility to each other.”

 Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images
People protest against Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order outside the State Capitol in Olympia, Washington, on May 9.

Remedying that loss is not going to be as simple as sending the message that “tough guys wear masks,” Metzl said (although Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri has suggested “Masks For Him” — tagline: “We put the ‘mask’ in ‘toxic maskulinity’”). Rather, the country has to look at what the current mask debate says about racism and other prejudices. “What we need is a much more concerted effort to address the bigger issues that are represented by masks.”

For the Arizona Republic’s Frank, the confrontation over masks outside of the Honeywell plant is also part of a wider narrative around the virus. She recalled another incident in which a female reporter was accosted, this time by a woman, for wearing a mask. “I do think that what happened to all of us out there in the field on Tuesday is indicative of a larger issue” with how masks are seen, Frank said.

But for her, wearing a mask is about one thing: public health. Frank lives with her mother, a nurse who treats Covid-19 patients. “I try to be really careful,” she told the people gathered outside the plant. “I try to protect myself and those around me.”

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