Our Masks, Our Selves

2003 was a turning point nationally and globally, a time when SARS raged in Vancouver, Toronto, and parts of East and Southeast Asia. It was also a personal turning point for me. This was the year I completed my doctorate in California and moved back to Toronto in the waning days of the outbreak. Though panic had dissipated, fear lingered. At my graduation ceremony, friends gave me a medical mask. In the front part covering the mouth, crooked block letters handwritten with a Sharpie spelled out the label: SARS.

My friends’ gag gift to mark my passage from Berkeley to Toronto was odd but also fitting. The mask is a boundary technology that separates us from others. I took their joke to mean there was no going back to these friendships or to life as it had been. As I posed for the camera, academic robes flowing, mask dangling by elastic straps, I wondered, what did my friends see? The SARS outbreak prompted me to reflect on what the mask revealed and concealed about bodies and communities brought together and split apart by disease, suffering, death, and survival. In my first book, I wrote about the mask as “Sino-sign,” a racializing discourse of anti-Asian sentiment that seethed beneath the civil veneer of Canadian multiculturalism. Often worn in Asia to filter pollution, the mask became one of the most visible emblems of the SARS crisis. I sought to understand how the mask accrued meaning in excess of its utilitarian function of reducing the spread of contagion. I wanted to make sense of its “stickiness,” to invoke Sara Ahmed’s term, to grasp why the mask’s stigmatizing mark attached to some bodies more than to others.

I was moved to write about the mask for another personal reason. Around the time that I was preparing for my move, Tecla Lin, my husband’s mother, died after several months on a ventilator. She was one of two Asian Canadian nurses in Toronto who succumbed to illness after treating SARS patients. In subsequent reports, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario highlighted the increased risk that care workers faced, in part as a result of poorly fitting masks and inadequate personal protective equipment. As numerous critics point out, outbreaks expose systemic inequities, not least because people of colour are more likely to work in underpaid and underresourced service industries and so are exposed to disproportionately greater risk of infection. Dominant narratives about contagion also betray latent and overt Sinophobia, evident in the frequency of attacks—verbal, physical, and political—on Chinese and other Asian bodies as sources and vectors of disease. Aggie J. Yellow Horse, Karen Leong, and Karen Kuo describe this phenomenon as “viral racisms” (316).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the mask has re-emerged as a sign of our times. In this pandemic, Sinophobia is palpable in the moral panic evinced about primitive tastes and backward practices, unhygienic conditions at foreign wet markets, and unseemly appetites for exotic animals. Sinophobia is also the force that animates conspiracy theories, which blame China for concocting the novel coronavirus with the intention of unleashing it upon the world—theories that have gone viral despite efforts to debunk
them. Put simply, the latest form of Sinophobia in this pandemic combines classic Yellow Peril yarns with the far-fetched fantasies of techno-orientalism, according to cultural critics Lok Siu and Claire Chun. Because it obscures the face, the mask fits all too easily into Yellow Peril stereotypes about Asian inscrutability. Moreover, the sedimented prejudices of Sinophobia dovetail with classic orientalism. In Quebec, although masks are now, at the time of my writing, mandatory in indoor public spaces and businesses, Bill 21 still stands, and so the province continues to prohibit display of religious symbols (including face coverings like the niqab and burqa) by public sector workers in workspaces. Quebec’s inconsistent laws on masking betray paternalistic fears about oriental despotism.

My work on visual culture centres the question of visuality, what becomes knowable and what is concealed when an object or social practice is made visible. The question of visuality is especially fraught when it comes to the SARS outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic, when the very cause of contagion is invisible to the human eye and when social distancing entails that we see, love, and live digitally, through screens. Novel diseases are terrifying in part because of the epistemological uncertainty they provoke. As Black Canadian artist Michèle Pearson Clarke astutely observes, “We can’t photograph this virus, which perhaps makes it more threatening for some folks.”

Perhaps to compensate for this threat, media reports are accompanied by artistic renderings of the coronavirus as spiky crimson orbs glowing ominously—rather unlike the unspectacular blobs revealed by electron microscopes. Epistemological uncertainty might also account for why Elaine Whittaker’s photographic series Screened For (2015) resonates so poignantly. The series features selfies of the Toronto-based artist wearing masks adorned with hand-painted illustrations of the most contagious infectious diseases of our time. While we may not be able to photograph the virus, Whittaker’s selfies show glimpses of something else, formless forms that are abstract, strange, and striking. Plains Cree artist Ruth Cuthand grapples with the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous bodies. Her Surviving: COVID-19 features a mask embellished with elaborate, colourful glass beadwork in the shape of the coronavirus, bringing to the mask’s textile surface a history laden with the viral racisms that target Indigenous peoples. Similarly inspired, Métis artists Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd started a Facebook group, “Breathe,” to spotlight, as the site explains, “a collection of traditionally crafted masks demonstrating resiliency through 21st century pandemic” (“Breathe”). The creation of online communities of self-expression, in the form of the selfie and through Facebook groups, provides potent counter-images that oppose viral racisms.

Since I began writing about the mask years ago, I have become more and more struck by the incongruity between its persistent significations and its flexibility as a metaphor. On the one hand, there is the mask’s undeniably “sticky” evocation of Yellow Peril stereotypes, its viral racisms. On the other hand, the mask’s meanings have become increasingly malleable. Whittaker, Cuthand, Bertin, and Shepherd are just a few of the many artists whose embellished masks seek to make new statements about past and current racism, ongoing precarity, and continued survival, despite these separations.

Artists are not the only ones who wish to see and say something different about masks. When free templates and instructions for making DIY masks began circulating on social media, it was hard not to get swept up in the can-do spirit of enterprise. Although I take contrarian pride in my inability to sew, I admired such resourcefulness, a reminder that anyone could, in the face of the unknown, accomplish, if they wished, at least one task, one stitch at a time. I started receiving homemade masks as gifts from my neighbour’s kid, from my mother (who is only slightly better than me with needle and thread), and from my husband’s stepmother, who delivered dozens and dozens of hand-sewn masks in many varied patterns. These earnest gestures were akin to, but worlds apart from, the ironies of my friends’ long-ago goodbye present. At the same time, as cultural critic Minh-Ha T. Pham cautions, celebrations of mask-making as “quarantine feminism” obscure further inequities. Exploited garment workers, who toil in unsafe conditions to ensure the smooth transition—or, in pandemic parlance, pivoting—of the fashion industry, are denied the very masks they labour to produce. By no means invisible, these systems of exploitation are largely overlooked.

In this current pandemic, even more so than during SARS, our masks tell us stories about ourselves, about what we share as we hold fast to hope in the midst of fear. With SARS, masks seemed to ostracize, setting apart their wearers as potential bearers of infection, communities bounded by fear. With COVID-19, a disease with asymptomatic carriers, the mask perhaps conjures a new—if still imperfect—notion of community, bounded by a common desire to protect each other.

Whether we are makers or wearers of masks, or both, many of us seek to shape our own meanings, to see and say something witty, fashionable, beautiful, and uniquely our own through our masks, while for many others the mask marks further exploitation. Even those who refuse to wear masks contribute to this clamour, stridently embracing individual rights over collective responsibility. Because we can see masks—at a time when we cannot, should not, see most of our friends and much of our family—this boundary technology seems an apt emblem of intimate insurmountability, how close and yet how far we are from each other.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, 2004.

“Breathe.” Facebook, 6 Apr. 2020, www.facebook.com/groups/856750661403515/. Accessed
6 Apr. 2021.

Clarke, Michèle Pearson [@tophotolaureate]. “As the coronavirus draws nearer and nearer
to us all. . . .” Instagram, 8 Mar. 2020, instagram.com/p/B9XCzHEANE/?igshid=1r8szdp
3b5guc. Accessed 1 Jan. 2021.

canadianart.ca/features/canadian-art-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/. Accessed 1 Jan. 2021.

Pham, Minh-Ha T. “‘How to Make a Mask’: Quarantine Feminism and Global Supply
Chains.” Feminist Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, 2020, pp. 316-26.

Phu, Thy. Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture. Temple UP, 2012.

SARS Unmasked: Celebrating Resilience, Exposing Vulnerability. Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, 29 Sept. 2003, rnao.ca/sites/rnao-ca/files/SARS_Unmasked.pdf. Accessed 1 Jan. 2021.

Siu, Lok, and Claire Chun. “Yellow Peril and Techno-Orientalism in the Time of Covid-19: Racialized Contagion, Scientific Espionage, and Techno-Economic Warfare.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, 2020, pp. 421-40.

Yellow Horse, Aggie J., Karen J. Leong, and Karen Kuo. “Introduction: Viral Racisms: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Respond to COVID-19.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, 2020, pp. 313-18.

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