Pandemic Racial Visions1
The global pandemic poses a visual problem. Imperceptible to the naked eye and transmitted through small particles and droplets in the air, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is represented in public health, science, and news media via electron microscopic imaging, maps, animal vectors, and other iconography that narrativize “the uncertainty of an invisible threat” (Ostherr 708). These figurations of the invisible pathogen, especially seen in global maps that chart how COVID-19 spread to the Global North from a raced elsewhere, produce what Kirsten Ostherr calls a “narrative logic of causality” that underlies racist and xenophobic discourses of contagion (708, 713). Such racist logics of causality materialize in brutally appropriative ways, seen in the staggering increase of reported anti-Asian violence in Canada2 and the US, and in the use of these statistics to justify
calls for increased policing in communities made most vulnerable under the carceral state.
Journalistic coverage and government messaging around COVID-19 reflect the idea that the virus “does not see race” and only sees our networks, which at once places the onus of public health on the individual and implies that transmission traces the structural. It is increasingly clear that we cannot understand biological contagion outside of the political and the social, as the pandemic’s toll continues to fall unevenly across racial and class lines. The Canadian government reports that the rate of COVID-19 cases among First Nations people living on a reserve is 183% higher than the rate for the rest of the population in Canada, and data collected by the City of Toronto, which is one of only a few public health units in Canada collecting race-based information, indicates that Black people and other people of colour comprise 83% of reported cases as of July 2020 (“Confirmed Cases”; Cheung). The gaps in data collection are also framed through the (non)metaphor of sight. For instance, a CBC News article on the lack of race-based data collection across Canada published at the onset of the outbreak begins with the question: “How do you solve a problem you can’t see?” (Nasser).
But the idea that COVID-19’s race problem is merely a visual problem assumes that the solution is for the state to see better. Not only is augmented vision—seeing the racialized body more clearly—central to logics of state surveillance and biometrics, but it also implies that the numbers emerge neutrally, as if these disparities are not by settler-colonial design. Of course, this debate about race’s visual logics is not a new one. Paul Gilroy notes that while the modern idea of race operated on the scale of the anatomical body, the truths produced from seeing racial difference at this scale have been “left behind” with the introduction of microscopic technologies and regimes, which tend to the molecular (193). While Gilroy argues that screenic mediations render race an “after-image,” Simone Browne, following Frantz Fanon, complicates such a shift by arguing that biometrics, as a “technology of measuring the living body,” entails processes of racialization or “digital epidermalization” that make certain bodies ontologically insecure (134). Race, after all, has historically negotiated the invisible and visible—or, as Wendy Chun puts it, race is mediation, “a vehicle for revelation” (14). In COVID-19 discourse, the pandemic is made to “reveal” a lot, namely pre-existing structural inequities and the ongoing conditions of global capitalism produced by Empire. Yet, many of us already know the truth of these realities. What, then, does the pandemic show us about how race reveals?
The authors in this forum respond to these tensions of revelation in their critical reflections on emerging COVID-19 visual cultures from perspectives in critical race, migration, gender, public health, and media studies. Written by scholars, an artist, and an art programmer based in Canada and the US, these essays examine the shifting significations and metaphors of the medical face mask, border securitization and visual discourses of bordering, the role of social media in shaping pandemic conditions, and artistic productions and practices that explore the risks and pleasures of mediated racial touch in a time of contagion. This forum emerged out of a series of conversations that began as virtual panels in 2020, including a public roundtable, titled “COVID-19 Vulnerabilities: Asian Racialization, Coalition, and Creativity,” that brought together community organizers, artists, and scholars located in North America and Asia, as well as artists’ conversations and screenings of Seoul-based web art duo YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES’ recent artworks, CHARLIE CHAN AND THE YELLOW PERIL and GUNS ‘N ASIANS. With a focus on Asian and Asian North American racialization, cultural production, and migration, this collection of essays moves beyond the question, “How do you solve a problem you can’t see?” and instead attends to the inquiry: How does COVID-19 engender ways of seeing and not seeing racially?
1 I am grateful for amanda wan’s edits on this forum.
2 According to one study, major cities in Canada are seeing a six to seven hundred per cent
increase in reported anti-Asian attacks in 2021 from the previous year (Liu).
Browne, Simone. “Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics.” Critical
Sociology, vol. 36, no. 1, 2010, pp. 131-50.
Cheung, Jessica. “Black People and Other People of Colour Make Up 83% of Reported
COVID-19 Cases in Toronto.” CBC News, 30 July 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/
toronto/toronto-covid-19-data-1.5669091. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things
to Race.” Camera Obscura, vol. 24, no. 1, 2009, pp. 7-35.
“Confirmed Cases of COVID-19.” Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Indigenous Communities,
Indigenous Services Canada, 22 Mar. 2021, sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1598625105013/
1598625167707. Accessed 20 Mar. 2021.
Gilroy, Paul. “Scales and Eyes: ‘Race’ Making Difference.” The Eight Technologies of
Otherness, edited by Sue Golding, Routledge, 1997, pp. 190-96.
Liu, Stephanie. “Reports of Anti-Asian Hate Crimes are Surging in Canada during
the COVID-19 Pandemic.” CTV News, 18 Mar. 2021, www.ctvnews.ca/canada/
pandemic-1.5351481. Accessed 22 Mar. 2021.
Nasser, Shanifa. “Early Signs Suggest Race Matters When It Comes to COVID-19. So Why
Isn’t Canada Collecting Race-Based Data?” CBC News, 17 Apr. 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/
canada/toronto/race-coronavirus-canada-1.5536168. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.
Ostherr, Kirsten. “How Do We See COVID-19? Visual Iconographies of Racial
Contagion.” American Literature, vol. 92, no. 4, 2020, pp. 707-22.
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