Mask Politics OR How Racism nurtures the Attention Economy
by Silvia Lindtner
The other day my Chinese partner and I went for a bicycle ride. We both enjoy biking and with gyms closed, it seemed like a good way to stay active, especially now that the weather in Ann Arbor is finally better. That day we tried out a new route through a hilly neighborhood above the Huron river. The winding road opens up frequently with gorgeous views over the river and surrounding forests. At one point, we passed a golf course that I didn’t know existed. The establishment is located on top of a hill with nice views. Out of breath, I rode past the manicured golf landscape, and was surprised to see it quite populated, mostly men, but not all white. Nobody was wearing a mask. Golf and wealth must be its own form of protection, I remember thinking.
My partner was already a bit ahead of me, making his way down the hill. I had a bicycle accident in Ann Arbor two years ago when I made my way down a hill and noticed too late, coming around a corner, the construction site that had no signage to warn bicyclists what is harmless to a car – several fairly deep and narrow openings in the road. My front wheel got caught and the bike flipped over. No broken bones, luckily, but some inner scars left for sure. Ever since, when I ride downhill, I struggle with a fair amount of fear creeping up, a voice telling me that accelerating downhill means danger. I was almost down the hill. The street now a dirt road. In the near distance, I see my partner waiting for me before crossing the bridge over the river. I see a white guy on a bike passing him, making his way towards me. I see how the man is gesturing and hear yelling, but can’t make out what is being said. As I pass him, he stares at me in an odd way. My eyes glued to the road to make sure I don’t overlook any creeping holes, I don’t pay him much attention. Finally at the bridge, my partner seems distraught. “Was this guy saying something?” I ask. “He didn’t like that I was wearing a mask,” my partner explained. “He told me, well he kinda yelled at me, ‘There is no virus here! There is no virus here!’ and kept pointing at my mask. I didn’t know what to say.”
I was angry. Angry with myself for arriving late at the scene. I could have intervened. The white woman should be able to convince the white guy to see the world differently, right? He would have to listen… Then, my anger gave way to some other less powerful feeling. I would have likely been just as speechless as my partner, I thought to myself. This is how racists get away with it. Argh! I pictured the guy arriving at home, telling his kids how sad he felt for the Asian guy with the mask, who gave up his freedom, who didn’t care to fight for freedom like he, the American, always would. He had shown the Asian guy what freedom meant in America, he would proudly exclaim, his children looking up to him with admiration. My anger resurfaced. At least, the feeling of anger was better than this other feeling of… inevitability.
Still angry when we got home, I posted about the incident on Facebook. The post got a lot of likes (and angry emoticons) and support from friends who decried the man’s racist behavior. It made me feel a bit better. A little later I felt worse again. Who was this facebook post for? My partner is not on social media (something i admire and still can’t get myself to do). While I shared with him the outpouring love from friends, the act of posting itself suddenly felt terrible. Most of my Facebook posts get very little attention. The amount of labor necessary to turn Facebook’s algorithms favorable towards you – to become something like an influencer in your respective social network bubble was not something I had been willing to commit. But, this post seemed attention worthy to Facebook. A post about a racist white guy got me attention. My anger had become productively channeled for Facebook’s attention economy. I later pondered how much money Facebook had made off me that day.
I am gonna go off Facebook for a while, I promised myself. There are other, better ways of finding solidarity, I told myself.
A day later, I was back on.