White Voice (Un)Masked

A few years ago, when my father started losing his hearing, he flatly denied what was painfully obvious to the rest of us. My hearing is fine, he’d grumble defiantly. I just choose not to listen. Able-bodied but elderly, Dad liked the distinction because it theorized a gap between functional decline and heroic self-control. Hearing loss meant weakness and helplessness, the afflictions of old age, but a “listening problem,” as he jokingly called it, conveyed agency and intentionality, the right to not pay attention. A world of difference opened up in this convenient turn of phrase.  

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my father’s listening problem, especially when I head out for groceries. As I write this, my home state of Illinois is entering the next phase of reopening. Fitness clubs spray down long-neglected equipment. Bars and restaurants recalculate for maximum capacity. At Kroger and Aldi, where I do most of my biweekly shopping, the masked and the unmasked comingle without incident—and I don’t know what to make of that.  

Not too long ago, when the anti-mask rebellion started, I looked on in bemused horror as mostly white male US Americans, some of them armed, exercised their presumed right to not pay attention. At first, the gesture seemed counterintuitive, given the long history of mask bravado in popular culture. Batman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger—cool and anonymous in their heroics, maybe most cool because anonymous, with secret identities hidden behind the mask. 

One obvious difference is that the Lone Ranger and other pop crusaders fashion their cool through facial accent, drawing the mask around the eyes to both obscure identity and highlight the hero’s unique, enigmatic character. Nose and mouth coverings, by contrast, abandon noble distinction for the sake of a different kind of anonymity, rendering the wearer not only nameless but common, one among many, lost in the crowd. 

And muffled, muzzled, deprived of unfettered speech. 

On the surface, the “pro-freedom” renegades seemed most upset about restrictions on movement, but that affront to boundless voice clearly rankled as well. For some, it wasn’t enough to go maskless in public, to breathe freely wherever they wanted. A few had to call out those “sheeple” in masks (at Costco, Walmart, etc.) for their weak-kneed capitulation to state authority. Worse than a government mandate, evidently, was having to witness the active compliance of those who chose to give a shit about other people.  

“In all facets men have actively overcompensated for their insecurities,” Jared Yates Sexton writes in The Man They Wanted Me to Be, “so much so that they have endangered themselves, the people they love, and their society as a whole.” Or as Jonathan Metzl points out in Dying of Whiteness, many white people, men especially, reject notions of “inclusion and common gain” in favor of “narratives of suspicion, disdain, and rejection,” betting their lives on “particular sets of meanings associated with whiteness, even in the face of clear threats to mortality or to common sense.”

The white male body that exists and speaks—and shops and wears a mask (or doesn’t)—can also wield a gun, and kneel, and kill, as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin proved when he crushed the life out of George Floyd.

North Dakota governor Doug Burgum was among those who took a more commonsense approach when he denounced the “senseless dividing line” separating the masked and the unmasked. Speaking to reporters, Burgum fought back tears as he urged North Dakotans to “dial up” the empathy and dial back the nastiness. Mask wearers, he said, aren’t trying “to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support.” Rather, they may have vulnerable adults at home or a sick child “going through cancer treatments.” We’re all in this together, the governor pleaded, fighting just one battle: the “battle of the virus.” 

A timely, thoughtful message, but what really got me were the tears—the all-too-human reaction of an elected official stuck between sensible public health policy and the rabid “disdain” of politicized white masculinity. The red-state governor seemed to know full well what he was up against: Wearing a mask in public required humility and empathy, for some a small dose of courage. But for a lot of men, in North Dakota and elsewhere, humility and empathy are synonyms for weakness, the opposite of courage. Empathy is also “one of the traits that women are most famous for,” as comedian Hannah Gadsby remarks in a 2019 GQ article, “Voices of the New Masculinity,” and to be a man, “you have to be the furthest away from being a woman that you possibly can.” 

In the same GQ feature, author and amateur boxer Thomas Page McBee highlights the power of white male voice when he writes of his post-transition experience quieting a roomful of journalists “just by speaking.” Before testosterone, he’d felt “gangly and pubescent” in his thirty-year-old body, but his new, deeper voice seemed to elicit an “unconscious response” in his listeners. “Whenever I spoke, they swiveled toward me. They listened keenly and with such focus on my mouth, I became self-conscious.” 

In that moment, McBee realized how “disturbingly powerful” he was, simply by existing in a “white man’s body.”

*     *     *

Our work here is unyielding, but at the height of the action, we scrolled through our newsfeeds feeling frustrated and guilty for not being there, for not doing our part.

The white male body that exists and speaks—and shops and wears a mask (or doesn’t)—can also wield a gun, and kneel, and kill, as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin proved when he crushed the life out of George Floyd. 

It’s impossible (for me at least) to watch the ten-minute video without wanting to reach through the screen and do something. When seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier posted her clip to Facebook, a flood of comments followed chastising her for failing to do just that. “I don’t expect anyone who wasn’t placed in my position to understand,” Frazier responded, pointing out that she was a minor and in no position to “fight off a cop.” Predictably, and as the video makes clear, no one standing by that day could do much of anything—except plead with the “disturbingly powerful” agents of state power to back off and let the man breathe. 

Later that week, when protests erupted in Minneapolis and elsewhere, a neighbor texted my wife and me to ask if we were out in the streets, protesting.

“We’re at home in solidarity,” we texted back, locking in what felt to me like both an excuse and a statement of purpose. 

I work in Chicago, but, in the summer, my wife and I help manage a small farm about eighty miles west of the city. Our work here is unyielding, but at the height of the action, we scrolled through our newsfeeds feeling frustrated and guilty for not being there, for not doing our part. To show our support, we joined an angry chorus on Facebook and Twitter saying NO to police brutality and the plague of white supremacy. If we couldn’t be there in person, planting our privileged bodies on the front line, the least we could do was speak out, cramming social media with indignant white voice. 

Better than nothing, I assured myself, but as Holiday Phillips writes in FORGE Magazine, while hashtag outrage can sometimes “help spur positive change,” it’s never enough “to dismantle the conditions that made it possible for an innocent black man to be lynched in broad daylight.” White outrage, in particular, can be counterproductive, even deadly, by reinforcing the self-righteous, self-absorbed mindset that substitutes heated self-expression for committed antiracist action, as if I and other aspiring white allies had the power to eradicate white supremacy (in ourselves and others) simply by speaking out loudly against it. 

But my words must count for something, and that something means a lot to me and my (mostly white) friends on Facebook. We come to the table fully vested in our righteous anger despite mounting evidence that structural racism, as Phillips cautions, “doesn’t care about your hashtags and your outrage.” Hence the paradox of even woke white voice: as white noise, it’s just the flipside of white silence, empty rhetoric in search of a quick, painless remedy and, for some, public reassurance that my outraged self is morally okay and therefore not racist.  

There’s a common tendency among white people, Tim Engles writes in Rhetorics of Whiteness, to project “seemingly heartfelt antiracist feelings” in order to shore up their own “goodness” and distance themselves from the most virulent forms of white supremacy. Or as Phillips points out in her analysis of performative allyship, hashtag allies are usually looking for “some kind of reward—on social media, it’s that virtual pat on the back for being a ‘good person’ or ‘on the right side.’” 

One week after the murder of George Floyd, folks in a nearby town did the right thing by organizing a small Black Lives Matter protest. I learned about the action when the vet’s office called to cancel our appointment. One of our cats needed minor attention, but we would have to postpone because someone had “heard reports” of a “scheduled looting” taking place later that day. Dumbfounded, I went online and read that local police, fearing protest mayhem, had issued a statement urging businesses (including big box stores like Walmart) to close early.

“Out of an abundance of caution,” Chief Doug Bernabei stated, noting that he’d based his decision on “numerous social media postings and rumors” about “unlawful actions” taking place in “other communities.” 

Enraged, I went straight to Facebook.

“Sounds like fear-mongering and intimidation to me,” I posted. “Not to mention an excuse for gun-wielding white racists to show up and stoke an aggressive response.”

All those “postings and rumors” came to naught, however, and the protest proceeded without incident. But it felt good to vent my anger like that, to draw a hard line between my antiracist goodness and those lethal, virulent racists in the far reaches of white extremism. In the heat of the moment, I thought my indignation might count for something, that my urgent alert would make a difference. But that’s the problem with white voice, even at its most heartfelt and earnest. At the end of the day, the difference it makes (or wants to make) doesn’t make much difference at all—except, of course, when it does.

*     *     *

White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism.

—Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Amy Cooper, a white woman, had a mask on when she confronted Christian Cooper, a Black man, in Central Park, but she took it off to dial 911. 

“I can’t hear,” she yelled into the phone, distraught. “Please send the cops immediately!”

The next day, Amy Cooper did what a lot of white people do when their racism is caught on camera. “I’m not a racist,” she told CNN. “I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” Nor, she added, did she mean any harm to the African American community.

But harm had been done, and Amy Cooper is still a racist in the way most white people are racist. Like Amy Cooper, we are prone to “false assumptions,” even when we’re the ones “acting inappropriately,” as she wrote in her apology. “He had every right to request that I leash my dog,” Amy Cooper said, but on the day of the incident, in the fog of her outrage, Christian Cooper’s rights didn’t matter to her at all. Instead, Amy Cooper felt the sting of white entitlement challenged, so she lashed out, then she called the police, then she leveraged her voice as a potential hurt machine.  

More telling than her performance in the Ramble, perhaps, was Amy Cooper’s attempt, after the fact, to save face and restore equilibrium. But again, the problem of “white equilibrium” is hardly unique to Amy Cooper, who, like a lot of “good” white people convinced that they’re “free of racism,” found ways to turn a lifetime of “racial comfort” into a half-baked excuse for bad behavior. “I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause,” she stated obliquely, her words both too loaded (pain, race) and too passive (statements, cause) to mean much of anything. 

Behind the words, of course, is white identity fractured—not just the self-described “blessed person” who enjoys, among other things, the “luxury” of relying on the police as a “protection agency,” but the radically split white apologist who “would never have imagined” herself behaving so atrociously. 

To be fair (another luxury), Amy Cooper never denied her wrongdoing. She understood her behavior was indefensible. Nonetheless, she played defense by refusing to accept the mental image of herself acting out in explicitly racist ways. Separating doer from deed, she apologized to “everyone that’s been offended” and “everyone who thinks of [her] in a lower light,” and I’m struck by the way that use of the word “everyone” makes it sound like she’s addressing an audience of disappointed fans. 

In the end, time compresses all the rage, false assumption, inappropriate action, and fateful reaction into a singular dream of post-racist forgiveness, or as Amy Cooper put it, “I hope that a few mortifying seconds in a lifetime of forty years will not define me in his eyes and that he will accept my sincere apology.”

The luxury of a lifetime not defined.

Much has been written (before and after that day in the park) about how deadly the “light” of white outrage can be when it shines on Black bodies. “This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage,” Christian Cooper said in an interview, but he would not “kowtow,” would not “shy away,” because otherwise “the park would be unusable”—not just for birders like him, but for “anybody who enjoys the beauty.”

That “beauty” is what I focus on when I try to imagine a different scene in the Ramble. How differently things would have played out, for example, if Amy Cooper had simply leashed her dog and moved on, maybe a heartfelt “sorry” (mask on) for having broken the rule she knew she’d broken. In the art of nonviolent conflict, it’s called a choice point—the split-second decision to either speak or listen, pay attention or ignore, jump in with a quick reaction or hold back for better understanding. Unfortunately, Amy Cooper chose to jump in with both feet, and when it comes to relational awareness, that choice can mean everything, including, for some, the difference between life and death. 

But I wasn’t there, so what do I know? And who am I to judge, especially as a white man analyzing the action from the safety of my own cocoon? Like “everyone,” I watched the video (several times), and I feel like I do know Amy Cooper and her whiteness in a way that she might recognize me and mine. We don’t use the same words, but we do share the same rhetoric, the same inherited “sets of meanings,” and, when caught in the act, we step forward with the same voice that got us here to make a case for our “goodness” and our right to moral equilibrium. 

It would be foolish, therefore, to argue for balance and goodness now—to use white voice (mine) to try to sidestep the pitfalls and perils of white voice (un)masked. Such efforts always run up against what Robin DiAngelo calls the “dilemma” of recentering white voice in conversations about racism and white supremacy. 

Like DiAngelo, I haven’t found a way around this problem, and that’s a big part of the problem. The way through, perhaps, is to use a better filter, to step back and reconsider my choices, especially in those moments (of benevolent outrage, performative allyship, contagious recentering, etc.) when I could never imagine myself doing any harm. Like a virus, racism feeds on the false assurances of white people who think they’re immune, who think “asymptomatic” means free and clear. But until there’s a cure, the risk of infection remains high, even in the space of just a few mortifying seconds. 

Which is another good reason to wear a mask—to keep what’s moving around inside me from spilling out into the open air.

Bill Marsh is a college professor and weekend beekeeper based in northern Illinois. His essays have appeared in Bayou Magazine, Belt Magazine, Bluestem, Briar Cliff Review, Copper Nickel, and Mud Season Review. He’s been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2019, 2020) and was a finalist (2019) for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. He’s on Twitter @prof_bmarsh.