A friend of mine from a writer’s group had to go to the post office. Here in Nashville, it often falls on customers to enforce social distancing guidelines for their own health. My friend got into the line, and a woman came up behind her, unmasked, practically breathing down her neck. My friend asked her to back up, and the woman did so, but not without an argument that sprayed her breath all over my friend who couldn’t get away fast enough without losing her place in line.
My friend is gutsy, so she asked the woman her name. The woman declined to give it to her, so my friend made a note of the car the woman had gotten out of, and the woman asked why. My friend said that she wanted to have a complete list to give doctors for when she catches Corona and the doctors ask her to do contact tracing to see who she caught it from or may have given it to. The woman seethed from a distance until they got to the counter.
I’m incredibly proud of my friend. Keeping yourself safe from Covid-19 and preventing the spread depends on people rigorously enforcing social distancing and keeping track of everyone from whom they were unable to distance. Doing so means that they will have to break social norms and stop being the people who make others “feel” good. They’re going to have to be rude.
My friend’s story wasn’t a triumphant story, though. She was expressing her fears that this emotionally unregulated, unmasked woman (unmasked has become the new MAGA hat down here in the South) might have been carrying a concealed firearm. She was afraid that she had made herself a target for insisting on the right to not be infected with a virus that could kill her and the people she works with in the midst of a pandemic.
This was particularly hard on my friend because she is a woman who is a careworker. This means that her entire life, she has navigated social structures that demand that she prioritize the comfort of others over her own needs in social settings, and she has made a career out of the skills that come from that. In our writer’s group, she is often the peacemaker, and the type of woman who pretends she doesn’t want the last cookie or slice of pizza so someone else can have it. She does that even if she’s the one who baked the cookies or brought the pizza (which she often does, because of course she does).
The people who rely on her type to do that, have never had to learn how to regulate their own emotions. Their hands have always reached for the last cookie or pizza slice without a second thought. It’s a type of privilege, to tyrannize those around you and enforce your own will on them because you know they will make it better. It’s the type of privilege America, and in particular, the South runs on.
Everything gross in our society is being honed to a sharp point by the pandemic.
There are unspoken social mores here, about who has to perform emotional labor, and who gets to be immature and never sit with their unpleasant emotions. Women and black people in particular often have to be the ones to smooth things over and make others comfortable in order to ensure their own safety here. I resent every single time I am forced to do this.
In the above scenario, this dynamic became crystal clear.
She was unable to make the other woman feel good or to smooth things over, because to do so meant that possibly, someone could die. She had to overcome a lot of social conditioning to speak up and tolerate the unmasked stranger’s rage.
Now I keep wondering- how would this have played out if the unmasked stranger were a man? An angry man? An angry armed man? Already news outlets have reported people getting shot over being asked to wear a mask or threatening employees because of the request to mask up.
What if my friend were black? Or undocumented? Or a wheelchair user?
It’s likely she would have had to leave the line and come back later in order to maintain personal safety without angering the unmasked avatar of plague privilege.
This type of conflict isn’t anything new. Everything gross in our society is being honed to a sharp point by the pandemic.
These social dynamics aren’t worth keeping. It’s gross to expect people with less power to tolerate living with less safety. It’s gross that we let a certain sector of society run unchecked, spreading the virus and their gun-rage.
If you have the social privilege of safety, now is the time to be rude. Use your rudeness to protect yourself, your family, and everyone else in this world.
Now, more than ever, being nice can kill you.