The man in front of me at the supermarket checkout looks up and says, ‘I like your mask; I’m all for a joke at this time – good man!’
He’d read my mask as a humorous comment on the current UK restrictions around lockdown and personal safety.
I smile, though he can’t see my smile. I’d expected some people to enjoy the mask’s irony, and yet his lightness left me with its other, heavier significance.
‘It’s not a joke,’ I pause, before adding, ‘They were George Floyd’s last words.’
‘Oh!’ he replies looking directly at me while simultaneously stepping further back. ‘He’s not a very good hero, though. He wasn’t a terribly nice man. But he didn’t deserve to die like that.’
How bizarre. Does he think George Floyd is my hero? And is he qualifying Floyd’s not deserving to die with the manner of his death?
‘He didn’t die,’ I interject. ‘He was killed.’ Even though he heard me, it was clear he’d stopped listening. It was as if I’d just pulled out a concealed weapon from which he couldn’t escape.
The mask had turned me into a walking placard: a solitary protest, an epitaph, a comment or joke. The genius of having ‘I can’t breathe’ printed on a facemask is that it works at many levels. It’s not a slogan, nor is it not an argument; it is a clear and unequivocal statement. It’s also immediately relatable: who hasn’t ever felt restricted or suffocated?
I thought again about my motivations for wearing the mask. As a white man, the onus is on me to confront my more or less invisible white privilege; this conflict is mine – it has nothing to do with the man at the checkout. This is reason enough, although I think there’s something more personal involved.
I remember my mother saying that when I was five or six years old I wanted to be an ‘Indian’, and would always side with them when I watched cowboy films. They were badly treated and, despite their integrity, were often demonised and portrayed as savages. Even at that age I could see the injustice and the projection (though I didn’t formulate it this way at the time). These were ‘Red Indians’ and I identified with them: I too was (and sometimes still am) a ‘Red Skin’ on account of having chronic eczema.
I remember, aged nine, being stopped by an attendant as I ran towards the edge of our local swimming pool. He shouted after me that I couldn’t go in the water. As I stood there I could feel the cold damp of the tiles creeping upwards through the soles of my feet.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘It might be catching.’
‘I have eczema – you can’t catch it!’
‘I’ve got to think of the other swimmers; you’ll need to go back and change – you can’t go in.’
There were many such occasions like this that made it difficult for me to feel at home in my skin. I longed for it to change, and though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was the desire for change that proved to be the real conflict.
The difficulty in any such challenging or painful situation is that it’s all too easy to assume knowledge of the other, whether that’s the other person or indeed the ‘other’ in ourselves. We can’t know the other and yet we get drawn into trying to change them.
Listening carefully to the other may elicit empathy; it’s sometimes possible to say, ‘I understand myself’ or ‘I understand you’, and yet we often go too far and say, ‘I know myself’ or ‘I know you’. While self-awareness is valuable, the Socratic imperative to ‘know thyself’ is an anxiety-provoking myth: it is overpromising something to someone you’re very close to. Not only does it engender the belief that it’s possible to know yourself, but also it claims a good life is dependent on it.
While these anecdotes (and this piece of writing) reveal something about my interests, commitments, prejudices and so on, they do not let me know who I am. They might help me recognise myself in a crowd. However, I am no more any of these things than I am a white ‘Red Skin’.
Despite our few shared moments of connection I knew almost nothing about the supermarket man or the swimming pool attendant. I now realise that I don’t want to change them or me: wanting them to change would be a mask for changing myself, which only feeds an ever-greater desire for change.
There must have been a part of the police officer desperate to change himself and the stranger under his knee; in their last few incredibly intimate moments together he changed both himself and George Floyd forever.
‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’ (Lilla Watson).
All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.