South East Asia Program Publications (SEAP)

Performing Power: Face Masks, Everyday Resistance, and Social Change

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If there is one object that encapsulates the anxieties of the year 2020, it is the face mask. Virtually absent from our lives prior to March 2020, its subsequent rise to ubiquity makes it hard to imagine public life without it today. Instead of being widely embraced as an effective health measure in the fight against a global pandemic, the face mask turned into a controversial object, exposing deep social anxieties and divisions. 

A recent New York Times editorial observed that future “historians will puzzle over the idea that mask-wearing in service of protecting all citizens was considered by many to be a mark of oppression.” To historians and social scientists, however, this is less puzzling when we consider the issue of mask-wearing as a form of everyday resistance and a means to contest or strengthen hegemonic status, power, and privilege.

If there is one object that encapsulates the anxieties of the year 2020, it is the face mask.

People who choose not to wear a mask do so for a variety of reasons, such as political orientation, science denialism, their concerns over masculinity, and to protect individual liberty against government mandates. In contrast, mask wearers might seek to signal support for expert opinion and that individual liberty does not mean freedom to infect others, especially when the disease disproportionally affects racial and ethnic minority groups. Clearly, although unfortunately, the debate about face masks is not just a public health issue, but about cultural beliefs, social values, identity, status, and power.

It is precisely the everydayness of mask wearing that makes it so fascinating. Our non-stop news cycle as well as academic studies privilege more direct and obvious forms of political and social resistance as protests, revolts, wars, and of course elections. But face masks direct our attention to the lived experience of people and their interactions in daily life. The personal decision to wear, or not to wear, a mask is a form of social communication. While the exact implications of the current contentiousness of mask wearing are indeed something for future historians to puzzle over, the study of the past suggests how it might signal broad social change.

Clearly, although unfortunately, the debate about face masks is not just a public health issue, but about cultural beliefs, social values, identity, status, and power.

For instance, in my new book Performing Power: Cultural Hegemony, Identity, and Resistance in Colonial Indonesia, I explore how the Dutch colonizer communicated colonial hegemony through language, manners, clothing, material status symbols, and even physical gestures and posture. Through this scripted performance of power, authorities sought to affirm, uphold, and strengthen colonial hierarchies of race, class, and gender. However, the colonized were not mere extras in this colonial play. Through acts of everyday resistance, such as speaking a different language, withholding deference, and changing one’s appearance and consumer behavior, a new generation of Indonesians successfully contested the hegemonic colonial performance, and the racial and gender inequalities that it sustained.

Through acts of everyday resistance, such as speaking a different language, withholding deference, and changing one’s appearance and consumer behavior, a new generation of Indonesians successfully contested the hegemonic colonial performance, and the racial and gender inequalities that it sustained.

Crucially, my book suggests that instead of focusing on political events as hinges of historical change, everyday discursive acts—exchanging a sarong for trousers, speaking Dutch or Malay rather than Javanese, demanding a chair instead of sitting on the ground—reveal a more pervasive moment of social transformation in the year 1913. In the case of Indonesia, this means that the so-called national awakening, the development of a national consciousness during the final decades of colonialism, was not just a movement that a small political elite incited from the top-down but also one that grew out of a large social transformation from below. Thus, it was through everyday encounters that new national, racial, social, religions and gender identities were actively constructed.

The performance of power, however, is not just a colonial phenomenon. A person’s conscious decision about mask wearing, compliance with social distancing, and efforts to be politically (in)correct are all part of the performance of power in our time. As my work on colonial Indonesia suggests, these everyday forms of resistance challenge us to look beyond our current political moment defined by presidential populism and look for deeper and broader social changes, anxieties, and rifts from which they sprang. Only then will future historians be able to fully solve the puzzling refusal to wear a mask during a global pandemic.

*Featured photo by Mika Baumeister.


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Arnout van der Meer is an Assistant Professor of History at Colby College.

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