University has changed my ontological perspective. It’s very easy to be a cynic, but I’ve learned to be optimistic yet critical instead. I’m so ready to go out and be a citizen of the world!

Fourth-year student Kathleen Mah is studying anthropology with a minor in women and gender studies (WGST). She has never been a follower, and open-mindedness and empathy are some of her most significant traits. Throughout the pandemic, Kathleen felt the pressure of intersecting crisis, from the climate crisis to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the role of social media in giving people awareness. She wanted to look compassionately into the divide between anti-maskers and BLM protesters, hoping to begin the process of facilitating understanding, if not agreement.

“This project came about from wanting to play with the idea of unprecedented times. There are so many ways people are dealing with being in the pandemic, and masks are among them. Masks are a way to look at these aspects, to see what it is about our bodies and positions which gives us such different experiences of the pandemic.”

Kathleen began researching this gap as part of her medical anthropology class. Doing fieldwork is hard online, and her breakthrough moment came while scrolling through social media. Facebook provides unfiltered reactions and opinions at your fingertips, and Kathleen saw this as an opportunity. While she didn’t immediately gravitate to the official Black Lives Matter page, she found a very polarizing comment against the BLM movement while scrolling through ‘anti-masker' Facebook groups. “The specific intersection between the pandemic and BLM movement and those against masking is a fascinating area to be. While it was horrifying to read through some of the comments, I read through close to 5000 over the course of a month.” Kathleen kept careful track of comments underneath one specific BLM Facebook page post selling two BLM-branded masks, tallying her results in Excel. “I categorized them into racially motivated comments, negative and positive, and practical comments about mask pricing, for example. The project created itself in some way. I’m going to be doing my honours thesis on anti-maskers. I’m hoping to get out and talk to people face-to-face when I can,” she says.

After completing her research assignment, she later received an open-call email to anthropology students to submit their research for a chance to present at the ANARKY anthropology conference, put on by the University of Calgary. After some encouragement from her professor, Kathleen got to work creating a presentation. “It sounds bad to say, but especially online, it’s easy to create a boring presentation. I had to talk with my professors about making it memorable, interesting, and engaging people to watch it to the end. It was hard, but I’ve learned so much about giving a good academic presentation online.”

Much to her surprise and excitement, her research was accepted, and Kathleen was given her own booth at the online conference. “There was an extensive range of topics you could submit. There were science-based presentations and arts-based presentations. They had town gathers where you got a little avatar and could go into people’s booths to chat, like a video game. It was almost like you were at the conference!”

The opportunity to present her findings at a large event was an impactful experience. “While I didn’t get to network as much as I normally would if this had been in person, it was still a great opportunity. It was cool to know there’s an online conference platform they could host this on,” she says. Online learning has not been easy. “However, it’s also taught me how resilient I am. I have a learning disability and suffer from imposter syndrome, but learning online has helped me realize that if I can learn during a pandemic, I can handle anything.”

When she heads out for the day, Kathleen puts on her mask, and she does not feel a sense of stress or panic over being required to wear it. “I just put it on, go out, do my thing and come back home,” she says. She understands the social responsibility of wearing a mask to protect others, and this is also a relatively easy step for her to take. But that is not the case for everyone, which led to one of her biggest research takeaways.

“People need to be held accountable, and I’m not defending anti-maskers. When I first started looking at the comments, I thought, ‘these people are crazy’ a few times. But to reduce them to that is harmful. It’s easy to see an anti-masker and think ‘this person is selfish, this person is crazy’ and discount them. Although these ideas might be true in part, it’s important to recognize that these people are still under very real stress and that stress is rooted in their bodily experience of the world.”

We can’t look at one person and say ‘I understand everything about this person,’ there is so much more going on and in our personalities that are at play. These issues are not one-dimensional.

Kathleen presented her findings around the understanding that masks and bodies together create unique circumstances. She learned in her WGST classes that our bodies, in part, are a product of the society in which they were born. Meeting people where they are in terms of their academic background, socioeconomic status, and lived bodily experience helps bridge the differences between opinions. “We can’t look at one person and say ‘I understand everything about this person,’ there is so much more going on and in our personalities that are at play. These issues are not one-dimensional.”

Through her research, Kathleen gained a deeper understanding of people’s tolerance for the unknown. “The BLM movement draws attention to privileges in our lives that we may not know existed before. That should make you uncomfortable. Discomfort is what changes things. But some people do not take up the correct positionality to know how to deal with these pressures. They aren’t able to recognize this discomfort as a good thing. When you realize you could be part of the problem, there is an internal emotional battle going on that, unfortunately, some cannot physically handle.”

Kathleen created the concept of comfort fragility to examine this gap, based on ‘white fragility,’ the idea of racial stress triggering a disproportionately large emotional response in someone who has not experienced that stress before. “Comfort fragility is about people’s low-threshold for discomfort, based on bodily positionality and social regulation. It can cause defensiveness and sensitivity around discussions of comfort. It’s about how much discomfort someone can take before reacting emotionally,” she explains.

Kathleen learned that change couldn’t come from discounting others. “If there’s one thing I take away from university, homogenizing anything is bad. You can never generalize without leaving important things out of a conversation. When you’re trying to bring light to social inequalities and homogenize comments, you reinforce those inequalities−You don’t acknowledge there are social inequalities between each commentor. Those inequalities have profound effects on these people, and not acknowledging this goes against what I was trying to do−facilitate a greater understanding among us.”

Kathleen wants to direct interested students to the official BLM page and encourages students to stay critical of information from unknown sources on social media. Social media can act as a bubble, reflecting our own opinions while shielding us from other perspectives. “The world is so much more complicated than you think. There’s so much out there. One thing I learned in my WGST classes is that there are multiple realities. People live their own life, truth and reality, and that creates differences.”

Kathleen would like to pursue higher education and become an anthropologist, researching with feminist methodologies. “University has changed my ontological perspective. It’s very easy to be a cynic, but I’ve learned to be optimistic yet critical instead. I’m so ready to go out and be a citizen of the world!”