Wednesday, June 3, 2020


It's become such a cliché that one need never have flown in an airplane to be familiar with it:

In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. Secure your own mask first before assisting others.
Part of the reason why this segment of aircraft safety has become so ubiquitous is that it's become a mantra of the self-care movement. But also because it's simply good advice. It's hard for a person who's asphyxiating to help someone else and even if they manage it, if they're now in trouble themselves, the person they've rescued may not be in a position to return the favor.

I thought of this in the light of the recent protests over the death of George Floyd and the recriminations that have followed. A common thread is the idea that more White Americans need to be involved in the work of ending racism, systemic inequality or what have you. And this is common. It comes up pretty much every time frustration with the racial status quo in the United States bubbles up into protests and violence becomes a part of those protests.

I've mentioned before that I think there is a tendency to treat "Alice needs Bob to do something" as equivalent to "Bob needs to do something," so I won't rehash all of that here, but I think it's still a valid idea. But to get back to aircraft safety, the assertion that White Americans need to be doing more to help Black and other non-White Americans achieve parity kind of assumes that White America has managed to secure their oxygen mask, and therefore, they're in a position to assist others. But I wonder how much of White America actually sees it that way.

Again, one of the vagaries of colloquial English is the use of "we" to mean: "some larger group of people, of which I am a part, but not me personally." And when people are looking to others to assist a third party, they are, in effect, saying that while they may be able to manage it without help, their own oxygen mask isn't in place securely enough yet for them to be able to help others. When change has costs associated with it, sometimes the mantra is "be the change you can afford to see in the world." And this tends to spark a debate over who is secure enough to be drafted into the cause. Or perhaps more accurately, a debate over how people actually see themselves versus how others want them to see themselves.

Which of the supposedly affluent parts of society have their oxygen masks on, which are still getting it together and which are flailing around ineffectually is going to be a long debate, especially if the stakes are perceived as high. In the mean time, those people without their masks may be well served to resign themselves to the work, rather than waiting for a resolution.

1 comment:

JohnMcG said...

I have thought of this as well, and I have not cared for how this metaphor is sometimes deployed.

From the perspective of one who should be able to put his mask on, there is a temptation to interpret this advice as, "I need to ensure that my mask is fitting perfectly and functional before I worry about the person not breathing next to me." So I keep fidgeting with my mask while the helpless person next to me suffocates.

So, at least for myself, I want to avoid excusing myself with this. It is difficult and uncomfortable for me to deal with all the anger. That is my problem. I cannot use that as an excuse to help the people next to me with bigger concerns than some low-level anxiety.

And if I do claim to be putting on my mask, I better be sure I'm actually doing the work of getting my mask on and putting myself in a position to help.