Ways of Seeing: A More Nuanced Approach to Vaccines


When I sat down to write this column, I have to admit that I really struggled to decide what to write about. There’s so much going on in the world one doesn’t even know what to start with sometimes. As I thought more about it, though, and talked with friends, one of my friends mentioned that one of the things I do in much of my writing is try to pull things that are usually invisible to the surface — to make the invisible seen. When she said that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

In some ways, my training as a border historian comes into play for this column because one thing that I always talk about with my students at the beginning of the semester is the ways in which people who have multiple, intersecting identities often occupy what famous border feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldua calls a “third space.” This, she says, is a borderland.

As a scholar, I study a geographic location called the borderlands where two nations meet and people encounter each other. But borderlands as a more abstract frame can be useful for thinking about any number of things. In Anzaldua’s work (and in my own real, lived experience) a Mexican-American occupies this “third space.” They are neither fully Mexican, nor fully American. They carry a little bit of both. Anzaldua’s work reminds us in really important ways that life is about nuance. By reminding us about the complexities of individual identities, she powerfully tells her readers that thinking in dichotomies (that is, thinking about things in twos: black and white, Mexican and American), is dangerous and can lead us down harrowing paths.

Now, allow me to shift gears and tell you a story. I have an acquaintance; let’s call her Morgan. Morgan is a well-educated, very progressive liberal African-American woman who lives in Massachusetts. She has, since childhood, had severe allergies to countless things that she has come across throughout her life: red dye in food, certain plants, laundry detergent, and many medications. As a result, she has to be very careful about what she eats and drinks and she has to bring her own sheets and other things when she travels. If you saw her, though, you’d see a healthy looking, happy, smart historian who seems to have a pretty privileged life. She has kids, a spouse, a dog, and a nice place to live. As long as she is careful about what she does, things in her life remain pretty good.

But because Morgan has so many allergies, getting a COVID vaccine is impossible. She can’t do it. The contents of the serum would instantly threaten her life. As a result, she can’t work in person, she cannot safely travel to see family, even in an emergency, and she can’t really do any of the things that those of us who were lucky enough to have the opportunity to be vaccinated can do.

Morgan occupies a third space that many people in this country have either forgotten or willfully ignored. As I scroll through social media, read news articles, or watch occasional coverage of the pandemic on television, I have been struck not only at how politicized vaccines have become, but also how cut and dried people seem to think the decision to vax or not really is.

There appear to be the folks who have embraced it or who are now opting in because they have been able to observe its efficacy. Then there are those who choose not to get vaccinated at their own peril and possibly the peril of others. But when I hear people talk about those put at risk because of anti-vaxxers most of the discussions include our children and the larger population because of the threat of future variants and mutations. I rarely, if ever, hear folks talking about a large number of folks with health issues or disabilities or both, that prevent them from being able to get vaccinated, even though they are old enough and want to do it. Nobody is talking about the Morgans in this country.

We need to stop thinking in dichotomies. When we do that, we push people into the margins — we make them invisible. Very often in this nation’s history, oppression stems from deep-seated white supremacy, which fuels initiatives to protect (white) Americans first. And white supremacy is a powerful system of domination that no doubt has affected vaccine rates and access across the U.S. and the world. But in this particular case — in Morgan’s case — I am talking about a separate, parallel, and also powerful system of oppression referred to as ableism, or a system of beliefs that renders able-bodied people more “valuable” than those who have physical or other bodily limitations.

If we stop thinking in dichotomies and add nuance to the conversation, we might be more successful at persuading reluctant citizens to get vaccinated. This is not just an every-person-for-themself kind of issue. There are entire groups of people who literally do not have the choice about whether to get the vaccine. If we more thoroughly add them to the conversation, we not only raise important issues and advocate for our fellow human beings, we also might move the conversation about vaccination in a direction that isn’t quite as polemical is it is right now. This is an issue that is not just black and white, pro-vax or not. There is a whole group of people in the middle that we should not forget.

Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge, Vermont.


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