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OU Dean of Students David Surratt, professor Kalenda Eaton participate in comic-con panel analyzing power of masks

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Watchmen stream

The banner for the Comic-Con at Home panel "Watchmen and the Cruelty of Masks," which featured two OU faculty members July 22.

OU Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students David Surratt and African and African-American Studies associate professor Kalenda Eaton took part in a comic-con panel Wednesday night discussing the power of the real-life mask. 

The panel took place as part of Comic-Con at Home 2020, an online version of the popular conference. Panelists, including Eaton and Surratt, discussed how the donning of masks, both by fantasy heroes and villains — like those in HBO’s series "Watchmen" — give people in real life an opportunity to define them and what they stand for. 

“We talk a little bit about the mixing of fantasy and real life,” said Alfred Day, associate dean of students and director of Student Affairs at UC Berkeley. “I'm a huge comic book fan, I love Batman more than I love certain members of my own family. Batman is someone who puts on a mask to seek out justice, but I also know that in the real world that I live in, someone who puts on a mask to seek out justice is more likely to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Panelists said besides portraying the fight between good and evil, a mask can also be more theatrical in nature.

“We've been utilizing masks for centuries both to hide our identities, and to allow the audience to automatically know who that character is and what they represent,” said Robert Hypes, a web series creator and the community impact manager at the theater group Phoenix Creative Collective. 

Surratt said masks can also have meanings outside of the obvious, typically in ways that are more psychological.

“Yes, we talk about the use of masks in order to shield shame, but there’s two other folds of it,” Surratt said. “There's one around the idea of modesty — trying to maintain a sense of humility — but there’s also a self-preservation part.”

The panelists also talked about political masks, and how activists can use their platform and their beliefs as a mask to help represent who they are.

“The mask that someone wears shows their true intentions, and then the ones that they are wearing in usual, normal, polite society isn’t who they actually are,” said Hailey Lopez, case manager at the Division of Student Affairs at UC Berkeley. “They are mitigating and managing their character through this mask.”

Lopez said this issue also applies online, where sometimes people post their true feelings on private social media and are surprised when they receive backlash for what they say.

Surratt then said he sees parts of himself and his work with students in the Watchmen character Looking Glass. Looking Glass, also known as Tulsa Police Officer Wade Tillman, joined the police force following a white supremacist attack on members of the department at their homes in the middle of the night. Following the attack, the police department was allowed to wear masks to conceal their identities and provide them a sense of safety in the TV series.

“He's exercising his own trauma. ... He's so focused and fixated as a law enforcement officer, not just to cover his identity, but to hopefully reveal his ‘otherness’ in other people,” Surratt said. “In some way, that's our job — to help us process with our students. So when I'm having a conversation with a student who uses the N-word on social media and gets called out on it or does misogynistic things ... when I read it back to them and they realize how outlandish it sounds hearing it from my voice, they realize it doesn't connect to their core values.”

Eaton asked if this “unmasking” that people are doing with their peers — when they post private conversations in an attempt to hold them accountable — is in some way a sort of vigilantism.

“That makes perfect sense to me,” Hypes answered. “What’s interesting now is you're seeing more and more people calling (others) out on social media and saying, 'That’s wrong.' ... Usually (the internet) was regulated to pop culture like 'Watchmen' or 'Star Wars' or 'Game of Thrones,' but now you see people coming out, saying the worst things, the most uneducated (things), but then being called out by people that they know.”

Lopez then said that social media callouts are almost like a mask as well, saying that it’s easy for a person to sit behind their computer and do it, but calling out someone else in person is often more intimidating.

Towards the end of the panel, Day asked the other panelists what sort of masks they wear as they interact with society that they need to learn to take off.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do throughout my entire career is figure out how to be forthright and brave and speak up for myself and things I represent,” Surratt said. “A year ago I was tokenized as the new man of color that was hired as the new vice president for student affairs. But what I reflected on is that there’s no better time than today to unmask something and say, 'At least if it's not the reality, it's an opportunity to finish our goal.'” 

Christian Hans is a journalism junior at OU and news reporter for The Daily.

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