In the latest example of anti-vaxxers playing victim, a special education assistant at a Newberg, Oregon elementary school reportedly wore blackface to work last Friday to protest a vaccine mandate for district employees. A staff member told the Newberg Graphic that Lauren Pefferle had darkened her face with iodine in order to look like Rosa Parks. (Yup. Let that sink in.) The incident is part of a pattern of anti-vaxxers drawing ridiculous parallels between vaccination and fascism — and casting themselves as “oppressed.”
According to a statement from Newberg Public Schools, Pefferle was removed from Mabel Rush Elementary School and placed on administrative leave. (The Newberg Graphic learned of Pefferle's identity from the staff member mentioned above, but said the school district would not disclose her name.)
“It is important to remember how Blackface has been used to misrepresent Black communities and do harm,” the statement noted. “We acknowledge the violence this represents and the trauma it evokes regardless of intention.”
Gregg Koskela, communications director for Newberg Public Schools, wouldn’t confirm with The Washington Post whether Pefferle wore blackface to protest the mandate requiring all district employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The intention “does not matter: The action itself is unacceptable,” he wrote in an email to the newspaper.
Tai Harden-Moore, a former school board candidate, who is Black, believes the incident is consistent with broader county politics, per the Newberg Graphic. “This makes sense only because we have our county commissioner, Mary Starrett, who drew that line between vaccine mandates and Jim Crow,” she told the newspaper. “Our county leadership is saying basic public health measures are akin to Jim Crow.”
The Newberg debacle is only the most recent in a string of incidents involving anti-vaxxers appropriating narratives of oppression, The Conversation explained. Take conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, who was slated to headline a fundraiser to “free” people from vaccine mandates on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. Reports also abound of anti-vaxxers co-opting the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule, comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. A hat store in Nashville sold yellow Star of David badges embroidered with “Not Vaccinated” before apologizing on IG. Meanwhile, a Washington state lawmaker opposed to vaccine mandates wore a yellow Star of David in a speech to conservative activists.
It’s no surprise that the anti-vax movement — which remains predominantly white — has racist origins, as outlined by The Conversation, starting as a protest to older forms of vaccination practiced in China, the Middle East, and North Africa that involved inoculating healthy people with a small amount of pus from someone with smallpox. While railing against perceived affronts to their medical freedoms, they ignored the compulsory vaccination of communities of color and the enrollment of Black people in clinical trials without their consent.
Ultimately, marginalized communities — not the relatively well-to-do anti-vaxx leaders — will shoulder the burden of a pandemic prolonged by insufficient herd immunity, The Conversation pointed out. Already, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities have been disproportionately hard-hit by COVID, NBC News reported, while Asian and Jewish Americans have been accused of spreading the disease.
The blackface incident in Oregon and other anti-vaxxers’ attempts to co-opt the rhetoric and symbols of persecution are appalling enough in their trivializing of actual systemic oppression. Anti-vaxxers casting themselves as martyrs while pushing an agenda that’ll likely inflict the most harm on the marginalized people whose very narratives they’ve appropriated — now that’s next-level messed-up.