Updated: Aug 25, 2020
How does the demand to wear masks in public spaces during the age of COVID-19 clash with the reality that for Black men, masks (and hoodies, and hats, and sometimes just walking) can make them seem 'dangerous' or 'threatening'?
Why do I ask? Because we may be living through a global pandemic, but prejudice takes no days off y'all. COVID-19 is killing Black people disproportionately and exacerbating racial inequalities. And seemingly innocuous public health measures, like mask requirements, engage with stereotypes and implicit biases in dangerous ways. We've seen Black men kicked out of stores for wearing masks in an effort to protect themselves. We've also seen a Black man forcibly dragged off a bus for NOT wearing a mask. It seems like Black men literally cannot win in this situation.
As I sit and wonder whether COVID-19 will become another means to try to strip Black (and other marginalized) folks of some of their humanity, a voice in my head reminds me that I cannot speak for Black men. I can empathize and be a good friend and ally, but our experiences are not quite the same. I am a short, light-skinned Black woman who experiences her fair share of micro and macro aggressions daily. But my particular privilege protects me from some of the worst of our society's biases. My struggles are often with White women who struggle to characterize me as anything other than 'aggressive' or 'mean' despite my most professional of tone and the fifty eleven times I've bitten my tongue and let them whitesplain, cut me off in meetings, or speak for me when I'm asked a direct question. My particular struggles are just as real. However, they are less likely to ultimately result in violence or unwanted police interaction.
I am simply not a Black man. I cannot fully put myself in their shoes. Taking a cue from the advice I would give to my social justice ally friends, sometimes the best thing you can do is make space for others to speak. While I'm alarmed and scared for how COVID-19 will impact Black men in America, I must step back, take a breath, and allow them to speak for themselves. So I went to the source and interviewed a diverse group of intelligent, funny, and kind Black men. Their thoughts, concerns, and life experiences are encapsulated in their own words below.
Age 22, Atlanta: On Mask Requirements - What do they want from us?
"I understand it and encourage it because I would hate to get sick and not show symptoms and possibly give it to someone who may be more susceptible"... but, "they’re kicking people out for wearing masks and pulling people off buses for not wearing masks then what do people want?"
Age 29, Los Angeles: Been on alert since pre-adolescence
"As a black man, donning a mask in public absolutely gives me pause and I’m constantly aware and considerate of how my gait and my mannerisms might project to others. My senses are especially heightened if I’m wearing a mask along with a hat or hooded sweatshirt. But that type of mentality has been instilled me in my pre-adolescence."
Age 27, Washington DC: The burden of trying to negate your Blackness is HEAVY
"To the detriment of my mental health, I had always tried to carry myself in a way to negate my ‘Blackness’, to make others comfortable. I go out of my way to show 'I am a Black man, and you should not be afraid'... and for me, that’s necessary. Because the consequences of white fear could be death. Trayvon Martin. Eric Brown. Black men that for different reasons scared white people. A hoodie is enough. Your stature is enough. These are lessons I’ve internalized." When wearing a mask to keep me safe I feel more in danger. I wore a mask to go grocery shopping, I was terrified the entire time. I thought, would they let me in; is white, the color of my face covering, a gang color; does eye contact make me more or less of a perceived threat?"
Age 28, Washington DC: COVID doesn't discriminate, people do
"I am fine with the mask requirement when going into public spaces because, ultimately, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, people do. That being said, I understand why other Black men feel anxious about wearing a mask in a public space. It’s far too often that Black men are shot down in the street over a hoodie or 'seeming' suspicious. It becomes a double-edge sword during this pandemic where to stay alive, by wearing a mask, you risk losing your life by discrimination."
Age 26, Los Angeles: When you don't have a "proper" mask
"Wearing a mask in public continues to make me feel uneasy. I don’t have a formal mask and instead wear a bandana covering my face. When wearing it, I wonder if I’m considered a threat..."
Hearing from these Black men, the pressure to be somehow nonthreatening, to become smaller, to make others feel more comfortable when all you want to do is just be, remains ever present. That feeling of never being able to win, of being caught up in a broader system that for you is always a catch-22, is one I know previous generations hoped would dissipate for Black men. It clearly has not. And I offer no comforting sentiments. In this particular project, we have failed to make the progress promised to us, the progress demanded by countless activists and communities. We cannot fix such deep internalized biases (and the resulting trauma) quickly or without MORE intergenerational efforts.
However right now, during this crisis, we can hear their stories and believe them. That's a start.