As the world continues to navigate a new way of functioning under the threat of illness brought by COVID-19, essential businesses and services are now requiring patrons to wear masks. It’s a protocol that assumes everyone is sick or carrying the virus, and the masks prevent the carriers from continuing to spread disease. It’s a smart move to help slow the spread of this coronavirus while scientists work to create a vaccine. What I hadn’t considered was one of the mental impacts that this practice could create for certain people. My husband let me in on a little secret. It makes him feel unsafe.
My husband, a hardworking, highly educated, law-abiding citizen is afraid to wear a mask into a public place because of the negative attention that could come to a black man entering an establishment with his face covered. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that this face mask mandate could put black or brown men at risk. We have an ugly history in this country of demonizing black men, and a taught response to fear them on sight. He tries hard not to raise his voice because he knows he is seen as intimidating. He measures every word before speaking with with people placed in a position of authority, because he’s aware of the catastrophic damage that can be inflicted on his life should they take umbrage with his position. It becomes a way of life to move with a built-in fear of people who hate you and judge you based on your race; knowing you walk among them everyday, yet have no idea who they may be.
Sure, someone might say, “if everyone is wearing a mask, then it wouldn’t seen unusual for him to be wearing a mask. He will be fine.” The first point is that he shouldn’t have to think this way, but because our society is what it is, this is a real fear. Consider the black man who has been stopped by the police while walking down his own block that he lives on, merely because his skin color looks out of place in a predominantly white neighborhood. Consider the black man pulled over because he drives a nice car, and accused of stealing it because a racist officer assumes that if a black person has something nice, it probably wasn’t earned legitimately. Consider the black boy followed around a store because his black face makes an employee assume that he’s going to steal something. Consider black teens who have had guns pulled on them and pointed in their faces, before questions are even asked because they are in a white neighborhood to pick up a friend. Consider the fact that ALL of these things happened to Omar, one single person. And this doesn’t even cover half of the blatant harassments and micro-aggressions that he’s experienced in his life so far.
“That’s why I had to sell my black Mercedes… it brought too much attention,” he mused on about his old car.
“It was a 2008 Mercedes C300… all black. I bought it in 2007… that’s important. I had it customized and ordered from the factory. I loved that car. It was when the C-Class had the new body style. I was a 23 year old biologist for a major pharmaceutical company, making a great income with no kids or girlfriend, so I could do whatever I wanted with my money. I miss that car, but I had guns drawn on me at least 3 times because of that car… by the cops. I had it about two and a half years, and I just decided I couldn’t keep going through that shit, so I sold it.”
He told me that once when he was leaving a club, as the valet pulled up to return his car, a girl coming out of the club noticed it and shouted, “That’s a sexy ass car. If I can’t get you, I’ll fuck your bumper.” No amount of ass he could pull would outweigh the constant harassment of being a black man owning something that racists deemed him unworthy of, so he got rid of the first car he bought on his own.
The second point is that he’s not an anomaly. Ask any black man if he’s ever been harassed while going about his normal life just being black. I bet every single one has at least one story. I bet they have more. Wearing a mask into a place of business can make any black man paranoid about how other people will react. It’s a form of PTSD. Living your life as a threat when you’ve done nothing wrong creates a brokenness that millions of Minority Americans live with.
There’s a third point that practically every black person knows. We can’t always do the same things that others do and expect the same treatment. I know that. You know that. If you don’t, you’ve been living with your head in the sand. Need an example? Consider the statistic that marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and white, yet blacks are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession according to the latest study done by the ACLU.
I’m not saying that requiring the use of masks is wrong or that certain people should be given an exception. Masks are the right thing to do just as social distancing and keeping businesses closed is the right thing to do. This situation brought an issue to light that provided a little more insight into yet another effect of this hellish virus. There’s a divide in the sense of security in rough times based on race. There’s a divide based on money. There’s a divide based on mental health. In this time where everyone is feeling some level of strain, the one thing we all share is uncertainty about the impacts to our lives from this devastating pandemic. It will hit every one of us differently, but it will hit us all, so let’s share our empathy for one another as well.