Masking While Black Could Be More Dangerous Than the Alternative
I’m an escapist. For decades, I smoked to avoid feeling too much. But with America in its darkest days due to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no relief from the emotions that envelop me. Everyday scenes take on a grotesque vividity. A package on my doorstep that used to be harmless is now a phantom enemy. Exchanging money with a supermarket cashier is a slow tragedy; the swooping crescent around a jogging stranger, an awkward comedy. A global health crisis has thrust us into a movie with no plot, hero, or end.
These floods of intensity give me an advantage, though. I know how to fight a stealthy adversary. I’m at home in the gravity of each scene. When the CDC announced that everyone should wear masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I switched to battle mode. Yet again, the seemingly harmless and simple guideline ignores the dark history of Black and Brown folks being targets of racial profiling, masked or unmasked. It neglects the unspoken truth that Americans see throngs of faceless Black people as threats. When Trump suggests that a bandana also functions as a cover, he’s describing his White utopia. I live in Harlem, New York, where constant Black voices and faces outside shape the curve of shadows and sun. The police tag boys in bandanas on routine stops. For people like me, martial law’s long been in play.
My city-kid childhood already framed the world as jumpy and unforgiving of my Blackness.
But I’ve accepted our “new normal,” and took my first masked trip to the grocery store last week. Since my dreams now mirror a fugitive drama, I’m unusually prepared for my turn as the Masked Man. My city-kid childhood already framed the world as jumpy and unforgiving of my Blackness; life’s sole mission was to get home safe. That’s something that hasn’t changed my entire life, and likely never will.
My girlfriend and I tick off our list and check the fridge before leaving. We’re staying with my family until the outbreak ends. We survey the house to see if anyone else needs anything and call upstairs to my mom. “I made these masks for you guys,” she says. “I learned how to do it on YouTube with old T-shirts. Take them with you. There are gloves on the counter.”
I’m thankful she fashioned white masks. It’s the color of surrender; it humanizes. I’ve seen the “Bane”-style masks with high-tech filters. They look like what the villain would wear to grab the hostages. I’ve seen the paisley bandanas in red and blue and know those carry curbside history. Handmade white masks will — hopefully — wrap us in cloud-like innocence. We are two people crafting their way through life, moving from point A to B.
Before leaving our place, I watch a panic-inducing video about how droplets spread, because Google is my sidekick. Neighborhoods like mine nurture disease. Broken systems blossom in areas like mine. Headlines show that Black people are disproportionately being affected by Covid-19 due to systemic inequalities, and blame its victims at the same time. They neglect to mention that the Black ill are forced to crowd the few spaces we are allowed to enter and die as neglected as we lived.
We get into the car and turn the radio to Power 105. The Breakfast Club morning show crew sounds a way it almost never does: subdued. DJ Envy announces Pop Smoke’s hit “Welcome to the Party.” The slain artist’s summer anthem slathers vicious irony on the car ride. Charlamagne gives service workers a word of encouragement. Angela Yee urges people to help shift-workers order food or bring it to a safe place where they can pick it up. In the Stop & Shop parking lot, we pull up and cut the radio, silencing Drake and Chris Brown’s song about the right love or the wrong love; you pick. Drake must feel lonely, I think, as I slam the car door behind me and don my mask.
I’m not short of breath, but the mask restricts me into feeling that way. I grab my phone to look at the list, but it shivers in my hands. The facial ID won’t open the screen with me masked. This isn’t the future I signed up for, to be honest. We enter the line after wiping down a cart. Eyes scan other eyes. Our neighborhood, in far East Queens, looks Black. Faceless and Black. Faceless, masked Black families stretch a line for groceries. There are no police to speak of, and they couldn’t profile any person over another. Instead, we fight the common enemy, sanitizing handles, and standing vigilantly.
We bag up pears. We pile donuts, ice cream, and frying oil into our carts. There’s not much to choose from since many try to keep cozy with comfort foods these days. Coldplay’s Chris Martin croons above us on the store radio: “Nobody said it was eas-aaaay.” The next announcement follows: “Be safe. We’re all in this together.” The simple message hits me from all sides. My mask keeps slipping off my ears, so I nudge it upward and inhale slowly to make sure it’s working. Through muffled tones, I ask if we need more peanut butter. Instead, we choose calming tea blends, hoping cinnamon and ginger can ease our stomachs. I’m getting sick of the mask — its closeness, its warmth — and I’ve only worn it for one day. We walk into the spiral for checkout.
“This shit crazy,” belts a tall shopper searching for the back of the line. I mouth, “I know.” Even though she can’t hear me, we’re the same. Making it home alive has been a gamble our entire lives; we hope our masks will shield us from an invisible enemy, and not be the cause of our demise in the eyes of the law.