America Unmasked

For People of Color, Masks Come with Their Own Risks

In Washington and across the country, facial coverings are triggering racist backlash.

By Stefan Milne April 14, 2020

Following the CDC’s new recommendation that everyone wear a cloth mask in public, some people started reveling in bandit aesthetics. “Headed to PCC, ‘Give us all your kale, this is a stickup,’” one local wrote on Twitter, with a selfie of a masked couple.

Many people of color, though, want to avoid precisely that connotation. Before the CDC recommended it, Alicia Crank had already gotten herself a mask. She’s immunocompromised but needs to run errands in Edmonds, where she lives. She’s also African American and had been worried by the uptick in people buying guns: “My first thought was that I’m scared to death for any Black or Brown person that might be walking around in a mask.” When choosing for herself, “subconsciously, I tried to pick one that is neutral,” she says. She went with a playful light blue pattern.

On March 6, she headed to an Edmonds QFC before noon for groceries. She had her mask on, as did others in the store. In one aisle, she watched an older white woman coming the opposite way. The woman glanced at a couple in front of Crank. No reaction. When she looked at Crank, though, she pulled her bag to the other side of her body, clutching it under her arm.

“What the heck was that about?” Crank wondered. She’s moderately recognizable in Edmonds. She ran for city council last year. She rolled her eyes and moved on. A few minutes later, a different white woman did the same. One of them wore a mask herself.

“It just infuriated me,” Crank says. “I ended up leaving the store because I was like, I can’t believe this is happening in my little town.” That led to other thoughts, like how unsafe it may be to go out at night in a mask. She took to Twitter:

Such treatment is, of course, only a novel symptom of a disease far older and deadlier than COVID-19: This pandemic doesn’t exist outside of a racist society. Thus, Asian Americans, especially those in masks, get stereotyped as carriers of illness. So do some immunocompromised people. Early data shows African Americans have been infected and died of Covid-19 at higher rates than other races (the King County data is incomplete, but it appears Latinx people here are affected more). Likewise, Black, Native, and Latinx people are stereotyped as criminals more than those of other races, Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, told me in an email. Masks—especially homemade ones or bandanas—can compound those stereotypes.

Here’s the terrible irony: Assuming a person in a mask intends harm is the opposite of what veiling your face currently signifies. Since the CDC’s recommendation, most people—of whatever race—mask up to protect others, not themselves.

Reverend Harriett G. Walden has worked in police reform for three decades, founding Mothers for Police Accountability. She’s seen the recent stories of racism, like the cop who reportedly kicked two Black men out of a Walmart in Illinois for wearing surgical-style masks. When we spoke over the phone in early April, she hadn’t heard of any local episodes but said that if you’re white and see a person of color being harassed, deploy your privilege. “Step up and step in…. Slavery lasted so long because white people were scared. That's where they are today. They're scared to stand up.” 

Soon after we got off the phone, Rev. Walden left me a voicemail. She saw a new post on Facebook: Someone she knows went to pick up medicine, while wearing gloves and a mask, and got followed around the store. For some, the threat of racism is enough to stop them from wearing masks. Alicia Crank says she doesn’t know anyone personally who’s made that choice, though she understands. She even considered it, but “I value my health more than your racism.” 

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