It is a Privilege to Wear a Face Mask in America

It is clear that racial realities for people of color are shaped by the systematic and institutional racism practiced in America. The policies and practices that persist in America have become the foundation for white privilege. White privilege plays into the Coronavirus Pandemic for numerous reasons; the ability to access face masks and the choice to wear or not wear a face mask.

COVID, Cleaning

How White Privilege Relates to Wearing a Face Mask

Access and ability to wear a face mask are racialized matters in America and people of color are targeted for their usage of face masks. People of color either fear being racially profiled for wearing a mask or do not have the ability to access a surgical mask. These are problems the majority of the white population do not face in the same way. 

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day…white privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions” said American Activist Peggy McIntosh in her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack Peggy McIntosh. 

In addition to lack of access, there are examples across America where people of color are trolled by the police for wearing masks. The Washington Post reports on April 9, 2020 that two Black men were kicked out of Walmart for wearing face masks. “Cop Follows Two Black Men Around Illinois Walmart for Allegedly Wearing Surgical Masks, Asks Them for ID” a News Break article headline reads on April 2, 2020. 

Fear fueled by racism in America comes to light through the virus which is due to the legacy and present racist policies and practices in America. The New York Times weighs in on the conversation about race in conjunction with the virus by quoting the fears that Black men face when wearing a mask.

“I have a sense of anxiety wearing the mask...It makes me more aware of how I’m being perceived” said Mr. Hargrove to New York Times reporter Derrick Bryson Taylor on April 14, 2020. Mr. Hargrove is not alone in his fears of being racially profiled or harassed by the police after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that face masks be worn in all states in America.

“As the coronavirus continues to spread, infecting and killing people of color at disproportionately high rates, Black men find themselves facing two concerns: the virus and those who see their covered faces as threatening” states The New York Times in the same article. 

woman wearing mask

Homemade Face Masks Can Not be Worn by Everyone

Major news outlets like NPR report that there is a major shortage of surgical face masks in America. Doctors requested that the public needs to stop buying surgical masks and make homemade masks instead. They requested this so that hospitals have enough for our frontline healthcare workers. This request seems simple and straightforward, however, this request can perpetuate racial stereotypes associated with homemade masks. 

As the general public starts to make more homemade masks, bandanas are a common substitute for surgical masks. However, “Bandanas, particularly in certain colors, are often associated with gang affiliation and violence,” said Cyntoria Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, reported to CNN reporter Fernado Alfonso III.

In the era of Trayvon Martin's unjust murder, the fear of violence that people of color have for wearing something that covers the face in public should be understood. Mass distributions of surgical masks to people of color must be made widely available. 

The Choice to Not Wear a Face Mask is White Privilege

In New York City, police are treating violaters to the CDC’s recommendation of wearing face masks differently across racial lines. This shows how racism and violence is a reality to people of color during the pandemic. 

“Images show officers handing out masks to white sunbathers, while video shows officer punching a person of color” reads the subheading for an article in The Guardian. 

The Guardian reports that in NYC, masks were being handed out to white people for violating the CDC face mask recommendations but, 33 year old Black man, Donni Wright, was slapped, punched and pushed to the ground by an NYPD officer in the East Village for allegedly not wearing a face mask. The officer has since been stripped of his badge.

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What is Being Done to Help in Places Such as NYC? How Can You Help? 

“Mayor de Blasio’s office promised to expand distribution of face coverings after a group of Brooklyn lawmakers revealed his plan to ignore wide swaths of the city” stated the Daily News on May 3, 2020. 

If you are in a position of privilege to help by wearing a homemade mask, please do.  I understand that everyone is in a difficult position but learning to make a mask at home to save the surgical mask for those who need them would be of great help. The racialized reality of who has the ability to wear a face mask in America during the Coronavirus Pandemic is attributed to the idea of white privilege in America. Shedding light on the invisibility of this privilege is vital and knowing that others are being disproportionately impacted by topics like the usage of face masks is crucial to understanding race and privilege in America.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11,12

Photo Credit: Her Campus Media Library