The double bind: Wearing masks in public can put Black, Latinx and Indigenous people in a dangerous position

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For Black and Brown communities, actions are often interpreted through a stereotype of criminality. This stereotype is widespread during times of national crisis.

By Alex Beyer, Office of Health Equity, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment | April 24, 2020

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Black man closeup holding up a surgical mask that is covering his face
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CDC now recommends that people wear non-medical or homemade masks when out in public. This advice makes sense from a public health perspective. Wearing masks when you’re outside your home to do essential tasks, like going to the grocery store, can slow the spread of the virus. But for Black and Brown communities, including Latinx and Indigenous people, wearing a homemade mask in public can be just as dangerous as not wearing one.

As a White person, I didn’t think much about the CDC recommendation at first. I was maybe a bit annoyed about the slight inconvenience this would be for me, but I understood why these steps were being taken. Other than that, my only other concern was whether I’d use a scarf or an old shirt for my mask the next time I had to go outside.

Little did I know that my own concerns could in no way compare to the concerns of my boss, who is a Black man.

He recently went to his local grocery store with his daughter and wore a homemade mask. He told our team about the experience during a meeting, saying,

“I’ve gone to this grocery store for many years, only this time was I treated dramatically different by the other shoppers. The expressions on their faces ranged from suspicion to fear.”

His daughter also couldn’t help but notice the different reactions people had towards her father, even before he mentioned it to her.

It became clear to me that this experience was not unique to my boss. Other Black Americans have voiced their concerns about wearing masks in public, some saying that they fear for their lives. Aaron Thomas, an educator in Columbus, Ohio, recently tweeted

“I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world. I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.”

USC law professor Jody Armour, who is also Black, expressed similar sentiments: “You want to look out for your neighbors and not expose them to infections by wearing masks … And on the other hand, you want to get home alive. You also don't want to be mistaken for an assailant.”

For Black and Brown communities, actions are often interpreted through a stereotype of criminality. This stereotype is widespread during times of national crisis. It happened during 9/11 when Muslims were often portrayed as terrorists. During Hurricane Katrina, Black victims of the natural disaster were often portrayed as looters.  

With the onset of this crisis and the CDC recommendation that followed, racial bias puts these communities in a lose-lose situation. They either risk contracting the disease, or they risk being racially profiled (or worse).

Incredibly, Black and Brown people also have to worry about the same kind of insensitive reactions when they choose not to wear masks. A report has surfaced of a Black man who was forcibly removed from a bus in Philadelphia for failing to wear a mask, which is now a policy for the city’s transit system. But this policy does not take into account the real fears that Black and Brown people face when wearing a mask in public. 

While we cannot let racial bias allow us to judge people of color for wearing masks, it is just as inappropriate to judge them for not doing so. 

What can we do to support the Coloradans who find themselves in this troubling situation? Taking the time to check ourselves, to think twice, to not rush to judgement, is always the best course of action. Right now, this is especially important. It all starts with trying to understand one another’s experiences instead of dismissing it. We all have a voice to be heard and a story to be told.

Be kind. Be an ally to people who may have very real concerns about wearing masks. Read and share the Office of Health Equity’s infographic about this topic.

Let’s take a moment to pause and realize that we are all in this together. These are difficult times for all of us. Together, we can find the strength to get through this and make the situation much safer for everyone.

When it comes to bias, awareness is key. Check out these resources to begin understanding your own bias:  

  • Appendix A of Colorado Equity Alliance's Equitable Retention Guide explains what bias is and how it can come out in our everyday lives. 
  • The Harvard Implicit Bias test is designed to reveal thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the test is to educate the public about our own hidden biases.