The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a 180-degree turn last week and is now recommending that people wear face masks in public. The guidelines say that medical grade masks should be reserved for health professionals, who are facing a shortage of supplies, and suggest that Americans use T-shirts, scarves, handkerchiefs, or any other spare fabric to make homemade masks to cover their noses and mouths.
On Saturday I thought about the errands I need to make this week, including a trip to the grocery store. I thought I could use one of my old bandanas as a mask. But then my voice of self-protection reminded me that I, a Black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandana covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store. The situation isn’t safe and could lead to unintended attention, and ultimately a life-or-death situation for me. For me, the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting COVID-19.
These are the fears that Black Americans have to constantly face. Where we can go, how we can show up, what we can wear, what we can say — it never ends. The world is upside down right now with the coronavirus pandemic, and we are living in a dystopian nightmare come to life. Still, we are living in an America where history dictates that, even in the most absurd times, hatred and bigotry continue to reign. We are still judged, convicted, and sentenced by race, by gender, sexual orientation, and class.
Early reports highlight what many have predicted: Those who are impacted by COVID-19 are overwhelmingly people of color, poor people, the homeless, and those living with disabilities. This stems from a lack of equitable access to health care.
Meanwhile, the bigotry escalates. There has been an increase of anti-Asian discrimination because COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China. Racial tensions are increasingly escalating, and the situation for minorities is getting worse.
As this is a historical moment, it is important that we remember our history. Black men and women in this country have been killed for any and everything. A child with a toy gun, a young girl sleeping in her family home, a man buying an air gun at Walmart. Knowing all that, I just don’t feel safe. Even in a time of pandemic, the discrimination does not stop.
I will not be covering my face until I am able to obtain a face mask that is unmistakable for what it is. Let me be clear: This is not because I do not trust the advice of the CDC — I do. I believe in science, and I have followed all of its guidelines up to this point. I know masks work, and I trust the CDC’s recommendation.
What I do not trust are the innate biases and lack of critical thought about the implications of these decisions. I do not trust that I can walk into a grocery store with my face covered and not be disturbed. I do not trust that I will not be followed. I do not trust that I will be allowed to exist in my Black skin and be able to buy groceries or other necessities without a confrontation and having to explain my intent and my presence. I do not trust that wearing a make-shift mask will allow me to make it back to my home.
So until I receive a mask, I will get to live out my childhood dream of being on “Supermarket Sweep.” And yes, I will attempt to get everything I need into my cart and to the checkout in three minutes or less.
Aaron Thomas lives in Columbus, Ohio.