In the Age of the ‘Rona It’s Mask or Die: But If You’re a Black Man, Apparently It’s Complicated

I was out for one of the two walks I’d take yesterday when I saw an older black man get extremely startled. He was edging his lawn and didn’t see a woman walking behind him in the street until she was quite close. Not too close, mind, but he jumped so hard, I was startled, and I was watching the whole thing – from across the street and then some, ‘cuz you know my social distancing game is tighter than Dick’s hat band.

His reaction made me think about something I just discovered this week. Maybe you’ve heard of it, this practice of tipping your mask? Apparently, when black men wear their protective face masks, some shop owners require that they “tip the mask” upon entering a store to indicate that they come in peace. You know, just to shop like everyone else who walks in wearing a mask these days – not to rob the place.

When I read that article I just sat there for a while with a tight chest. How ridiculously unfair. We wear the masks to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, and part of the best practice is not to lower the mask for any reason once it’s in place and you’re out in public. To do so defeats the purpose of wearing it because when you move it or touch it or both, you may be exposing yourself to risk.

Yet, black men are expected to tip their masks when other people are not. Trip off that.

We’ve already seen the stories about the disproportionate number of African-Americans dying from COVID-19, and now I find out that my brethren are expected to voluntarily expose themselves to risk even after taking appropriate precautions to avoid this terrible disease? To call it unfair would be a masterful understatement. But I suppose it’s like Damon Young said in his Washington Post article last month, “the irony of being told, forever, that obscuring my face might get me killed, only to now be told, “Mask or die!” is priceless.

He illustrated his point further with an April 3rd tweet from writer and University of Mississippi professor @KieseLaymon: “I had the Bane mask. Forgot I’m Black. And big. And ancestrally red-eyed. And of the United States. New mask is floral. Don’t shoot. Naw, for real. Don’t shoot.”

And to think I just found out about this. Even more ironic? A white woman hipped me to the game and suggested this topic for my blog — thanks, Jamie.

I have been socially distant, for real, but this blew me away. Especially since I’d been wondering why many of the people I saw out and about without masks were black men. Now I guess I know.

I mean, I know where I live, and I know what it means to be black in America. I know the bias that people of color face, but it seems like there’s always something new to flip my wig. It’s all similar threads to the same fabric, of course, but this. The unprecedented weight of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic on top of the fear of being misidentified as a criminal? Just for following government mandates created to keep you safe? I must say, the mind reels.

It’s disgusting. Really. It’s gross.

But that just goes to show. One must exist with empathy because there is almost always another perspective to consider. There is always another life story to be told and listened to so as not to miss the full picture of our integrated reality.

That old black man on the street today recovered from his inadvertent fright. But somewhere out there, there may be a shop owner — or an overzealous police officer following black male shoppers from Walmart — who gets the wrong idea about a different black man, and it may cost that brother his life. And not because he died from the ‘rona.

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