Tim Whyte | Masks, Profiles and Perceptions

Tim Whyte

So we’re all wearing masks now. Well, most of us, anyway. Some folks choose not to wear a mask.

Some have reasons not to.

For me, wearing a mask when I venture out of the house gives me some level of peace of mind, and it gives me peace of mind when others wear them, too. 

Not invincibility, mind you. It just elevates my comfort level, a bit. I’m more than a little paranoid these days, as many are, and I’m trying not to go out of the house if I don’t have to.

I hope my mask makes others feel increased comfort as well, while we all try to avoid spreading the coronavirus, protecting each other, our parents, our grandparents and those most vulnerable. 

I even have one with hockey designs on it, as a family friend has started sewing masks with various fabrics to inject a little fun into our COVID-19 protection. (Thanks, Mama Earl!)

My wife initially was reluctant to wear a mask, and her first one was an old red bandana she found in the house. She looked like a cute criminal when she tried it on. I told her she looked like she was ready to rob the overland stage. 

Regardless, it’s gotten to the point around the Santa Clarita Valley where, if you don’t wear a mask, people look at you funny, like you’re committing some kind of crime.

So you wear a mask.

But some folks think twice, and they have a different set of reasons to think twice, and it’s something that didn’t cross my mind until I read a Facebook post from one of my old high school football teammates, Robert Bradshaw.

Anyone who lived in the SCV in the early 1980s might remember Robert’s days on the gridiron playing for Saugus High School. He was one of the best running backs ever to carry a football in the SCV. He was blessed with lightning speed, and strength that made him exceedingly difficult for tacklers to bring down. He was, and is, a big, strong, hardworking guy with a huge heart.

He also happens to be black. 

And when the government called on everyone to start wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic, it gave him pause.

“Wearing this mask in public makes me feel like I’m putting my life in danger as a black male,” Robert wrote on Facebook, in a post accompanied by selfies of him both wearing the mask and sans mask. “I put this mask on for the first time last week when my wife and I went grocery shopping. I knew we were going grocery shopping and she wanted me to wear this mask, but I left it at home on purpose because I was uncomfortable wearing it. 

“We went to the grocery store and she found out that I did not bring the mask. She was highly upset because she knew it was for safety purposes, but I was highly uncomfortable wearing it. We left the store and went back home and I picked up my mask so we could continue grocery shopping.”

I’ve never met Robert’s wife, but in reading his Facebook posts, I can tell she doesn’t put up with any nonsense from him. So of course, I can totally picture them going back home and retrieving the mask. That kind of spousal conversation sounds very familiar to a lot of us guys…

Yet, he remained uncomfortable with the mask, and it’s a discomfort that doesn’t cross your mind unless you’re walking in the shoes of a black person, especially a black male. 

I’ve never walked in those shoes, so the way a black man would feel about the COVID-19 mask situation didn’t even occur to me until I read his post.

“Before this virus even started up, I didn’t want to be racially profiled, so I never go in stores and pick things up unless I’m going to buy them,” he wrote. “I don’t wear my beanie when I go into 7-Eleven in the morning or when I go inside to purchase gas.”

I’ve written before about racism and discrimination, and opposing them in all their forms. And, although I was discriminated against myself in two long-past employment situations — for being white, for being male, and for being heterosexual, the trifecta of things much more commonly associated with privilege — I’ve never had to think about the things Robert and other black men have to think about when they go out in public, even under normal circumstances.

But especially now, in these highly abnormal circumstances, with a deadly virus circulating and people donning face gear. 

“My wife knows how I feel after talking to her after the grocery shopping incident, and she said I no longer have to go with her shopping,” Robert wrote. (Side joke among husbands of all colors, because I just KNOW a lot of you were thinking the same thing: If there’s an up side, it’s that you no longer have to go grocery shopping…)

But the way he feels about the precautions he needs to take in public is no joke, and it’s a sad commentary that such reservations persist in 2020, and they’re real. 

“The reason I’m writing this is because as I sit here, watching TV, a news report came on talking about black males being profiled and kicked out of stores,” Robert wrote. “This is the life that I live because of the color of my skin.”

And it’s not just a one-day thing, or a during-the-pandemic thing.

It’s every. Single. Day.

Is it Pollyannaish to say I hope that changes? I know, going out and about in the Santa Clarita Valley, this community has changed in the 30-plus years since my high school days. We’re still in a bit of a suburban bubble here compared to more metropolitan areas, but it’s a much more diverse place now than it used to be, and I don’t notice anyone giving a second thought to people of any color roaming around a grocery store, with or without a mask. 

But again, I’m perceiving that from the standpoint of someone who’s never had to think twice about being profiled.

Maybe I’m just not noticing.

I hope I’m not being naive. Perhaps I am. But I sincerely hope we can soon evolve to a day when, heaven forbid we’re ever in the midst of another pandemic, a black man can feel safer, with a mask, than without one.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column usually appears on Sundays.

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