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The Politics And Privilege Of Wearing A Mask

Aug 11, 2020

Before mass production of non-surgical masks became the norm, I remember reports by mainstream media suggesting using handkerchiefs or balaclavas as a simple and quick alternative. Of course, Black men in North America immediately rejected the idea.

Can you imagine them going about their daily lives wearing sunglasses and handkerchiefs in public spaces? Scary thought, right?

But it shouldn't be.

"Black men must choose wisely because the wrong decision could prove fatal."

When the pandemic hit, I was fully prepared to purchase my personal hazmat suit without a second thought. It never dawned on me how dangerous it would be for my brothers to conceal their faces while walking into shopping malls or banks.

Now that wearing masks is common practice, most of us have no cause for concern. However, Black men must choose wisely because the wrong decision could prove fatal.

On June 20th, statnews.com posted a series of comments made on social media about this dilemma in the United States. The online health and medical publication captured the general consensus of the Black community. “New mask is floral. Don’t shoot,” tweeted @KieseLaymon. “Handmade white masks will — hopefully — wrap us in cloud-like innocence,” DrewBreez wrote in Medium. Mothers, like @kim_hohman, tweeted their fear: “Is it safer for my son to risk COVID than to risk being seen as a tall Black man in a mask?” Aaron Thomas, a Black man from Ohio who chose not to wear a mask, may have put it best, writing, “I want to stay alive, but I also want to stay alive.”

Tweet: New mask is floral. Don't shoot. Naw, for real. Don't shoot.

The politicization of our clothing in white spaces has not changed since colonial times. Fashion might always be moving forward but racist and classist interpretations remain. What we wear and how we wear it, is both inspiration for haute couture (Dapper Dan and Gucci) and symbolic of criminal activity (Trayvon Martin’s hoodie). The constant surveillance of Black Canadians has many of us living with anxiety — an unhealthy form of self-protection.

Every day, Black parents balance the complex responsibility of instilling pride in their children while informing them of how their swag, culture and creativity is perceived as a threat to public safety.

Adolescence should be a time of creative expression, identity and belonging. Long before entering their teens, Black boys are taught that certain hairstyles (cornrows, locks, afros) and clothing (baseball caps, hoodies, kicks) could serve as the perfect excuse to be pulled over, carded or killed. While many African-Canadians cling to an unfounded belief that somehow blending in may prevent a visit to the morgue.


Don't want to raise racist kids? Take a good hard look at yourself. Read that POV here.


In his book, The Skin I’m In, Canadian author, journalist and activist Desmond Cole describes the emotionally taxing experience of protecting his self-esteem while being policed:

“I came to resent my blackness as a child because it made me feel powerless and scared. It has taken me most of my adult years to embrace this skin, this ancestry, this struggle.

During this time, I’ve begun to seek out my communities, a diaspora of Africans who understand so much of my experience without explanation, who love and support me specifically because I am Black. The more I celebrate my identity, the more I encounter white people who are existentially threatened by Black pride and self-love.”

David, a close friend of mine, says he considers two things each time he steps out the house. The first is the colour of his mask. His preferences are child-friendly motifs or neon colours to communicate he is safe and approachable. He also reminds me that in certain neighbourhoods wearing a blue or red mask could imply gang affiliation so those communities tend to stick to neutrals.

"I remember asking my friend what he was more afraid of — COVID-19 or wearing a mask in public. He didn’t hesitate to respond, “Wearing the mask… definitely the mask.”

Secondly, when crossing paths with police while out in public, being seen with a mask could make him a target for racial profiling. Although he does not have a police record and is a public servant, David has experienced police violence since childhood and has a valid fear of ending up in a deadly altercation. He stresses the importance of initiating eye contact, “When I see police on the way out, I pull that thing down. Look at this face. Because you don’t recognize me and you don’t know me.”

As a middle-aged Black woman and mom of a little girl, wearing a mask doesn’t present the same concerns. I am often followed while shopping so I’ve learned to keep my hands visible at all times and receipts easily accessible. However, living in a society where danger and violence is inextricably linked to a specific gender and skin colour, being masked, Black and male is the personification of a concealed weapon.


This Black mom believes that Black parents do not have the same checklists for parenthood. Read her POV here.


CBC.ca recently reported that Black people account for 21 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases in Toronto despite being only nine per cent of the overall population. Meanwhile in an interview with Global News, Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom, a public health physician and assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto says, “It’s not due to a genetic difference between Blacks and whites, it’s due to the inequities that Black and racialized people experience, such that there’s an extra stress from everyday racism that predisposes us to chronic conditions.”

In light of these stats, I remember asking my friend what he was more afraid of — COVID-19 or wearing a mask in public. He didn’t hesitate to respond, “Wearing the mask… definitely the mask.”

Article Author True Daley
True Daley

True Daley is a proud adoptive mom of an eight-year-old girl and advocate against anti-Black racism. The regular contributor to ByBlacks.com is also a multi-platform journalist and an award-winning performance artist who has appeared on CBC, CTV, BET and HBO. As an active member of BIPOC TV & Film in Toronto, she is currently developing an animated children's series for six- to nine-year-olds.

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