Over the past few months, mask-wearing in public has become the norm. In some states, it’s even required. But for Black Americans — and young Black men in particular — wearing a mask can feel like a catch-22. Public health experts now say masks are crucial for preventing the spread of the virus, which has disproportionately affected Black people. But putting on a mask can be an intense source of anxiety for many Black people — particularly Black men — who worry that they’ll be harassed or profiled while they’re wearing one.
“Almost immediately after mask-wearing became widespread, there were anecdotal reports of Black men being followed and asked to leave stores because they were wearing masks,” said ReNika Moore, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
A new study underscores just how widespread this kind of profiling could be. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that in a survey experiment, non-Black respondents who scored high in racial resentment — a measure that’s designed to assess negative attitudes toward people of color — were much likelier to perceive a young Black man as threatening or untrustworthy if he was wearing a homemade mask or a bandanna, compared to a white man around the same age.
“There’s no doubt at this point that masks keep people safer from COVID-19,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the authors of the study. “But certain types of masks may also be putting young Black men in danger of harassment or profiling.”
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Researchers had all respondents read a short fictitious news story about a young man who said he had been laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the photo of the man that accompanied the narrative varied by race (white or Black) and face covering. In some pictures, the man was wearing no mask; in others, he was wearing a surgical mask, a homemade cloth mask or a bandanna.
The respondents were then asked to rate how “threatening” and “trustworthy” the young man was. The study found that non-Black respondents who scored high in racial resentment were significantly more likely to say the young Black man was threatening or untrustworthy when he was wearing the bandanna or the homemade mask. Michael Jeffries, a professor of American studies at Wellesley College, said this study further affirms the fears of Black people wearing certain masks in public. “Our reactions are based on the way that we’re treated. These are not figments of our imagination.”
CalvinJohn Smiley, a sociology professor at Hunter College, said the findings reminded him of a lively conversation that sprang up in a WhatsApp group earlier in the pandemic. He and the other Black men on the thread were swapping thoughts on which kinds of masks and bandannas would be safest for them to wear. “The standard darker blue or standard red colors were ones that we all kind of said, we’re definitely not going to wear that,” he said, because of the colors’ associations with street gangs. “It’s really a horrible decision to make — do I wear this mask and potentially be stopped and profiled by the police? Or do I not wear it and risk my health and livelihood?” he said.
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The UNC team’s findings have serious health implications, especially given how the coronavirus has disproportionately affected Black people. But the research has also turned up one potential solution. Since the researchers found that surgical masks didn’t increase negative perceptions of Black men the way homemade masks or bandannas did, cities and states could make those masks more widely available. And some places have already done something like this: In Rochester, NY, the city mailed out almost 500,000 surgical masks to residents.
Several experts and activists pointed out, though, that simply mailing out surgical masks won’t solve the underlying issues that make some Black people feel unsafe covering their faces in public. Tyler Whittenburg, chief counsel of the Justice Systems Reform group at the advocacy organization Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that the anxiety about wearing face masks isn’t just about the masks themselves. It’s linked to the larger systemic issues around police violence and the surveillance of Black people that have been raised by protesters across the country in the past month. “If you want to help mitigate that anxiety, then listen to the people that are out in the streets,” he said. And Lauren Hill, an assistant professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, said it’s important that businesses and local governments ensure that Black people aren’t harassed in public, regardless of what kind of mask they’re wearing.
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Smiley told us that listening to Black Americans and paying attention to their experiences is especially important because even if surgical masks don’t trigger damaging stereotypes now, that might change. It’s possible, for example, that because they haven’t been readily available until recently, the masks — and people who wear them — might be perceived more negatively if masks start being distributed for free. And that change could disproportionately impact Black Americans, given the difficulties they already face with other types of face masks.
On a personal level, Smiley has prioritized wearing a mask from the start, since he believes he was actually sick with the virus earlier this year. And now, he’s mostly worried about being harassed on the rare occasions when he forgets to wear a mask. But he understands many Black people may still feel uncomfortable putting one on — and he said that complexity and ambivalence is one reason this problem may not have a simple fix. “This really is a matter of health and people’s lives, so we can’t ignore it,” he said, adding, “But it is probably going to be more complicated than just finding a neutral mask.”