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For our communities, masks present a safety challenge

May 15, 2020

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By Luricela Arguello 

Many have uttered phrases expressing the vast differences in our lives during this new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Even in this world of significant challenges due to stay-at-home orders, one thing remains the same: Black and Latino/Latinx people continue to face disproportionate discrimination. Even in this health crisis, racism and bigotry still flourish and, in many cases, have even been further nurtured. We have seen instances of increased racist views toward individuals of Asian culture as if they were to blame for the new virus’ existence. More and more, we’re seeing examples of Black and Latino/Latinx people caught in a difficult bind: do I wear a face mask and face persecution, or do I reject the face mask and risk contracting COVID-19? 

Several articles, posts, and comments on social media highlight people of color’s lived experiences of feeling unsafe when wearing personal protective equipment over the risk contracting coronavirus. One situation exemplifying the worries expressed by Aaron Thomas is Illinois State Rep. Kam Buckner’s recent experience of being questioned by police after exiting a retail store while wearing everyday attire with a mask and gloves. Rep. Buckner was told by the officer that he was questioned since he “looked like he was up to something.” He tweeted that the situation reminded him of the “be a prospect not a suspect” talks that minority youth often receive to ensure that they safely navigate a world in which racism still exists today. Rep. Buckner also goes on to state that even his political status did not absolve him from that type of interaction with law enforcement; therefore, if even someone of high status who is a person of color cannot avoid these, then what chance do we as everyday people have of going about our day without harassment for simply trying to protect ourselves from COVID-19? 

I have visited several local retailers on the northwest side of Chicago and witnessed some shoppers of color being discriminated against while wearing masks. In one instance before masks were required to be worn in public in Illinois, I witnessed a situation in which a Black mother and her son entered a store wearing masks, and a Black employee quickly told the mother that her son could not come into the store with his face covered. This is a clear example of how fear can trigger many individuals to internalize systematic oppressions and then reflect them onto others. The mother and son were not the only ones in the store at the time who were wearing masks; however, this Black man was targeted and could not be in the store while wearing the mask. Only he was perceived as a possible threat by the store’s employee. I have spoken to other people of color whose family members do not feel comfortable wearing any face coverings, particularly, while shopping or working in more affluent or predominantly white neighborhoods. 

As a Latinx woman, I have experienced my partner, father and brother’s reservations about wearing face coverings, whether they were bandanas, or homemade masks. I have seen increased anxiety from my partner when attempting to do basic things like going to the grocery store. He is struggling with the idea of going out in public, not just for fear of contracting the virus without a mask, but also for fear for his safety if he were to wear one. My own anxiety is heightened when he does go to the store fueling fears that he will be harassed not only by the store employees or community members, but by the many police I have seen parked in shopping centers and parking lots in recent weeks. The issue of wearing masks is, therefore, not only an issue of physical health (from the virus or actual physical harm), but also an issue of mental health as individuals worry for the safety of themselves and their families.  

Many individuals may not think about this if they or someone in their life has not experienced or witnessed harassment. There are already many situations in which people of color experience disparities in health, employment, and every other aspect of life, but we should not make people choose between avoiding COVID-19 and risking persecution or physical harm from those that perceive us as threatening when we are only trying to protect ourselves by wearing a mask.  

I ask that more of our local and federal government officials step up and follow Gov. JB Pritzker’s example of condemning the harassment being experienced by people of color. Officials can update the public during their daily briefings so that those not directly affected will see that those discriminatory behaviors are NOT acceptable. To publicly denounce this discrimination would show people of color that our concerns are valid. To publicly denounce this discrimination would give us the courage we need to be able to report these occurrences to entities such as the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. To publicly denounce this would aid in alleviating some fear and anxiety related to COVID-19, which is only one of the many barriers and disparities experienced by people of color in our everyday lives.   

Luricela Arguello has been a bilingual Medical Benefits Specialist at AFC for over 1 year and has over 5 years of experience working directly with underprivileged communities. As a means of continuing to support the struggles of the communities she works with, Luricela is a member of the Racial and Social Justice Committee at AFC, which strives to address individuals’ struggles with within the agency and externally. Luricela is a first-generation Mexican American and the first in her family to graduate from college with a Bachelor of Arts (Magna Cum Laude) with a focus in psychology and a minor in cultural anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Luricela has previously participated in multiple house-building projects for impoverished families in the Tecate and Tijuana regions of Mexico. Luricela has also participated in various community homeless outreach efforts as part of her previous work as a Housing Specialist in the San Diego region.  

Read more experiences of race-based discrimination related to mask use:  

https://twitter.com/Aaron_TheThomas/status/1246493711032356866 

https://twitter.com/RepKamBuckner/status/1257339336779055107 

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