Empathy for others and their challenges in life is a core tenet of personal and spiritual growth. Without seeing the world from another’s lens, how can one truly understand who other people are and the motivations for their thoughts and actions? That’s one reason I wear a mask in public. Here’s another: As a Black man in America, it’s given me more freedom than I had before.
How is that? Baltimore’s weather can be hot, stifling, and unfriendly throughout the year, and masks can make it hard to breathe. Don’t I just want to return to normal?
Normal was random security guards following me in local stores even when I was dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, or a shirt and tie. Normal was fellow customers asking if I worked in stores dressed in these same clothes, which were obviously different from those stores’ employees. Normal was uncomfortable looks, pocketed cellphones and clutched purses on elevators. Normal was knowing that some fair-skinned people near me were intimidated just because I was darker skinned than them. Normal was people of all races and backgrounds asking if I’m really from Baltimore, due to my firm grasp of the English language. Normal was the feeling of slight discomfort when interacting with some non-Black supervisors and upper managers in person after they had assumed the co-worker they were interacting with via voice and email — me — was “different” than my reality.
As a service coordinator/social worker/mediator by trade, I work with people of extremely varied backgrounds and ask probing questions to determine how I can best support someone’s continued independence or resolve conflict. In these settings there are few barriers between myself and others because of their need for assistance and my professional demeanor.
I take this same countenance with me in public, yet what I encounter from people there, can be vastly different, even before being introduced. When I wear a mask, that’s all blunted. It is amazing that I can interact with the public more freely than ever before, with a visible and obvious barrier on my face.
The mask new normal fits me like a custom-tailored suit. No gaps, weird folds or questionable fits to be queried over. “Comfortable in my own skin” is an understatement when you’ve been unable to figure why someone else is so uncomfortable in your own presence.
People get to sense just what they need to when I am wearing a mask. They know I have some concern over the health of myself and others. I can still be heard and express myself facially. They can even see my smile through a fabric mask! In other words, people get to see me at closer to my face value with more than half my face covered. What a grand and sad statement: My value as a human is more apparent when my true human appearance is distorted. It feels like America, most Americans and our most treasured institutions of government, education and business would prefer my COVID avatar to my reality.
Race is one of the grand failures of human intelligence as we ascribe what is outside — our skin, the wrapping paper of humanity — as being most indicative of who and what we are inside. Pay no mind to the box, the time spent choosing a gift, the enjoyment, the size and the sound of the gift; just let that wrapping paper interact with your imagination and then watch as it grafts itself to the experience you were intended to get from the gift inside.
I’m pro-mask for my health. I’m pro-mask for your health. What makes me love wearing a mask, though, is that I can be seen for something closer to who I am just by existing with a little cloth barrier that makes me and those I interact with feel as though we are more similar and connected while being more protected from each other and our surroundings. What a wonderful gift at such a perilous price.
Terence Frasier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a resident service coordinator and community conference coordinator with Anne Arundel County Partnership for Children, Youth and Families.