During these challenging times, many of us have had the privilege of enjoying the cocoon of family life, competing for internet bandwidth as we work and school from home, and seek to meet our need to be informed of current affairs and to stay connected.
For many in our diverse Albuquerque communities, especially those of color, it can be a powerful jolt back to reality when we venture out to pick up essentials for our families. Though we’re ready to fight against COVID-19, wearing masks to protect others, reactions by some majority group members to us is a stark reminder that inequality still shapes our realities in enduring ways.
A colleague recently shared:
“As a man of color, of Mexican descent, I always think about how I can be perceived by others and even more so by law enforcement. During this time when we are being told to wear a mask to flatten the curve of COVID-19 I was worried not only for my safety but the safety of others that could be profiled as a threat simply by having their faces covered by a mask. On two occasions I went out to the store and had a bandana with me. As I began to place the bandana over my mouth and nose and opened the door of my car, I began to feel anxious. I realized that to many people I look like a threat, and it means that I would be putting my well-being at risk due to their overreaction. Both times I took off the bandana and put it in my pocket. I can only imagine how many of our young men of color feel if I, a 44-year-old relatively light-skinned man, has those worries. We can’t assume that all people will be safer with a mask than without one.”
At UNM, we are proud of the many heritages represented by our student body. But as a host community in Albuquerque, and throughout our state, it is important that we are mindful of the safety of our students. One of our graduate students shared:
“I intentionally chose a really femme mask to counterbalance the whole ‘Black dude with my face covered look.'”
Another graduate student related:
“I was with my partner shopping at the Walmart, and while we were walking around, there were whispers and people kind of following me and saying, ‘Why is she in here? She should get kicked out. Watch out, she has COVID!’ I became really frustrated. If I confront them it will get more aggressive. My significant other did want to confront them. But I told him ‘no.’ Just because I’m Asian does not mean I have COVID-19!”
Implicit or unconscious bias is the process by which the brain uses “mental associations that are so well-established as to operate without awareness, or without intention, or without control.” Each of us has some personal collection of unconscious biases gathered over time from our families, from our culture, from our socialization, from our experiences and from the media. And when we are in a state of distress, this is one of the prime times that our normally careful thought processes are disrupted by unconscious bias.
We remind our neighbors to take a deep breath and to remember that in general, medical face masks are very difficult to obtain, and that the wearing of bandanas and other improvised face covering is, in fact, a highly altruistic act. As people of color, we wear masks in order to protect the public in hopes that we, too, will be protected. As multigenerational family living arrangements are common in our communities, we are especially alert to safety concerns during this unprecedented time. For us, these are life-and-death issues, as communities of color are shown to be both more susceptible to the coronavirus and more likely to die if we contract COVID-19.
As Lobos, “Each of Us Defines All of Us” — please, let’s all do our part to disrupt unconscious bias while keeping our community safe.
Select members of the UNM Diversity Council contributed to this op-ed.