Jenice Armstrong: How do you react to a black man wearing a mask?

I was chatting with a friend about how government officials now recommend that Americans don face masks in public to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

Since he was heading to a grocery store, I asked if he planned to wear one and he responded that he didn’t own one. Trying to be helpful, I suggested he find an old bandanna and tie it around his face, to which he said, “Nah.”

I asked, “Why not?”

“Because I’m a black man in America,” he responded.

He was concerned, and justifiably so, about how employees might react at the sight of him, a larger-than-average black man, entering the store late at night with his face partially concealed with a scarf.

My friend is far from alone.

As more Americans are heeding the advice of the White House and donning face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, some African American males have expressed concern about how they’ll be perceived if they follow suit.

That’s because of negative racial stereotypes that already exist that black men are somehow threatening, criminal and out to steal.

“If racial profiling occurs during times of normalcy, one can only hypothesize that wearing a mask while black during this most trying of times can occur,” said Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

In recent weeks, there have been a number of well-publicized incidents in which African American males wearing face masks have gotten negative pushback.

One reportedly happened in Illinois when two young black men wearing surgical masks were escorted from a Walmart store while shopping. They filmed themselves being followed out of the store.

In another case, a black doctor in Miami who was wearing a surgical face mask while unloading a van outside his home was handcuffed and detained by a police officer. Filmed by a home security camera, the incident is currently under investigation.

And therein lies the problem for some men of color who want to wear masks but are worried about how they will be treated while doing so.

Mustafa Rashed, president of Bellevue Strategies, a Philadelphia public relations firm, has some masks on order but isn’t looking forward to wearing them. He’s already acutely aware of how he gets treated while dressed in a suit vs. workout gear.

“It’s not going to be nonthreatening. It’s not. Because I’m a black man in America and putting on a mask gives me an undesired anonymity, and that’s just real,” he told me.

On the few occasions that I’ve been out recently, I’ve noticed that more people, including black men, have on face masks while waiting at bus stops or walking along sidewalks.

That’s encouraging because it means the message is getting out about protecting others from asymptomatic transmissions of the disease, which can be spread by respiratory droplets when an infected individual coughs or sneezes.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Derek Green has a black cloth face mask that his wife made.

“I do understand the concerns for the African American community, particularly African American men,” he told me Monday. “But my other concern and even greater (concern) is people getting COVID-19.”

He’s right about that.

Every man needs to wear a mask of some sort while in public, regardless of how he might be perceived.

Yes, he may get pushback from store employees or others who see him and assume the worst. But at least he may live long enough to file a lawsuit. That might not happen, if a guy comes down with COVID-19.

As for my friend, he still doesn’t own a proper face mask. Nor will he wear a bandanna, which, depending on the color, can have gang connotations. But he does have a gray Nike shirt with a large collar that he pulls up to cover his nose and mouth. He’s making do with that for now.

Jenice Armstrong photographed in the Photo Studio at 801 Market Street, February 2nd, 2016, in Philadelphia. ( Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer ) Armstrong photographed in the Photo Studio at 801 Market Street, February 2nd, 2016, in Philadelphia. ( Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer )

Jenice Armstrong

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jenice Armstrong is a metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

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