Unmasking Our Bias
Updated: May 15, 2020
I put on my mask, hat, and sunglasses as I prepared to go for a walk. As I looked in the mirror before I walked out the door, I laughed at the image staring back at me. I was unrecognizable with nearly every inch of my face covered. These are the precautions we take in order to venture outside on a sunny day during the Coronavirus pandemic.
As I walked along and continued to think about how strange it felt to look like the headless woman, my mind wandered to the stories I’ve heard of people whose choice to wear a mask comes with much less levity and much greater risk than mine.
Stories like these..
A black doctor was handcuffed outside his home while he was wearing a medical mask and loading supplies for the homeless into the back of his vehicle.
A mother is afraid to let her black teenage son wear a mask because some people may find him “threatening,” but she’s also scared for his health if he doesn’t wear one.
Two black men were escorted out of a Walmart by a police officer for wearing masks because they looked “suspicious.”
An Asian woman was harassed for wearing a mask on the subway.
For some people of color, the choice to follow the suggestions or local mandates to wear a mask could lead to harassment or arrest, but the choice not to wear a mask could lead to infection. It’s a catch-22.
I lamented this reality as I walked. The discrimination that people of color face simply based on their appearance is nothing new. It’s a burden that they carry around daily as they have to think through how to dress, speak, and act in a way that will be most accepted and less likely to be perceived as a threat. I can’t imagine the toll that kind of weight takes on a person over the years.
I recognize the privilege that I have. I think back to middle school when one of my teachers told me that I had the “halo effect”. She said that I just looked innocent, and I could be guilty of a crime but no one would ever suspect me. While I’m sure she wouldn’t have acknowledged that her comment had anything to do with race, I’m also pretty sure that my blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin had something to do with why she perceived me in such an angelic way.
The truth is that we all have bias. We are all affected by the stereotypes to which we’ve been exposed. We don’t need to deny our own prejudice. We actually need to unmask it. We need to grow in our awareness of our bias, acknowledge it when it pops up, and challenge our own perceptions. We need to ask ourselves questions like, “Why does that person seem suspicious to me?” “Why do I feel threatened or uncomfortable?” “Would I feel differently about this person’s behavior if they looked just like me?”
As I grieved the reality of racism during my walk, I also confessed the ways that I’ve been part of the problem. I admitted that there have been times when I have misjudged someone based solely on the way they look. I recognized that I am culpable for some of the same prejudices that I was lamenting.
In this current crisis, I know it’s easier and more comfortable to believe that we’re all in this together, but it’s a major disservice to our brothers and sisters of color to ignore the ways that they are disproportionately affected. This pandemic has the potential to unite us and to help us understand our common humanity, but it also highlights the differences in our experiences and the injustices that are perpetuated against some. Let’s make ourselves aware of the inequity, grieve the injustice, acknowledge our role in it, and do what we can to make it right.