Whose Safety?

In response to the rapid spread of recommendations to mask up last week, I ran errands this weekend with my face covered. Because my partner has multiple risk factors for COVID-19, the masks we haven’t donated are reserved in case I get sick, in the hope that if we both wear them we’ll raise the chances of her survival. So I pulled out a bandana to take with me. I felt awkward putting it on in the parking lot of the first store, where clearly no one else was covered, but as I stared at my face in the rear-view mirror of my car, the white skin of my forehead showing above my dark sunglasses and blue bandana, I thought about the added danger this new recommendation would impose on the lives of my friends, colleagues, family members, and students of color.

As I went from store to store (it was the first of the month, so there were more necessary stops than usual), I was intrigued by the fact that who was covered traced out lines of both race and class in the communities around me. The store with the largest number of masked shoppers? Trader Joe’s, followed closely by our local organic chain, Sprouts. The one with the smallest number? Lowe’s, and the feed store that serves local agricultural businesses and livestock owners.

Over the past few days, I’ve continued to worry over the disproportionate impact of these newest policies. I thought about the Sikh man I knew in grad school who swapped his turban for a bandana in the days after the September 11 attacks. I thought of the women who took off their hijabs, and the ones who didn’t. I thought of the violence against Sikhs, Muslims, and other people of color in those days of heightened fear, of the Native woman who was told to go back where she came from. I’m hardly alone, of course – most of my friends, colleagues, family members, and students have been worrying about these things too. There’s been important and insightful coverage on racial, regional, and class disparities from leading news organizations and the critically important independents, and invaluable webinars like those organized by the African American Policy Forum. Now, though, two more developments are making those inequities even starker in Southern California.

First, on Monday, Los Angeles County asked all residents not to go out at all for two weeks. For how many weeks now have we been shaming people who stockpile food and supplies? “Just get enough for one week” has been the message, as YouTube videos go viral showing working-class white women and women of color fighting each other for toilet paper. Although many of the stockpilers are likely to be the ones who are now comfortably tucked into well-appointed apartments and houses behind gates and doormen, with six weeks of food that they could afford to buy all at once, the stereotype of the stockpiler immediately became female and poor. And now, what are people to do who followed the rules? What about those who still – or newly – can barely pay for a few days of food, much less two weeks’ worth? Now the people who dug into their savings to stockpile look like the smart ones – but watch closely to see if anyone admits that.

Second, yesterday San Bernardino County, which borders where I live and work, mandated the use of face coverings in public and made the failure to wear a covering a crime. Worse yet, they recommended that people avoid using surgical and N95 masks, so as (rightly) to leave those for healthcare workers, but instead use a bandana, a neck gaiter pulled up over the nose and mouth…in essence, every face covering that, when combined with dark skin, taps into the American stereotype of “criminal” that’s been woven so tightly into the mainstream culture by film and television industries that have made fortunes since their inception on boxing people of color into demeaning stereotypes. Other governments in the region, including the City of Los Angeles and Riverside County itself, have moved in a similar direction. In Riverside County, there’s one key difference: A pledge from the County Sheriff and from numerous city chiefs of police not to issue citations to people violating the order.

What precisely, I wonder, do the people making these policies expect people of color to do in these situations? People have already been having to choose between safety from the virus and safety from the people around them when they decide whether to go outside with their faces covered. Now those same decisions come with the threat of social opprobrium for wearing a medical mask, the threat of social violence for wearing another form of facial covering, and the threat of a $1,000 fine – in communities that were already suffering from poverty and now are facing massive unemployment – or up to 90 days in jail in communities already disproportionately incarcerated and at a time when states are frantically trying to reduce their overcrowded prison populations. Jailed if you do, jailed if you don’t.

Someone has surely already joked that at least niqabi Muslims are ahead of the game. In the mode of bitter irony, it perhaps feels like a bit of poetic justice to think that women who’ve been harassed, insulted, and assaulted for years in the U.S. based on their choice of covering can be cast at last as trend setters, but it’s tragically certain that niqabis will see no lessening of the violence against them in the coming days. A mainstream culture that can revere veiled nuns and decry veiled Muslims in the same breath will have no problem valorizing white folks with our faces covered and making everyone else’s life hell. All coverings are not equal in this system – nor are all government mandates that criminalize someone’s failure to cover her face.

As the carceral reins in the U.S. tighten over this pandemic, we’ve already lost the repeatedly hard-won right to free assembly. We can’t push back against the criminalization of bare faces by gathering in front of government offices with slogans and signs. Now more than ever, it’s obvious why justice always needs all kinds of activists. We can protest by writing to the county, by writing to our representatives, by sending and posting videos, by writing op-eds, by recording stories for the radio, by writing blogs, by posting and sharing on social media, by…what creative protest will you engage in?

Whose safety are our leaders really protecting, when they should be protecting the most vulnerable? What will you do about it?