Society Unmasked

This sounds like a beginning of an inappropriate joke but it isn’t. It was just an interesting experience.

Three Black guys who don’t know each other walk into a grocery store. Two give each other a knowing glance and the customary head nod. They are wearing N95 masks. One is not.

As they get their produce, the two masked men silently speak to one another with their eyes.

“I’m glad I’m not the only Black guy up in here with a mask and gloves on,” they both say wordlessly. And then they go their separate ways.

A little while later, they see each other again on another aisle. On this aisle, another different black guy who works at the store looks at them. He is wearing a mask too. Silently he communicates, “I know, right?”

A few aisles later the two masked shoppers see each other again. But one of them takes his mask off and telepathically communicates to the last masked shopper, “I can’t do it bruh.” Not only are they minorities in the conventional sense, they also are some of the few people wearing masks in the store despite the Governor’s guidance for face coverings in public spaces.

Now the remaining masked man is left wondering if he should take his off too. But nevertheless he persists.

As they are leaving, the three men find themselves at different registers at the same self-checkout section. Now two are unmasked and one is not. They look at each other again. Finally one of them gives voice to the nonverbal conversation they’ve been having the whole time.

“Man you better take off that mask and take your chances with Corona. You’re going to mess around and get yourself shot around here.”

All three men laugh with the kind of laugh only common to those with shared experience. The tension breaks and the man who is still masked says, “I’m not even going to lie. As soon as I put this mask on to come in here, I started thinking ‘Now grocery shopping is two times the risk.'”

The previously masked man says, “Yup.” and shakes his head in agreement as he laughs. The man who was never masked says to the last masked man standing, “I know you did. You know how it is.”

Meanwhile, the customers who aren’t Black look awkwardly at the men seeming to wonder if they should be listening in. Too late now though. Like anthropologists, they’re getting a glimpse of another culture on the hunt for food in a survival context.

“Bruh, I’m just looking out for you. I’d rather get Corona than a bullet. People see you walking around here with your face covered and Corona or not, they will get nervous. And you know what that can lead to.”

A few more laughs.

The masked man who in this very moment is again considering removing his mask says, “I know what you mean bruh. I was tempted not to wear my mask either. But I’m wearing it for my family. So they’ll feel better about me coming in here and coming back to them.”

Considering this, the man who never masked says with empathy, “I hear you man. You have to look out for your family. That makes sense.”

All three men finish up packing their bags. Their conversation has returned to the knowing silence that often says more than words ever could.

The original maskless man finishes first and says bye to the other two. But before he goes, he offers these parting words:

“Grocery shop with a mask on if you have to for your family. But mess around and wear that mask into a liquor store and see what happens.”

And with that, a last nervous laugh is shared between strangers who know each other without ever having met.

Who was that masked man?
In case you think that this is not the America you live in.

After posting this, a friend sent me this piece from The Boston Globe:

Additional articles that you may want to reflect on:

Black Miami doctor handcuffed while helping homeless during pandemic

By Cynthia Silva

Why some people of color say they won’t wear homemade masks

By Fernando Alfonso III

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