Face coverings, one of the recommended strategies to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, can evoke “mental gymnastics” for some groups — particularly those in communities who are already viewed with suspicion, according to a diversity expert at West Virginia University.
This suspicion arises when groups are perceived as “other” or “different.” In many residential areas that are isolated and not as racially diverse, particularly white communities, mistrust may arise or become heightened toward nonwhite groups, Spenser Darden, director of Diversity Initiatives and Community Engagement, said.
“There are lots of questions about, ‘How do I cover my face? What message does that send?’ ” Darden said. “Everybody is just trying to be safe. That’s what it comes down to, but that looks very different in how people get to experience that safety, and what kind of safety they’re going to experience when they cover their mouth.”
When this mistrust leads to police intervention, racial disparities arise. During the last decade, people of color have been more likely to encounter violence or harassment from police or authorities.
As a black man himself, Darden said he’s highly conscious of the face covering he selects.
“I make the intentional decision when I wear a face mask that it’s one of the medical-looking ones,” Darden said. “I want people to understand I’m not a threat.”
Darden recognizes that having access to a medical-style mask is a privilege, as his partner is in health care. Others may have to rely on homemade face coverings, such as DIY masks and bandanas. But particular colors of bandanas can be problematic, too.
Majorie Fuller, director of WVU Center for Black Culture and Research, said depending on where you live, some colors can be perceived as threatening because of the association with criminal activity, discrimination or intimidation.
“Because of this, certain types of clothing or colors can leave people with feelings of fear, even if those feelings are not warranted,” Fuller said. “We have to remember that feelings are non-negotiable — they are what they are, so I find it understandable that there may be some hesitance around wearing certain colors or patterns on protective wear.”
She encourages people to recognize that stereotypes aren’t always true. But sometimes, she said, those lessons can only be learned through life experiences or in classroom settings with faculty members who truly understand.
Class disparities have also arisen during the novel coronavirus pandemic. For individuals who are or are perceived to be East Asian, they may be facing stigma due to the origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. Asian Americans who wear medical masks may be inaccurately assumed to be sick.
“You look somebody in the eye to build familiarity and trust, even with people you don’t have a formal relationship with,” Darden said. “Face coverings and physical distancing can inhibit that. Often, face coverings are associated with criminality. Then, when you combine that with social dynamics of race and gender and socioeconomic class, you’re combining all these factors on people that increase discomfort and lack of trust.”
Class disparities have also arisen among those who can work from home and those who cannot. A New York Times poll reported higher earners and whites are far more likely to say they can work from home during the pandemic than lower earners and black and Latino Americans.
“Think of how compensation is structured in the U.S.,” Darden poses. “If I’m an hourly employee and I’m not working, that also means I’m not getting paid. It’s the way we structured our society that disproportionately impacts those who are the most affected.”
And as businesses begin to reopen, many workers will have to choose between exposing themselves to the pandemic or losing their jobs. Some of the furloughed workers have been able to collect unemployment, but if their workplace reopens, not returning to work will be the equivalent of quitting. The New York Times reported that these disempowered workers are disproportionately comprised of people of color but include lower-income white workers, too.
“The people who are in these particular roles, they’re so devalued and so disempowered from a structural level, their own health and safety is not only not prioritized by who they work for, but they’re affected in not being able to prioritize it for themselves,” Darden said.
He said the pandemic has highlighted the way society values people. People often feel valued by how they’re compensated — through salaries, health care, sick leave and more. The 2019 National Compensation Survey found that paid sick leave becomes scarcer the less money one makes. Pew Research Center reported 92% of workers in the top quarter of earnings (meaning hourly wages greater than $32.21) have access to some form of paid sick leave, versus only 51% of workers earning wages in the lowest quarter ($13.80 or less). Among the lowest-earning tenth — those whose wages are $10.80 an hour or less — 31% have paid sick leave.
Darden suggests challenging that fundamental structure moving forward.
“As we think about health care and salaries, maybe we think about universalizing some of those things,” Darden said.