by Tiki Windley
Project Manager, Food, Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative
As a mom, you develop a bond with your baby that is unlike any other you will ever have. There is a love that transcends time and space. It is as though a piece of your heart has regenerated into this beautiful little human being. This kind of love is not anything you have to learn. It defines you as a mama. This love is a joy that can be experienced by a woman of any color, race, or nationality.
There is also an unrelenting fear for your baby that transcends time and space when your baby is African American. It is a fear that often consumes every nook and cranny of your brain and conscious being. It is so powerful that it can render a mother speechless, powerless, and childless. It has many faces yet just one name – racism. This fear is often deliberate, denied, and discredited. This fear is constant in the lives of other African American mamas like me.
As an African American woman, I wear a mask every day of my life. My mask has been passed down to me by each generation of women in my family. It is as needed today as it was in the 1800s when my great-grandmother was born. It is tattered and worn but still effective. It presents the smile society prefers over me being the stereotypical “angry black woman.” It presents the illusion of me being a “team player” and therefore submitting to my white colleagues when “appropriate.” It hides the inner turmoil I feel in navigating “my blackness” in this white world so as to not make white people feel “uncomfortable.” It hides the bags under my eyes and tear-stained cheeks I often have from the fear of my son not returning home alive when he hangs out with his friends. It hides the despair and hopelessness I feel for my future grandchildren and their children and generations to come.
And now I must don yet another mask, one that will help protect me from possibly contracting COVID-19. Does this virus pose a greater threat to me and my family than racism? Is racism not a greater pandemic than this virus?
Many people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were initially asymptomatic. They did not display a fever, cough, body aches and respiratory-related symptoms until the virus had progressed within their bodies. To a great degree, the same could be said of racism before the election of this country’s current federal administration. To me it felt as though many whites were wearing masks of their own, cloaking personal biases to maintain the façade of “one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” The thread of decency that defines humanity began to further unravel upon the onset of the 2016 presidential race.
During this time, many whites became encouraged by the rhetoric of black lives being dispensable, often less valuable than those of dogs. Many began to rationalize, politicize, and even romanticize white power. Of course, the term “white power” and “white privilege” can be used interchangeably. The masks many whites had worn for so many years – whether out of fear of being “politically incorrect,” fear of legal ramifications, or social backlash – began to come off.
And so now I must weigh which is the greater threat – a disease in which the host often shows no symptoms or one in which the symptoms are sometimes very evident. Both can be spread by the host and infect others. Both can lead to death. Both have affected the health and wealth of African American communities disproportionately. Precautions for one include social distancing, while precautions for the other simply do not exist.
My son experiences a sense of anxiety when having to wear a mask out in public. As an African American (young) man, he already fits the stereotypical description of a crime suspect – tall and black. If you add “wearing a mask” to that, you have just created a recipe for a possible tragic outcome. Each day he lives, he experiences trauma as an African American male, never knowing when he may find himself in a situation like Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. My daughter is not immune because of her gender. Before the death of Breonna Taylor, there were many others, including that of Sandra Bland. As an African American woman and mama, I experience trauma every day of my life. My fear is not for my own life but rather the lives of my children, not knowing if the pandemic of racism will ultimately add their names to its ongoing list of victims.
For me and my family, COVID-19 is most assuredly the lesser of two evils in this country. God help us all.