What’s In A Mask?

Recently, Governor Polis urged Coloradans to adopt a “Strong Mask Culture,” recommending that everyone wear fabric masks when they are outside of the home.

I’m not one to get involved in the debate over the efficacy of wearing fabric masks when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID19, but I am one to generally do what I’m told as long as it appears to do more good than harm. Therefore, I planned on doing my part by wearing a mask whenever I go out in public.

Since I’m no seamstress, my mother in law made and sent two fabric masks for my husband and myself. She has been making them in batches from costume fabric scraps with people from her theater community (she’s an actress) and sending them where they are needed.

Our masks came in the mail yesterday, and this morning was the first time I put it on. In doing so, I immediately lost my enthusiasm for joining the “Strong Mask Culture.”

Admittedly, I have shied away from blogging about the hate crimes and acts of violence committed against Asians and Asian-Americans in the wake of COVID19. If I’m being honest, it was because I just didn’t have it in me to focus on something so personal and additionally negative in the midst of an already depressing and scary situation. I glossed over headlines such as, “A Man Attacked An Asian Woman Taking Out Her Trash At Night” and “FBI Warns of Potential Surge In Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans Amid Coronavirus” because although the specific details were different, I already knew from personal experience, what it was like to be the victim of hate crimes.

Growing up and living as a Korean adoptee in predominantly White communities, I often find myself consciously or subconsciously trying to assimilate. I identify more closely with Western cultural norms because those are what I am the most familiar with, having never spent any time in Korea or having close ties to other Asian from more traditional households. In truth, it has unfortunately been easier to put distance between myself and Korean culture because the world is not always tolerant or accepting of diversity.

Seeing myself wearing this fabric mask makes it impossible for me to maintain that distance and has created a complex, complicated inner-conversation. On the one had, I am still assimilating by wearing a mask just like everyone else in America. On the other, by doing so, I embody a stereotype of Asians that so many in the world despise.

Never before have I been so torn by my “living in-between.” I want to be a good American. I want to do whatever I can in order to lessen the spread of this pandemic. But at what cost?

So far, I have not experienced microaggressions, ridicule or violence as a result of COVID19, but will wearing a mask change that? Will people, instead of seeing a concerned, diligent American citizen, suddenly see me as an arbitrary patient zero of the “China Virus?”

The fear of not knowing is actually paralyzing.

I know that it’s not only Asians and Asian Americans who find themselves struggling with the question of whether or not to wear a mask when they go out. Just yesterday I read an article about how the new mask culture is affecting other people of color, particularly Black men, due to the increased incidents of racial profiling.

How ironic that an object that is a symbol of love and support for some, is a symbol of discrimination and exclusion for others.How ironic that by doing good and trying to be benevolent members of society, individuals are vilified and highlighted as the “Them” in our all too familiar “Us vs. Them” narrative.

I do not know how long this pandemic will last, and I do not know what my experiences will be when I go out, mask on.

But I do know that I and so many others shouldn’t feel so conflicted.

During this time, while so many of us are re-evaluating our priorities and approaching life with a more open-mind as we adjust to a “new normal,” let it also be a time of reflection on our prejudices and faulty assumptions.

The next time you reach for your mask to put it on, see it not only as a sign of love and support, but also as a sign of privilege, a sign of freedom–and if that realization makes you uncomfortable, perhaps it’s time that you do something about it.

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