They Only See Us While We Wear the Mask

I meet my friends Julie and Paul in the parking lot of a restaurant at the I-40 exit. They’re returning home to Texas from Maryland, where they buried Julie’s father’s ashes.

We don’t go inside the restaurant or get food at curbside. In her own words, Julie has taken social distancing to the extreme. Instead we’ll visit at the edge of the lot, masks on and six feet apart, beside the highway.

Julie’s abundance of caution is understandable. She has already self-quarantined twice since COVID became our normal: once to protect her husband and his pediatric patients when she had COVID-like symptoms, and again after paying a final visit to her COVID-positive father. She was alone in her exile when he died, unable to go back inside the facility to sit with him or hold his hand as he struggled for his last breaths.

This journey to resolve her father’s life has been a struggle of a different sort. “We’re packing all our own food,” she tells me, “so we only have to face mask-haters when we buy gas.”

Some years ago I attended a cultural sensitivity workshop along with two dozen other social workers. I happened to sit at a table with the only BIPOC participant—a Black woman who used my name in every other sentence (“How long have you worked as an advocate, Deb?” “You make a good point, Deb.”) Aside from her overuse of my name, the only thing I remember about this woman is that she explained a mystery that had baffled me for years: Why is it, I wondered aloud during our get-acquainted moment, that people who rage against undocumented immigrants are really only bothered by Mexicans? No one seems to care about German or Italian immigrants.

“Well, Deb,” she said, “it’s because you can’t recognize European immigrants by their skin color.”

For a small-town Southern girl who grew up eating mayonnaise sandwiches (literally—mayo on white bread) this was truly an earth-shaking revelation. I am the default setting on the list that runs from ‘Caucasian’ to ‘Other.’ I am the 98% of local demographics. I have sons, but I didn’t know there was a talk about how to behave when stopped by the police. Even Jesus looks like me, in that print that hangs on so many Christian walls.

For that matter, Julie and Paul look like that, too. Their skin is white, but they are probably the only Jews in this county today. The only reason they stand out here is because their faces are partially covered by masks.

Masks provide protection, either for nefarious purposes (bank robbers) or for self-preservation (Paul Lawrence Dunbar).  And yet….

Not far from here, a state trooper accosted a bystander who was filming a traffic stop and ripped the mask from the man’s face. In New York, four people assaulted a woman for wearing a respirator mask inside a business. In a food market, a woman pitched a tantrum and flung groceries on the floor after being asked to abide by the store’s mask policy. Today, in this parking lot, my friends and I are a distinct minority, made visible not by skin color but by our effort to protect ourselves and others from the spread of a deadly virus.

The barefaced majority come and go from the restaurants around us. They roar past us in RVs and tractor-trailers. Maybe they think we are the beginning of a protest, the leading edge of a movement to force them to eat kale and read literary fiction. I’m wary, nervous with my back to the highway, edgy, hyper-aware. I am a target for angry people who think I wear a mask in order to take away their guns. And I wonder if one of them will throw a brick at my head, run us over with an F-150, or mow us down with an AK-47.

I don’t mention any of this to Julie and Paul, of course.  They still have to drive through the rest of this unmasked state and a couple of others. Why add that to their worries? And so we shout above the din, laugh when we have to repeat ourselves, and finally we air-hug, bless each other (“Be safe. Be healthy.”), and retreat to our cars.

Before my friends are even out of the parking lot, I pull off my mask. Anonymous again, I can breathe easy.

Deborah-Zenha Adams (she/her) is an award-winning author of novels, short fiction, CNF, and poetry. She invites you to visit her website: