Masks and communities of color

Dear Members of the Campus Community,

As we all try to adhere to CDC and state guidance on the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, one method is to wear masks when out in public. First responders and essential workers in transportation, food services and groceries, to whom we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, need masks the most. While the unfortunate early hoarding of N95 masks and procedural masks created critical shortfall for those most in need, it did create a wave of experienced and novice crafters to make home-made masks or to creatively adapt bandanas for face coverings.

It is important to recognize that even a simple act of self-care may not be so simple a choice within communities of color. The use of masks, particularly home-made versions, may increase incidents of bias against communities of color. Masks and bandanas have a particularly troubled historical context in this country, as much of the context has been associated with urban violence and gang activity. A story from CNN approaches this topic well.

While we do not have many students or employees on campus right now, this may still be a reality for those who remain living in New Paltz or in nearby towns. Advisors and professors may learn that some of our students are having these experiences back home. While there is little that can officially be done to ward off or even respond to the trauma of these types of bias incidents, it is important to create a space where students can still look to us, their SUNY New Paltz community, for support in navigating these experiences. You do not have to have an answer if or when these issues come up, but making room for acknowledgement and empathy can be powerful, most especially at a time where the sense of uncertainty and isolation is high.

So, what to say to someone who shares such an experience? You do not need to feel a responsibility to investigate the matter or fix the wrong. No one person can fix systemic racism within one conversation, but you can have a connection to another person in one conversation. Some things you can say are:

  • That you are glad they felt they could share that with you
  • Ask them how are they are feeling now, or if talking about it with you would help
  • That while you may not fully understand the impact of that experience, you can recognize the ways in which it could make them sad, angry or fearful
  • That while you cannot erase the experience, you want to be someone they can share with
  • That you care about their well- being
  • If their feelings of sadness or fear persist, you can ask if they would consider talking with someone about how they feel and refer them to our counseling services, which continue to be available.

Resist the urge to judge the situation, respond to the situation with a “fix,” or to say “well at least.” Just listening can be very healing.

Staying home and being remote creates bigger physical spaces between us, but it does not have to reduce acts of kindness, expressions of empathy or a sense of community. It means we have be more aware that the spaces are not experienced the same by everyone, and that to sustain connection we must be more intentional than ever.

Tanhena Pacheco Dunn
Associate Vice President for Human Resources, Diversity & Inclusion
and Chief Diversity Officer