Who are you? This is a pretty basic and straightforward question but as Black men it can be a very complicated question to answer. From the moment you wake up and prepare to step outside many Black men perform the repetitive ritual to prepare themselves to interact with society. Social norms and generation-long expectations wait for you in the outside world. Family, friends and business associates all require their own respective handling. That often means tailoring your behavior person by person. How far does this daily routine pull you from your true and genuine self?
In addition to the general and relatively healthy interactions within your life, you then have to consider the various levels of “authority” that you deal with as well. It's an unfortunate truth that most Black men have had the conversation with their parents about how to properly deal with the police. This is another example of performance that has to take place for the sake of survival.
In entering the workspace, code switching is a norm within black culture because mainstream establishments do not view African American Vernacular English e as professional. From hair styles to apparel, black men are constantly working to not negatively stand out.
When you look at these instances by themselves you might be able to say "okay but everybody has to do this to some degree" and that is correct. It's when you view all of this in totality that you realize that the Black man is constantly in spaces that don't allow him to fully be himself. When you take that into account and multiply it by the number of days in a week, weeks in a month, months in a year of this repeated song and dance, you realize that the mask is on a lot more than it's off.
COVID-19 has had an unexpected effect as it has given many men the ability to step out and away from the stage. Remote work and social distancing has resulted in increased downtime and more opportunities for people to be with themselves and their closest contemporaries. Through its seriousness, COVID-19 has provided a space for Black folks to be their authentic selves.
The mask that is worn to navigate society, while restrictive and frustrating, is an unfortunate necessity of life but it should not be the totality of who you are. When flying, flight attendants explicitly explain the safety rule that says, “secure your own mask first before helping others.” In this case, you're no good to yourself if you can never take the mask off.
Take it off, put it down and get back to being you.
Written by Jason Francis