“I can’t breathe,” my white acquaintance told me from under her plastic face shield, “in a mask.”
I, a white woman, was on campus for my job and perplexed that I actually had to have the mask conversation with someone in my real life.
“It makes me uncomfortable that you don’t wear a mask,” I replied, making sure to stay at least six feet away from her and angled in a direction where her breath wouldn’t reach me.
The face shield was a sheet of plastic, hovering inches away from her face, not secured on the sides or below the chin and not recommended by the CDC to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s a personal choice,” she replied, defensively. She followed up with a string of limp placations. She would sanitize her hands frequently. She would stay away from me. But she would not do the one thing that will effectively stop the spread of a respiratory disease: wear a mask.
“I can’t breathe” is a call for Black rights in America. The phrase was ushered into the national lexicon with the murder of Eric Garner by police in 2014 and tragically reinvigorated after the murder of George Floyd by police in May of this year. Both men were murdered by police who were restraining the men’s airways, using tactics that many police forces have banned. Both men told their killers “I can’t breathe,” and both men were ignored.
However, “I can’t breathe,” a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter, has been co-opted by a different movement, one not focused on making our country a comfortable and safe place for all, but rather centering one’s own comfort over the health of everyone around them. Anti-maskers love to excuse their callousness with the phrase “I can’t breathe.” And, in my experience, they love to say it to people who are forced to work in public or not pay rent for the month.
My acquaintance, a white woman, had used the phrase “I can’t breathe” to dismiss her duty to keep our campus community safe. Maybe her refusal to wear a mask wasn’t consciously impacted by race — but her refusal falls into the same kind of privilege, white privilege, which allows a person to center her own comfort over the health of her acquaintances and friends, not to mention the hundreds of other students she would run into on campus.
My run in with this acquaintance on campus was not the first time I’d heard a white person center themselves above everyone else’s health. When the admin leave from my bookstore gig ran out, I was forced to find another job. I worked at Suburban Lawn and Garden, where much of the customer base is older, white and wealthy. The kind of people who will happily purchase twelve hydrangeas during a pandemic.
I wish I had a more concrete example for you, but the amount of times an older, white woman would stop in front of my register, pull down her mask, and exclaim, “I can’t breathe,” spewing her respiratory molecules in my face, have all run together. These women would then have the audacity to look at me, a worker who would stand in the air conditioner-less store for nine hours a day with a mask on, and say something along the lines of, “Don’t you just hate these masks?”
My answer to that question, truthfully, is no. I don’t hate masks. While they take some getting used to, they are possible to breathe in.
More important to me than comfort, however, is that wearing a mask allows me to protect the people around me. This isn’t just the people I care about personally, like my own family and coworkers, but also every single person I come across during the unavoidable public tasks I have to do, like work or grocery shop or protest.
While white people use the phrase “I can’t breathe” to excuse their refusal to mask up, Black people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to The COVID Racial Data Tracker, Black people account for 12% of Missouri’s population but 27% of Missouri’s COVID-19 cases and 33% of Missouri’s COVID-19 deaths, as of the writing of this piece. The United States Census Bureau estimates that 29% of Kansas City’s population is Black, and because UMKC is a commuter school, students exposed to the disease on campus are likely to bring the disease into their communities and families.
The danger of taking COVID-19 home is painfully visible in the lives of one of my Black coworkers and her sister, who is extremely sick. If my coworker were to be infected on campus and bring the disease back to her apartment, which she shares with her sister, it’s likely her sister would be infected before they even knew my coworker had COVID-19, and that she would die as a result.
My Black coworker and I were sitting at the textbooks desk in the bookstore, wiping down keyboards with disinfectant spray and sporting masks. After my conversation with my white acquaintance, I was irritated and shaken.
“If I didn’t need this job, I would quit,” I said. It’s true. I like my job, but if I didn’t need the money I would not be risking infection to work on campus.
My Black coworker looked up at me. “Oh, I wouldn’t be working if I didn’t need to, either.”
According to cdc.org, people in certain race and ethnic groups are more likely to work essential jobs where working at home is not an option and paid sick days are unavailable. Black people disproportionately work essential and public jobs for a myriad of reasons, like level of education, and are being forced to continue working or find new work during the pandemic because of economic status. These reasons are directly caused by systemic racism, because Black people have historically and repeatedly been denied the resources necessary to build ancestral wealth and pay for or attend higher level educational institutes. This systemic racism also allows police officers to murder Black people without any fitting consequence.
While white people are complaining that they can’t breathe while wearing a soft piece of cloth over their mouth, Black people are being murdered by police and fatally infected by their coworkers, customers and acquaintances.
While I was working on this piece, I was driving down I-435, listening to episode 23 of Fiction/Non/Fiction, a podcast by UMKC’s Whitney Terrell and the University of Minnesota’s V.V. Ganeshananthan. The episode, titled “ We’ve Been Here Before,” discussed protesting and consequential white backlash. I was floored to hear Terrell state the essence of what I’d been writing about, immediately pausing the episode so I could transcribe what he’d said when I wasn’t going seventy miles per hour. Terrell said, “I feel like the people I know who are having the hardest time adjusting to the world right now are the people who lived in all white environments. You have to do some things that you don’t want to do. [. . .] It’s almost a white privilege reaction to the virus, you know, because those people have never had their lives impinged on in any way.”
He’s right. Anti-mask ideology and unchecked white privilege send the same message: I will be comfortable, and it’s your job to fit your life around my comfort. Both are one-sided perspectives which completely dismiss the discomfort of anyone else but the privilege holder.
Standing not-exactly-in-front of my white acquaintance on campus that day, I was astounded. “I can’t breathe” means “I am dying.” Sometimes, it means “you are killing me and you don’t care.”
“I can’t breathe” does not mean “I am a threat.”
Unless you’re a white person who doesn’t want to put on a mask.