We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

— Paul Laurence Dunbar, excerpted from “We Wear the Mask,” 1896

Several weeks ago, I joined a virtual meeting with over three hundred faculty, staff, and students from the University of Illinois at Chicago as they shared their thoughts and feelings about the most recent public killings of Black people and the resulting protests and violence.

One Black professor asked white people to think about their current experiences of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a mask feels uncomfortable and hot and makes it not so easy to breathe. Wearing a mask takes effort. Remembering which mask to wear, in which context, and then constantly adjusting the mask based on the particulars of the situation uses significant cognitive capacity, what I call bandwidth.

His point: Black people wear a mask every day in the United States. And these masks are literally “breath-taking.”

Many students—those with cognitive disabilities, with mental health challenges, who grew up in poverty, or whose gender identity or sexual orientation don’t fit some people’s ideas of “acceptable”—wear masks to fit in. Other students wear masks to survive. They don’t feel safe revealing that they struggle with depression or anxiety. As Will Barratt writes, some students may work extra hours to buy clothes that will hide the fact that they grew up poor. For every layer of mask, students sacrifice the precious bandwidth they need to focus on learning and development. The parts of the brain that are focused on maintaining the mask(s) are not available for cognitive activity. A student who belongs to two or more of these groups—for example, a Black, gay man who experiences debilitating anxiety—spends a lot of bandwidth hiding parts of himself. His masks have masks!

People in these groups may experience something like W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness.” Du Bois argued that Black people maintain two identities, their true one and the one that takes into account how white people see them. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt,” he wrote in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folks. Du Bois’s description is, tragically, still relevant for Black people and others who are considered different by some people’s standards.

Until every student can bring all of their identities, characteristics, and struggles freely and openly to the classroom, the residence hall, the student center, and the sports field, they will put on masks to feel a bit safer. This comes at a huge cost to the cognitive capacity they have available for success in school and life, helping to explain the persistent achievement gaps between economically secure, able white students and students in other groups. These masks smother the potential of so many students (and their teachers and school leaders as well).

Now that we all know the feeling of confinement, limitation, and lack of air, we must stop maintaining our systems and structures that require us to wear masks, replacing them with learning environments that are welcoming to everyone and that nurture, celebrate, and value the unique identities of all of our students. Only then can we all take off our masks and thrive.

Cia Verschelden is author of Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization.

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