Obscured facial cues are not the biggest problem for Black people and other minorities wearing masks in today’s United States

The mass adoption of face masks has prompted an increase in deliberations on challenges in interpersonal communication, in particular non-verbal communication, in the public. Commentators observe that people may feel uneasy when they cannot read the facial cues of their interlocutors, and that it is more difficult to convey empathy while wearing a mask. But for ethnic and religious minorities, facial expressions obscured by masks are the least of their worries. Masks don’t conceal the very significant non-verbal cues –  most of all, race, and other markers of ethnic/religious difference such as clothing. 

It has been widely recognized that for white people, the act of putting on a mask has not made them fear for their life and safety, unlike African American folks who experience police and white supremacist violence on a daily basis, and for whom covering their faces aggravates the already high risk of arrests and murder.  They do not have to be concerned that passers-by will accuse them of spreading disease because they are masked, which has been the experience of many Asian Americans who now resort to wearing sunglasses with their masks in order to conceal their facial features. In New York, Hasidic Jews are also harassed and blamed for the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, people are blaming Latinos. Wearing a mask, a simple public health precaution for white people, may pose a deadly risk to ethnic and religious minorities. 

People of color’s experiences of racist violence triggered by mask-wearing bring into sharper focus daily struggles of Muslim women who wear the Islamic face veil, also known as the niqab, in the West. The niqab has recently gained a higher profile as commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of governments which have banned it, but are currently enforcing mask wearing.

Trying to understand the reasons for voluntary face covering among Muslim women, I have interviewed 19 niqab-wearing women in the United States and 21 in the UK (I share the findings in my forthcoming book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US). I. Sifting through the interview data to learn about communication experiences of niqabi women, I noticed that the respondents did not dwell much on interactive events such as smiles – instead, they focused on how they try to send more unambiguous positive messages. They start conversations and offer help. A smile from behind a mask (or a niqab) can be recognized by others, but it’s a subtle signal – perhaps too subtle. The other person needs to really engage in order to notice a smile, and women who wear the niqab cannot always count on that. 

Socially, the odds are stacked against them, as they need to mitigate negative perceptions of Muslim covered women being oppressed, or alternatively, presenting a security threat. They cannot afford going about their business without constantly risk-assessing and actively mitigating the risk of harassment. Many talked a lot about “making special effort”, and “going the extra mile” in their interactions in public spaces. For example, Soraya said that she was “extra chatty” and often complimented other women’s purses. Nabila told me that she often picked up food items off the floor at the grocery store in an effort to appear nonthreatening and helpful, for which she was thanked by the employees.

Sadiqa, an African American niqab-wearing woman I interviewed, told me that although she regularly experienced simultaneous anti-Muslim and anti-Black prejudice, she and her friends didn’t really consider taking the niqab off: “even if we were to take off the niqab, we’re still Black. Like, we’re still, you know, African Americans, we still have dark skin complexion. So even if people weren’t judging us on this [the niqab] they could be judging us on our skin color …we’re going to get something from somewhere, you know. It’s already been something very ingrained in us, not just as Muslim but as African Americans.”

Even though “we’re all niqabis now”, as one of commentators wrote, most people will be happy to leave the masks behind when the pandemic subsides. Muslim women (in particular African American Muslim women) who wear the niqab will likely continue to face intersecting prejudice. And while non-verbal communication is currently often discussed in terms of facial expressions (and how masks obscure them), skin color is an important non-verbal cue that no mask can conceal. Given the racial politics in the United States, it is probably the most significant non-verbal cue of all. 


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