“Mask” is a metaphor that’s familiar to an “Undoing Racism” group I’ve been meeting with going on 4 years now. We have a good time together, but our work isn’t always fun or easy. Becoming aware of our individual and collective masks requires creating a trusting space for courage and vulnerability. From that container emerges learning, healing, and growth — often when you’re least aware or are expecting it to happen. With their help, I’ve been able to take off many of my own masks and I cherish that group and the  experiences we create for one another.

In our meeting today, the powerful metaphor of masks came up with respect to the corona virus. We didn’t set out to talk about masks-as-metaphor, but with 7 billion people on the planet paying so much attention to covering their faces with masks as PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), the metaphor was even more stark and powerful. It seems like the challenges of pandemic creates some unique opportunities for us as individuals and a collective, to explore our masks.

What have we learned about our metaphorical masks as a result of the corona virus pandemic?

How have 
metaphorical masks contributed to our challenges that require wearing PPE masks?

How do our metaphorical masks undermine our ability to respond to the challenges and opportunities we face (no pun intended)?

When we’re able to remove our PPE masks at some point in the future, how will we also remove the metaphorical masks?

What questions does the mask as metaphor pose for you? By the way, two poems were circulated by the group and I’ve included them at the end of this post — together with a link to a video. Enjoy!

Personally, I believe a major cause of our individual and collective masks has roots in our individual and collective thinking competency. Thinking in “Or” alone when “And” thinking is needed leads to paying a heavy price. Unfortunately, the price is paid disproportionately by those who can least afford and shoulder the burdens. (FYI — I did a post about the “Oralonea virus”):

My Needs OR Needs of Others?
(In the US, this most often leads to My Needs, as a solution. Think about historical power and privilege as it relates to this question.)
My Group’s Needs OR Needs of Other Groups?
(In the US, this most often leads to “Our Needs,” as a solution. Again, think about historical power and privilege as it relates to this question.)
Individual Rights OR Communal Obligations
(In the US, this most often leads to “Individual Rights,” as a solution. Again, think about historical power and privilege as it relates to this question.)

When the “Or” alone mask combines along each level of power and privilege — it creates polarization, division, and inability to address the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous challenges we all face. In this time of imposed reflection I pray we might begin to think differently about how supplementing our thinking might contribute to different outcomes for our challenges and opportunities. “Or” thinking is useful to address some things, but not others where “And” thinking, when “And” thinking is required. Such as:

My Needs AND Needs of Others
My Group’s Needs AND Needs of Other Groups
Individual Rights AND Communal Obligations

The TWO POEMS you’ve been waiting for:

Read the poem is great…But if I may recommend — hear it read by Maya Angelou herself, here.

by Maya Angelou

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.

When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

An adaptation of the poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar “We Wear the Mask”

We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should that world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, oh my God, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask.

The polarities below are from a previous post:

Self Care AND Care for Others

Care for Parts AND Care for the Collective

Information Accuracy AND Response Implementation

Science Focus AND Social Focus

Physical/Social Distance AND Emotional Connection

Here are some good reflection questions with additional resources.

Leveraging Polarities on Virtual Teams for the “new normal.”

Rethinking polarity tensions at the heart of democratic values.

How is the Army looking at avoiding war?

Award winning paper on Polarity Thinking — Joint Chiefs of Staff.