Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Hoodie is a Poor Symbol

As much as I'd like to pay attention to other things, I can't help having followed the Trayvon Martin controversy (it's practically impossible not to considering how much the media has been shoving it in our faces). Rallies (and some riots) against the verdict have sprouted up around the country, and much of the controversy is split along racial lines. "Hoodies for Trayvon" has become a popular meme around the protest circles, along with images of Trayvon Martin in the hoodie he was wearing the night he died. I won't go into other aspects of this case- that's been more than beaten to death multiple times already, but I will talk about the hoodie: it is a poor symbol (as is Trayvon).

Much has been made ado about President Obama's speech regarding the situation last week. It is in fact, one of the better speeches I've heard from him. He discussed, calmly, the feelings that many within the black community share in regard to profiling, as well as his own experiences with the practice, while also acknowledging that black men are disproportionately involved with the criminal justice system. It was a far cry from last year's speech, where he infamously said that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon."

With respect, Mr. President, no, he wouldn't. Sure, he'd have the same or a similar skin tone to Trayvon, but he would NOT look like Trayvon in a crucial area: his dress. I find it highly doubtful that the son of a President or other prominent politician would walk around in a hoodie. This is an aspect of the case that I don't think has been critically considered enough, and it is to me, more important than any racial undertones that the media just LOVES to blow into as big a tsunami as it possibly can.

We all profile to a degree. Anyone who says they don't is lying. It is within our nature to size people up immediately upon contact, without even having spoken a word to them. How you appear is of utmost importance as to what people think about you, and how you are dressed is a crucial part of your appearance. While President Obama's remarks about being profiled based on his race were met with much praise by some, I seriously wonder what he was wearing at the time of these incidents before he was elected as the junior Senator from Illinois.

As a white person, I'll freely admit that I've felt the unease that the President described about black men- not through any conscious choice of my own, but a visceral, involuntary reaction. However I have felt this same unease (and in exactly the same proportions) around poorly dressed, poorly groomed white people, especially after dark.

This thought made me dig deeper into my memories. Had I felt this same unease around a well-dressed black man? As far as I could possibly remember, the answer is no. I have never, to my knowledge, had negative feelings around a black man that was dressed and groomed well, even in the dead of night. Now, of course I can't extrapolate my experiences to those of the population as a whole, but I'd be willing to imagine that a great deal of people (of all colors) have experienced the same thing.

The reason for this is simple: how you dress tells another person a great deal about who you are. What you choose to wear is a conscious decision that is reflective of your personality (and reflective of how you feel about yourself). How you dress determines in large fashion (no pun intended) other people's opinions of you and your attractiveness to members of the opposite sex, and a slight change in wardrobe can make a huge difference. Lo and behold, in the Trayvon Martin case, this almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy:

  • Trayvon is wearing a hoodie.
  • Zimmerman gets suspicious.
  • Trayvon is later revealed as having been suspended for fighting and having what was described as burglary tools in his backpack.

Let's now conduct a simple thought experiment. You're by yourself at night. Two men (of any color) are walking on the same street as you are. One of them is dressed up in a nice jacket, well-tailored pants, fashionable shoes, and a scarf. The other is wearing a hoodie. Which of these two people are you going to feel more at ease around?

Of course these things are also contextual. If you were on say, a college campus, a hoodie probably won't elicit as much of a negative reaction, but you would still more likely feel at greater ease around the first man.

And this is something I don't think is talked enough about by the people that focus so much on racial profiling. I'm not saying that race isn't an important factor, but the choices of dress among many young black men could definitely use some improvement, and better yet, it is something that is easily within their control. Of course I'm not saying that young black men should feel the need to wear a suit and tie every day just so that they don't get profiled, but ditching the hoodies and overly baggy jeans for example, would probably go a long way toward reinforcing more positive perceptions, and hence, attitudes and behaviors.

This is why I believe the hoodie is a poor symbol. Instead of something to rally around, it (and other poor fashion choices) should be discussed as something that may contribute to negative perceptions. The predictable response of some would be to disparage those who have such a message as being condescending- "how dare you tell me what I can and cannot wear?!" This is understandable, but it is a denial of reality, and simply gives an excuse to wallow in the poison of victimhood instead encouraging people to make actual (and easy) improvements in their lives, a complex that John McWhorter explores in his book Losing the Race.

Ultimately, the black community is going to need a better symbol than hoodies and Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman should not have gotten out of his car (and one could argue, shouldn't have carried a gun, at least without a lot more training), but given the way that Trayvon was dressed, it is understandable that Zimmerman was suspicious. Trayvon's style of dress and his character were correlated, and this predictably drew negative attention.

Far better symbols that actually show vast injustice are the likes of Oscar Grant and the millions of black Americans that are suffering from the very racist War on Drugs. Of course, the media doesn't like to talk about the latter very much.

A final anecdote I will give is how I dressed when I was 16. Unbelievably, I wore, yes, a hoodie, but also stupid bandanas and even a dummy training bullet around my neck. Yeah, you can call it "peacocking" in the very worst possible way. Very predictably, I drew a lot of negative attention to myself, and it was generally reflective of my life that year: troubled and in trouble. Fortunately, I quickly grew out of it, and by the time I was 17 I'd set myself straight. If I was in Trayvon's position at that time, I probably can't say that I wouldn't have been followed. Hell, I was wearing a far more ridiculous and thuggish getup.

Dress matters. It's time that it be talked about as more than simply dressing to impress prospective employers or potential mates, but as part of an overall improvement of life and a way to break oppressive boundaries. Trayvon Martin George Zimmerman Hoodies Fashion

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