Right now you’re probably thinking “April Fool’s is over, dude”. I mean this in earnest: Geraldo Rivera was not completely wrong when he said that wearing a hooded sweatshirt contributed to Trayvon Martin’s murder. His thesis, that Trayvon therefore shares in some of the blame for choosing to wear a hoodie, is completely fucking wrong, but you really can’t expect someone who works for Fox News to make more than one cogent and/or accurate point in a single sitting.
I did my graduate degree at one of Canada’s most well-regarded institutions – whether or not it deserves its reputation is very much an open question, but we’ll let others delve into that. I mention it only to say that while I was there, I bought a zippered hoodie (the most versatile garment in the world, especially in spring/fall when dressing in layers is a life-saver) with the school logo emblazoned in large font on the front. The other day, I needed to run to the grocery store around the corner, so I threw on my hoodie. On my way out of the store, I noticed that it had begun to drizzle so I flipped up my hood to keep the rain off of my face.
As I bounded up the stairs to the front of my building, I caught my reflection in the glass doors and was caught momentarily off guard – I looked pretty intimidating. Despite the large block letters of the school on the front, and… y’know… the fact that it was my own reflection, even I was startled for a moment. I can certainly understand how someone might mistake my hands-in-pockets, hood-up stance as being reflective of some kind of ill intent, but I was just trying to stay dry. So was Trayvon. In fact, our missions were more or less the same. We are only separated by a few years, about 120 lbs, and a national border (and he’s quite a bit darker than I am, which is far from meaningless).
So with regard to the statement that hooded sweatshirts, especially when worn by black men, might be easily misrecognized as threatening, I have no difficulty admitting that this may in fact be the case. But this same story also serves to illustrate the ridiculousness of the main point that Mr. Rivera was trying to make. Is it reasonable for someone to make that assumption? If a neighbour had spotted me and concluded that I was up to no good, would it be my fault, even partly, for hir wild assumption? Must I forever abjure the comforts that my Queen’s hoodie provides me when I need to take a quick jaunt to Safeway for my dinner?
No. That’s a ridiculous and untenable imperative to expect, and to state that I’m to blame if some nutcase takes a shot at me because I look ‘suspicious’ is absurd. The lesson here is not that black/Latin@ kids must adhere to whatever dress code makes whitey most comfortable. Nor is the lesson that black/Latin@ parents must intervene to keep their kids from dressing “like gangsters”, any more than it is the fault of a parent if hir 15 year-old daughter is raped because she left the house dressed “like a slut”. This kind of victim blaming might be a comfortable way of distancing yourself from the thought that it might be you who has the problem, or that those who are assaulted somehow did something to ‘deserve’ it, but it focuses attention on entirely the wrong subject.
This debate, incidentally, is nothing new. I am reminded of a speech by Bill Cosby – notoriously dubbed the ‘Pound Cake speech’, in which Cosby articulated one of the mainstays of black conservative thought: that blacks must hold themselves (ourselves) to higher standards if they (we) are to advance. We must not wait for the rest of the world to sort itself out and start treating us as equals – it is up to us to force the world to see us as we see ourselves. Of course, even Bill is not the first to articulate this point (Ta-Nehisi Coates has a typically phenomenal summary of the topic – definitely worth a read if any of this is unfamiliar territory to you), and it should be noted that there are many elements of black conservatism – self-sufficiency, economic empowerment, prioritizing co-operation, avoiding materialist obsession – that I agree with wholeheartedly.
All of this being said, none of what Bill Cosby or Geraldo Rivera or Thomas Sowell have to say on the topic of fashion is relevant to the Trayvon Martin case. The argument entirely misses the point that it is not the garment that makes black men appear threatening. Until black folks find a way to change skin colours while in public (and heaven help us if someone ever does), the conversation needs to be on why we see black men as threats, regardless of their activity. Why it is that I start at my own reflection when my hood is up. Why it is that it is black and Latin@ kids that must forgo hoodies (while kids of other races presumably can wear whatever they like). Why it is that there was a rush to find some reason why it was Trayvon Martin’s fault he got shot – whether it was his grades, or maybe his Twitter activity, or maybe the fact that he had been suspended from school – surely he must have done something that made getting hunted down and shot his fault, and not George Zimmerman’s.
Geraldo Rivera, having moved from daytime talk show host to comical field reporter to arbiter of appropriate dress for young people, doesn’t understand the first thing he’s talking about. His feeble not-pology demonstrates pretty unequivocally that Mr. Rivera has learned nothing (except that non-gangsters wear hoodies too) from the backlash to his comments, and something tells me that the audience that thinks that he has something valuable to contribute to this conversation aren’t interested in learning anything either.
What we should take away from the ludicrous fixation on Trayvon Martin’s fashion choice is that our inability to discuss and parse race leads us to re-hash old and stupid arguments about whether it is reasonable to blame the victim for looking so eminently shootable. Perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that most people outside the conservative thought-sphere immediately recognized how intellectually bankrupt Geraldo’s comments were, but the one thing that he got right were pretty quickly drowned out in the howling fury over the many things he got wrong. Black men in hoodies are seen as more threatening – and that’s a fucking shame.
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