The hoodie made me do it

6 Apr

I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.

–Geraldo Rivera, Fox and Friends, 3/23/12

So. This is a classic example of blaming the victim, which gawker.com explicates thoroughly. Here’s an excerpt of their analysis:

It is blaming the victim, but that’s been argued to death. I’m more interested in the meaning behind Geraldo’s words, which in my mind boils down to a warning: Do not act in a way other people might find threatening. Except that’s a complete impossibility — the feeling of being threatened is subjective. Geraldo’s implication is that racist white men will assume black men in hoodies are out to get them, and he’s probably right. But by that same logic, he should be telling white men to tone down their whiteness around black people. If a white man wearing an NRA shirt got shot by a black man, would Geraldo blame the shirt? Maybe it was self-defense. The black man who shot him could have assumed he was another George Zimmerman (http://gawker.com/5896125/dont-be-threatening-geraldo-riveras-impossible-advice).

Writer Louis Peitzman’s point is brilliantly made as he flips the script on who needs to stop being so threatening to whom. Of course, you can’t just flip this script: somehow, in our society, a white guy in an NRA shirt can still connote authority, respectability and family values–even if you add a gun rack and a six-pack of beer to the picture. Not so much a black man in a hoodie.

Peitzman’s point is still made: “Geraldo’s message to youths of color is to tone it down. Take whatever it is about your cultural identity that scares others and get rid of it.” Essentially, Geraldo is asking these boys to cover. Covering, according to Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino, is playing down your outsider identity to blend in with the mainstream or approved culture. Framing the expectation to cover (read: not wear a hoodie) as a new, less obvious form of discrimination, Yoshino explains:

Discrimination was once aimed at entire groups, resulting in the exclusion of all racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities and people with disabilities. A battery of civil rights laws – like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – sought to combat these forms of discrimination. The triumph of American civil rights is that such categorical exclusions by the state or employers are now relatively rare.

Now a subtler form of discrimination has risen to take its place. This discrimination does not aim at groups as a whole. Rather, it aims at the subset of the group that refuses to cover, that is, to assimilate to dominant norms (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15gays.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1).

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” ring a bell?

Covering applies to various groups–including dominant, normative groups whose members often cover under pressure to be the epitome of their group identity. I always think of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, and how it’s not just girls like Pecola who are dying to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Even the blonde-haired, blue-eyed looking girls are striving for the ideal that they may already seem to be.

Of course, the big problem with relying on covering to facilitate all of us getting along is that it is an attempt to hold individuals accountable for a cultural issue. Everything I can do to change myself doesn’t do anything to change the world around me. And a world that runs under cover is a world in which people aren’t thriving; we’re all just getting by.

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