Of Hoodies and White Women, Trayvon and Othello

HoodieTrayvon Martin could not have been me. Not now. Not 35 years ago, when, like President Obama, I was Trayvon Martin’s’ age. The reason is plain: I am a white woman, raised in a wealthy suburb, an English professor.

The infinite ways in which my life—and the life of my own teenage son—are different and safer than someone like Trayvon’s are too obvious to belabor here. Instead, I want to focus on just one thing I have that Trayvon Martin didn’t.

I have an inalienable right to wear a hoodie.

I love hoodies. I loved them before the Trayvon Martin case made them as symbolic as Black Power Afros, before Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) wore one on the House floor. I love them because they are lightweight, portable and perfect for climate change. You can wear them in sudden rain, in freezing radiology offices or on an unpredictable autumn day. I wear them as pajamas in the winter, using the hat like an old-fashioned sleeping cap. I wear them on windy beaches in the summer, where they double as protection against ultraviolet rays. I love hoodies because they are casual and cozy, because they feel like a good hug.

How does a white woman’s comfort clothing become a young black man’s shroud?

An argument I had over the weekend points to an answer. I was driving with members of my extended family. We had just left a pool party at a big house on Long Island with a back yard that abutted the Great South Bay. After the requisite gossip, the conversation turned to Trayvon Martin. Mine is a liberal family. We all voted for Obama. We all support gun control. We all think Trayvon’s death was a tragedy.

“But why did he have to wear that horrible hoodie?” someone in the back seat asked.  “Wouldn’t you be afraid of him?”

“Afraid of a hoodie?”

“It was dark.  It hid his face. Hoodie’s are frightening.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Don’t tell me that certain kinds of clothing don’t scare you.”

“I love hoodies.” I said. “I wear them all the time.”

“No you don’t.” My husband felt obliged to jump into the conversation.

“What, are you blind? My closet is full of them.”

“I’ve never once in my entire life seen you in a hoodie.”

Upon our arrival home I flung open my closet door. “You’ve never seen me wear a hoodie?  Not this one? Or this?” I flipped from hoodie to hoodie, counting at least nine, not including the others scattered around the apartment.

Defeated, my husband confessed to some vague sense of recollection. But let’s face it, there are few things more invisible than a middle-aged white woman in a hoodie.  In some ways, my husband had never seen me wearing one.

256px-Thomas_Keene_in_Othello_1884_PosterIn Shakespeare’s Othello, there is a crisis about a handkerchief that reminds me of Trayvon’s hoodie. The handkerchief was Othello’s first gift to his wife Desdemona. Othello is a heroic black general. Desdemona is white. The villain of the play, Iago, hates Othello and feels diminished by him. After Desdemona accidentally drops the handkerchief, Iago plants it on another man, tells Othello his wife is adulterous and drives the hero mad with jealousy.

As the handkerchief circulates among the characters, so do their different stories about it. Each story reflects the teller’s own racial, sexual and social biases. Like Trayvon’s hoodie, the handkerchief becomes the magnet of predetermined feelings and judgments. For Desdemona, it marks her fierce love of her husband. For Othello, it proves that his wife is a “cunning whore.” For Iago, it provides a perfect way to provoke the death of the black man he despises.

In truth, a handkerchief or hoodie is like a blank paper or computer screen—it means little until a story is imposed upon it. When I wear a hoodie, my husband—who would rather see me in something sexier—tells the story that I don’t own one. When a black male teenager wears a hoodie, some viewers say he looks deadly. For one particular man, this was reason enough to kill him.

Hoodie photo by Flickr user Ricardo Camacho under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Othello poster from Wikimedia Commons

Susan Celia Greenfield is a professor of English at Fordham University.

Comments

  1. I just never saw hoodies or baggy jeans as obvious symbols of danger.. . Maybe it’s having kids with nice friends who may wear hoodies and baggy pants, or full on goth regalia. There is a rage in the eyes that scares the bejeezus out of me. Kids playing dress up as adolescents is just that, it’s part of discovering your identity. My own kids have done that role play with costume thing as they have gone through various stages of growing up.

    Way back when one of my kids was a first grader, one of his friends had an older brother who was a high school-er. His hair was died neon ( his mother used to dye it for him) he wore chains and had weird piercings. Another mother pointed out that this punk wearing young man was always really polite to his mother and kind to his baby brother.

    I learned that it isn’t the clothing that determines if a kid is up to no good. It’s the look of fury in the eye or the dead eyes that are much better predictors of dangerous behavior. It’s important for us as adults to actually look kids in the face to see who they really are. The clothing is just costume.

    • S. Greenfield says:

      I know what you mean about clothing as costume. I remember back in my hippie days when some of the hippiest looking folks were really the most up-tight–the exact opposite of their appearance–myself included, perhaps

  2. Interesting blog entry, with thoughtful link to Othello. and it is true that clothing, like the handkerchief, is a sort of tabula rasa until a value is imposed upon it. However, the object (clothing) only holds the story when used/worn by the person associated with that story. Truth be told, a middle aged white woman could be wearing a Nazi uniform and look invisible and non-threatening, mostly because middle aged white women ARE invisible and non-threatening. I say that because we have lost our sexual edge (invisibility) and have been associated with about 0.001% of violent crime (non-threatening, if you will forgive my made-up but semi realistic statistic!) Pretty much any woman in yoga garb, be she Asian, Hispanic, Black, or White, will not be seen as a threat. With the possible exception of the Lululemon murder, no yoga garbed woman has ever killed anyone. However, young men of any race, wearing said hoodie, risk being associated with the gang culture and inspiring nervous glances. Mostly because 99.99% of violent crime (another made up statistic) is caused by young men. And it is rarely young men wearing “Mormon door knocking” garb, but rather gang culture garb. We all know this to be true. People will judge you based on what you wear, which is why you “dress for success” or you don’t. I, like Obama, have been followed in stores very frequently. It is always when I am wearing “cheap” clothing. Always. Is that profiling? Yes, it is. However, if I am being followed, I would not jump on or beat up the person following me. The Zimmerman guy did not shoot Trayvon because he was wearing a hoodie. He shot him because of the altercation. Who caused the altercation? We will never know for sure, but bad judgment was on both sides.

    • S. Greenfield says:

      Thoughtful comments. I agree that middle age women are invisible–not always a good thing. But I don’t agree that “bad judgment was [simply] on both sides” with respect to Zimmerman’s murdering Martin. I think there is no comparison between Zimmerman’s provocation and Trayvon’s reaction. Without the first, a teenage boy would still be alive. In Othello, Iago says , “I follow him [Othello] to serve my turn upon him” (1.1.39). Just substitute Zimmerman for Iago and Trayvon for Othello. Couldn’t the same words apply?

  3. Carlye Case says:

    This article rings so true! I can easily imagine that if Trayvon had been wearing a polo shirt he would be here today. (I love hoodies, too)

    • S. Greenfield says:

      Good point. A friend of mine just told me that the only time she was mugged, the guy was beautifully groomed.

  4. Dennis Barton says:

    Simply put…… I love it, thanks Susan

  5. In our once-beautiful old neighborhood in Dayton, the costume of choice by the teenage youth included jeans worn so low on the buttocks that they looked about to fall off. We were one of two white families within blocks, and the other residents were mostly persons of color, kindness and decency. We did not feel threatened by their low, low waistlines–that was just a sign of belonging to the group, for them, a natural teenage “thing”. Certainly the hoodie allows for a shy teenager to feel protected and may also be a sign of belonging, a very human need.

    • I will be glad to moderate my comment. Please allow it to read: “A hoodie allows for a shy teenager to feel protected. It is also a very practical garment for anyone to wear. In Florida, it can rain at most any time, so a hoodie would be a good choice. ”

      Ellen Duell

  6. Kipp Dawson says:

    Love this! I know you didn’t write it for this purpose, but I think I’m going to use discussion around your article as an introduction to the work we’ll be doing with the Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Contest of the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Perfect! Thank you. (What a great way to whet one’s appetite for Othello; going back to check it out now.)

  7. I realise I am quite late to this, but anyway…

    I am white and 57 and I have worn hoodies all my life, as have most white people I know where I live. We live in an area where it snows and rains and gets cold. A significant percentage of Americans of all races live in states where this happens.
    And for what it’s worth, no matter what bigots want to say about Trayvon Martin, it was RAINING the night he was brutally murdered. Can anyone prove he didn’t wear his hood up that night only because of the rain? No – but bigots will tell you otherwise.

    It seems to me that the whole reason this false idea came about was because of white racists trying to tie it to black crime by claiming that “they’re trying to hide their identities”.
    But I’ll bet that if there were statistics about this, you’d find that clearly many more white people have committed crimes while wearing hoodies. Wonder why you never hear anyone complaining about them?

  8. It’s such a shame I didn’t run across your blog before I wrote my little song about this same thing – probably because we posted on the same day! What a coinkydink. Glad to have stumbled upon it now. Very nicely written.
    Here’s my song:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTID9ZypfyQ

  9. riomwegomiwegopeg says:

    The hoodie angle is b.s. There’s no evidence that it had any bearing GZ “profiling” or shooting TM. He mentioned it in his NEN call because he was describing the suspicious person he was observing — EXACTLY WHAT HE WAS SUPPOSED TO DO. How would you describe a suspicious person to NEN dispatcher? By what he’s wearing, for sure, and by his face, if you can see it clearly enough.

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