Trayvon 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.”
“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.
In 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.
Othello poster from Wikimedia Commons
Susan Celia Greenfield is a professor of English at Fordham University.