Assumptions, Anxiety – and Humanness
What do you see when you look at this picture?
Are you willing to ask, rather than assume?
Have you already made a judgment about it – that it “should” or “should not” be here, “should” or “should not” have been done at all, “should” or “should not” be done in the way it is done?
How much is any judgment you may have about the picture – and how much comes from feelings informed elsewhere, developed and fostered and calling out to be looked at?
I will tell you about the picture.
It is of me – a white woman in a gray hooded sweatshirt, trying to operate her camera remotely and not give away who she is within the hood. I took a series of these shots the past week, and all the others were unusable: my rather thin, frizzy, reddish-gray hair poked out; my nose poked out; my setup of the camera was wrong and all I got was my sleeve. I tried silhouettes and shadows and profiles and back shots. You’d have been lucky to identify a human being.
When I looked at this one, the background I’d chosen (purely for expediency, as I was making this experiment amid work assignments) looked awful; so I “grayscaled” the picture. That helped, but my finger was still visible in the sleeve, and grayscale made it lighter than the color had. So I posterized it, punching up the shadows and edges to distract from a revealing white person’s fingertip. I even adjusted the shape a bit, as I worked with what I had done – caught up in the experiment.
Then I titled it, according to what I was feeling.
The title of the picture is Grief.
Were you expecting something else?
“You make sure to put your hood up.”
I would always hear it as a child – whenever the first touch of cold began, and all throughout the winter. There might be a hat under the hood (because children will let that thing slide down and fill up with fast-falling flakes, which they have no qualms about wearing when the hood is pulled back up). But there was always a hood.
All of us had hoods.
At what point in life did our parents stop telling us to make sure our hoods were up? I only know that by 5th or 6th grade, my hair (and pretty much everyone else’s) was free to catch the snow, leaves, or rain as I wanted. Just as mitten clips had vanished from the cuffs of jackets and it became your own problem to track your lost hand gear, so what went on your head was up to you.
And now, some children reach adolescence, and parents seem to veer wildly from “Make sure you have your hood up” to “You pull that hood off your head when you’re in this house.” Or, as Trayvon Martin’s teacher recalls an interaction with him in a Miami Herald interview, “Once he came in wearing a … hoodie. I’m a Florida Gator … I’m like, ‘You can’t come into my class with that.'”
In teenage eyes, adults are an anxious species. Just as you’re working on your own identity, all these surface things seem to distract them. If it’s not your hood, it’s the length of your hair, or the length of your skirt, or the piercings in your ears (or nose), or a tattoo – what seems an ever-intensifying struggle to control bodies in our midst, to cope with the awkwardness of new beings with their own minds and their own intentions and their own identities, by making them conform to what makes adults comfortable. Or at least, more secure.
And then – there is race.
Suddenly, it’s not an “Aw, Mom” moment anymore. Suddenly, adult anxiety becomes much deeper, suggesting that in this world we are not, really, just “young and wild and free.” Maybe, in fact, not free at all.
Where does all the adult anxiety come from? Sometimes it derives from adults’ own experience of being suspected, harassed, discriminated against, losing friends and family to others’ terror at difference. In some of last week’s parental reactions to Martin’s death at the hands of a man who let his fear rule him, that personal history was prominent.
Mother, sister, and columnist Donna Britt related it most eloquently in her article for the Washington Post. Having lost a brother to a police shooting, with police asserting self-defense, Britt has experienced the devastating effect of racial anxiety personally. In the past week she remembered her son’s 12th birthday: “Now that he was a black youth … my adorable child could be seen as threatening – so I needed to instigate ‘the talk.'”
A correspondent for National Public Radio, Corey Dade, detailed the points covered in his experience of “the talk”: “Never Leave a Store Without a Shopping Bag; Never Loiter Outside, Anywhere; Never Go Anywhere Alone; Never Talk Back to Police … and Never, Ever Reach into Your Pocket; Never Doubt Trouble May Strike Anytime, Anywhere.”
To most white people, it is an amazing set of rules. Only the one about talking back to police has any resonance with my experience, and that had a totally different slant: there was no question in my household’s mind about police reasons for talking to me. Any talking back was just rude – but absolutely not dangerous.
That is not the experience of black men in America, despite some commentators’ efforts to argue that police and neighborhood watch members don’t stop people who don’t deserve to be stopped. Dade recalls his brother being suspected simply for being a black man going to his car in an affluent subdivision – where he’d been before, and where his cousin lived. His story is not at all dissimilar to one from a friend of mine on Facebook, whose son is routinely questioned, down to being asked to produce ID, in a particular (predominantly white, predominantly affluent) Philadelphia neighborhood where he catches the bus after dark.
Being black in America is not just a matter of skin color. It is a particular experience – and that experience includes potentially or actually being under suspicion.
This points to other sources of anxiety – ones less valid than personal experience. Media portrayals of a black criminal underclass have been rampant throughout America’s history, and they became consumer commodities in the 1980s and have remained that way. Turn on any urban drama series, go to any “cop movie,” and you will see the dominance of the image – whether thoughtfully or casually portrayed. News media have likewise made the most of it by analyzing, speculating, and selecting which incidents to report on and follow up on – and, too often, by acting as if they, themselves, were in no way people affected by the social atmosphere, somehow “above it all.” Not human.
As happened prominently with the stereotyping of an “underclass” of anti-establishment youth in the United Kingdom, subcultures arose in urban America to assert a forceful identity in the face of the prevailing, and disempowering, image. In 1980s England, I encountered this as punk. In the late 1980s/early 1990s United States (though it had been developing longer), dominant expressions were rap (especially “gangsta”), Hip-Hop, and the graffiti subculture. Both movements provoked a lot of ambivalence in forgetful – or, maybe, remembering – adults.
From football fans to bohemians, items of personal appearance – fashion – serve as identifiers of belonging, affiliation, or simple support in relation to a subculture. For punks, it may include spiked hair, piercings, and tattoos. In rap/Hip-Hop culture, it may include hoodies, caps, “bling,” and sneakers. The fashion industry, as much as the recording industry, has gotten a lot of mileage out of both subcultures – just as it does out of sports fans.
A peculiar slippage of “meaning” occurs around this. When you look at a clothing item or a fashion statement, you realize there is nothing particularly remarkable about it. We have witnessed countless of these trends, with all sorts of levels of discomfort, throughout history.
We do not usually justify shooting people on the basis of what they were wearing.
This is why the remarks of Fox television commentator Geraldo Rivera so infuriate thoughtful people. Most individuals in the United States have a hooded sweatshirt in their wardrobe. (As I mentioned on a friend’s Facebook post, even FarmVille has hoodies.) Do criminals wear hoods? Unquestionably, some do. In point of fact, U.S. criminals have used everything from Gumby outfits to Muslim robes to try to disguise their appearance. How far would you like to take the wardrobe exploration?
Banks, oddly enough, do not request that you not wear a Gumby costume on their premises. For that matter, I am not sure why they think that requesting the removal of hoods, caps, hats, and sunglasses will ensure anyone’s safety. (They are just out of luck in their request when it comes to my cap-wearing senior citizen father, and very likely many others.) Criminals, presumably, do not read the notice and say, “Oh gee, before I hold up this bank I must make sure I don’t have my hood up.” And if a criminal isn’t the wearer, isn’t everyone basically safe? Aren’t all the rest … customers?
Stop and think that one through for a minute.
Of course, the reason for our focus on the hoodie, articulated at last week’s Million Hoodie March as in other venues, is the too-often unspoken element: the slippage of meaning that transfers “hoodie” and “criminality” onto the black male body (and that doesn’t need a hoodie to make the rest of the association). Rivera came pretty close to saying in so many words that darker-skinned individuals are “asking for it” when they wear an item of clothing that is universal at football games, gyms, jogging tracks, and (I dare say) Walmart.
Women are quite familiar with this strategy: how often have we heard that if we wear short skirts and low-necked tops, we are “asking for” harassment, assault, and even rape? How often have we, too, been told that because someone else will not control himself, is unwilling to choose right behavior over wrong behavior, we should appease person’s alleged comfort zone in the name of protecting ourselves? How many times have we heard that if something happens to us, it must be our fault?
There are some who will protest: that’s the way the world is. And isn’t this in fact what many concerned parents do, to protect their children – advise them to watch their appearance, their behavior, their preferences, in the face of the threats that face them?
They do – though they yearn not to.
Like my friend who sends her son off each day with a heart-loaded “Be careful and I love you.”
Like my friend at Photography Without the Pretense, who finds herself struggling with words (and cleaving to her art) as the assumptions and subsequent tragedies resonate with anxieties throughout her family history and with current concerns for her son and other relationships.
Like another friend, a white adoptive mother of an Ethiopian boy-child, who went through the shock of her son pointing to a picture of Trayvon Martin and saying, with no awareness of why the picture was in the media, “That’s me when I’m older.”
But to leave it at “That’s how things are” is laziness, in thought and in action. It is to skitter away from the discomfort that issues of race, sex, gender identity, and difference generally cause us by putting it offas “not our problem,” as something that we don’t need to examine our own reactions – and inaction – toward as we encounter it.
Dr. William E. Cross, Jr., has noted that most black parents have successfully negotiated the dynamic between “being aware – being cautious – while also avoiding what we call destructive paranoia.” Martin’s death, and that of too many other young black men, suggests that a large chunk of the rest of America has not done so.
Being uncomfortable with the notion of a society tipping in favor of armed, challenging, reactive people basing their choices to go after others on assumptions, I see this as something we seriously need to engage. Simply put: I don’t want any more tragedies.
I walk through the snowflakes, the soft fleece of my hood snuggling around me. Just as the snow quiets the city, the hood shuts out all distractions to either side, so all I can see are the white flakes drifting down and the footsteps of those who broke the surface before me. No one can bother me here, free from interruptions from people who want attention, who know who I am, from cars in a hurry, sirens and jackhammers and screeching tires – all stilled. My own space, my own zone, my own feet moving me forward. Security …
One of the known origins of hooded garments lies in medieval Europe, where the cowl was adopted as wear for monks. In the unheated buildings of the day, and with considerable outdoor work in the monastic round, they offered protection from cold and elements. As monks also were “tonsured” – their heads were shaved upon taking their vows – some extra protection likely was quite welcome.
Like me, the monks may also have found the cowl an aid to focus and contemplation. A hood is a very effective tool for keeping the world out.
It was in the vein of humility, grief, repentance, and soul-searching that my friend Pastor Andrena Ingram of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Mt. Airy called on her congregation to “wear your hoodies to church.” Preaching in her own hoodie, she said in her sermon:
I wanted us to wear our hoodies today, not so much to identify with Trayvon and what he must’ve been feeling, or to be a part of the “hoodie crowd”… I wanted us to wear our hoodies as if they were sackcloth (as in the days of our ancestors) when they were in mourning and deep repentance – to reflect upon the issue of racism and the part “we” play in it, by our silence, by turning our heads, by sweeping it under the rug. We ALL have a part in this tragedy.
Reacting to the tragedy of a young man killed after being pursued on an assumption, in a place someone else felt he shouldn’t be (why?), is a struggle in our society. It is easy to wear our attitudes like hoods, retreating into their safety and their ability to shut others’ experiences out, never having to face a conflicted and confusing reality. Instead of seeing these times as moments, a retreat to reassess, we tend to become comfortable in a pretense that our worldview is normative for all – and acutely uncomfortable, even threatened, when challenged with a reality that shows we have been cocooning ourselves.
Stay with that discomfort. Be aware of our hoods, their benefits and their drawbacks. Sit with the vulnerable humanness of being a parent, being a child, being a teenager; being misunderstood, being suspected, being frustrated; being scared, being angry, being … human. Use the hood not to retreat forever or as a defensive badge of the “validity” of fear but to contemplate and own our fallibility. To own the fact that the discomfort is ours, a feeling – not objective reality, and perhaps not even relevant to what is in front of us right now, but something we have a part in creating and perpetuating, especially in silence and inaction and refusing to acknowledge its influence.
Then pull the hood away, look around with new eyes – and begin again.