Will You Wear Your Hoodies Up?

Last weekend, I was in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on the National Day of Unplugging, sitting on the grass with a study group  during a smartphone-free day. We were lulled, sun-warmed and well-fed, into a quiet, mellow circle, heads down as we read from a shared handout. At one point I turned my head and saw a young black kid, maybe fourteen, a boy in a tracksuit, standing quietly over us, waiting for our attention. He apologized for interrupting and then read from a sheet of his own, politely telling us about the fundraising efforts of his school, the Bronx Academy of Letters, to get a climbing wall for their gym, would we be interested in donating? He was taking donations now, or we could go to the website. Our group leader explained that we were in the middle of a discussion, and I asked to repeat the website address and promised him I’d donate (it’s 5toclimb.com, and I did). He said thank you and moved on. He seemed like a good kid.

He seemed like a good kid, which reminded me of another good kid, of course – Trayvon Martin, whose name we all now know because he’s dead, shot and killed in Florida just over a month ago, unarmed, carrying a pack of Skittles and an iced tea, wearing a hoodie. And his skin color. According to reports, the killer, George Zimmerman, was a self-appointed neighborhood-watchman-zealot, highly suspicious of black people and highly suspicious of this black person. Zimmerman called 911, who told him to stand down. He ignored them, and pursued the unarmed young man in the hoodie. Some sort of scuffle ensued. Then he shot and killed him. Details in between are murky, largely because the police didn’t arrest Zimmerman nor really investigate in any way. After all, Zimmerman had claimed self-defense about the killing of an unarmed kid that he’d pursued against the orders of 911 dispatch. Apparently in Florida you can totally do that. I’m sure it would have happend just the same way if the shooter had been black and the victim had been white.

The kid in Prospect Park was not wearing a hoodie, but that’s not the point. He was wearing his skin, and by that skin will for the rest of his life be judged, in a way that I will not. Hoodie or no. Nearby, a young African-American family was out for a walk and the kids zigzagged around us,  chasing each other and yelling joyfully. One was a little boy of about four. I looked at him and thought of Trayvon Martin, too, and about what it means to be a little black boy. It had not really occurred to me before this. But then I read Danielle Belton‘s incredibly affecting piece on the subject, on the burden of being “good” for young black kids, and the promise of safety that’s supposed to bring. Don’t make trouble and you won’t invite it.  From Danielle:

[W]hen I was young my parents told me I had to be the best to make it in this world. Averageness was something only the white and the male could afford and as a black woman, I was neither. You had to take pride in how you dress and how you spoke and how you behaved…You had to be “good,” because good things happen to those who are good and bad things happen to those who are bad.

…If your son doesn’t listen to hip hop, goes to the church camp, gets A’s and Bs in school, is polite, says “sir” and “ma’am,” if he’s a good kid, he’ll be safe. That’s the bargain black parents make with their children. If you are “good” the gangs and the violence and the racism won’t get you. You will be safe. You will live to see 25. You will have a great life. Opportunity will abound for you. We will be proud of you. The community will be proud of you. You will be Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and life will be beautiful if you just want it enough. Just be “good.” Be good, Trayvon Martin. Stay in school. Listen to your parents. And you’ll be safe.

But that’s a lie. No one came make you safe. No one can save you for that day some sick person just decides you’re the bad guy because you’re black and carrying a bottle of ice tea and some Skittles and he self-appointed himself neighborhood watch and some black teenage boys aren’t good, therefore ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT GOOD. And you are a black person. And you’re a boy. And you had on a “hooded sweatshirt.” So, you’re dead now.

That’s some heavy stuff. Jarring to think about while watching cute little 4 year olds run around a park in the sunshine. But inescapable, now. For them, and their parents, there’s also the need for articles like this: “How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin: Eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being black.” There are rules, like Jonathan Capehart wrote about learning in his youth, like “don’t run in public” (lest it looks suspicious), “don’t run while carrying anything in your hands” (someone might think you stole something) and “keep your distance from white women on the street” lest someone think you’re after her purse, or worse.

I’ve spent the last week since all this noticing hoodies. Turns out, wow, they’re everywhere. On kids on the subway after school. On techies at a casual East Village bar. On the dude I hung out with last Tuesday night. On some black teenagers horsing around by my corner bodega, having not gotten Geraldo’s memo. I now notice the hoodie, and the wearer, where I never did before, and find myself thinking about a kid with iced tea and Skittles.

Race hasn’t dominated the national conversation like this since the 2008 election. It has not been explicitly part of the Obama White House agenda — though of course, implicitly it’s there all the time for the president who, if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. Implicitly, too, it’s been present in the pushback against President Obama, from the inchoate “we want our country back” rallying cry of the Tea Party to the nutty birth-certificate flap (really, Donald Trump?)  to arguably the maybe-sinking of the Health Care bill in the Supreme Court this week (by many accounts really about politics and the President).

And meanwhile as The Hunger Games kills it at the box office, weirdly one of the biggest storylines coming out of it is the controversy over the fact that Rue is black. Real tweets, per Anna Holmes in the New Yorker: “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,” and “Call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.” These things are not unrelated to George Zimmerman’s reaction to a black kid in a hoodie.

There are other dangers to watch out for, especially if I’m a Jew in Toulouse or wearing a hajib in San Diego. There are the dangers of just being a woman, which is inherently more dangerous than being a man. The world’s a scary place.

But even so, I’m white. So it is my luck and my privilege not to worry about the potentially fatal color of my skin as I sit in a sunny park on a Saturday — or at night, wearing a hoodie. If it’s your luck and privilege, too, try to remember that. I’m sure you will. You seem like a good kid.

Further Reading:


  • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.conifer Jessica Conifer

    only SLIGHTLY related to what you wrote… how did she not know Rue was black… she was black in the book. okay back on topic… I heard there was some leaked information on Trayvon his school records or somehting showing he had some kind of record of sme problems… I just wanted to throw that out there first because whatever “issues” those were have nothing to do with the fact he was an armarmed kid who got shot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.conifer Jessica Conifer

      I meant to say “unarmed”

  • http://www.facebook.com/onesmartsandwich Rebecca Lynn

    This is delicately and well written. I told my poetry teacher that sometimes I feel sorry for being white because of the things other white people do, and that I feel bad about just feeling sorry. He assured me that sometimes, feeling bad is all you can do. That feeling bad means you’re thinking about it. It’s nice to see other white people thinking about it so much and realizing how simple some things are just because we’re white, an ease some people will never know.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

      wow, you feel bad for being white? Are you kidding me? That is even more racist. Not all white people are bad, and hello… EVERY RACE COMMITS CRIMES, RACISM, BIGOTRY, ETC. Being a bad person comes in EVERY COLOR!!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/onesmartsandwich Rebecca Lynn

      Misinterpret much? Yes, I do sometimes, key word being sometimes, feel bad for being white. I never said or even implied that all white people were bad or that no other race committed crimes or was racist. But the fact is that white people have it so much easier. When was the last time you worried about being good just so people wouldn’t think you were bad. That you had to overcompensate for the color of your skin? What Erica Page said is right. Whites have it easier. Men have it easier. Straights have it easier. This is what I feel bad about. And maybe if more people felt a little bad, we could get a few more things done. We think we’ve come so far that we don’t need to worry about how much farther we need to go. The fact that some people don’t see a problem with the Trayvon case is my issue. The fact that so many people don’t feel bad about what happened is a problem. I understand that other people die unjustly every day, but that’s not an excuse to overlook the problem.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

      White people do have to over-compensate sometimes… Look at the job market, schools etc. There are plenty of cases where being a minority is much more of an advantage than being white. Who are you to say anyone’s life is so much harder than someone else? lol

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1629880826 Shane Mabrey

    I’m kinda tired of hearing people say that he ignored commands to stop. This is inaccurate and misleading. A dispatcher has no right or authority to give commands, especially over the phone. Are you high, or just not very good with facts or details? They told him “we don’t need you to do that”, which you have somehow construed into a direct command to stop. If I was following someone I thought had committed a crime, I’d be dammed if I’d listen to a dispatcher telling me not to follow. EVERYONE knows, that’s when the guy gets away. He made a bad call but the endless retelling of opinion rather than fact only makes things worse. Get your story straight before you write an article about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

    I am so tired of this! Do you know how many people (of every color) are unjustly killed every single day? Do you know how many of them make it to the news? Not many, and if they do it is soon forgotten. No one knows for sure what happened that night. I do agree that Zimmerman should not have followed the boy. If he was suspicious he should have called police and left it at that. It is his fault someone is dead, and it would not have happened had he not followed Martin. However, everyone talks about Trayvon Martin like he was such a great kid, he was so wonderful and innocent. None of you people actually know him at all, and you do not know what kind of person he was. You do not know if Trayvon did in fact attack Zimmerman. (I do believe that if Zimmerman was attacked, it was his own fault for following, but that doesn’t mean it is okay to attack someone either. Trayvon should have called 911 and waited in a brightly light public place… maybe go back to the store) My point is, yes it was wrong… but guess what? There are a lot of people that do cruel and unfair things. It is not our place to judge this one specific case especially when no one know what happened except Trayvon. Zimmerman, and God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ekspage Erica Page

    This article gave me chills. Thank you thank you thank you for writing it. I am a half black girl with white skin and I see both sides of the situation: the actuality of being black with the privilege of looking white. @EricaandKayla Dealba, it is not racist to feel bad about being white. The definition of racism is discrimination plus power. The author of the article did not actively discriminate against anyone, therefore, there is no way she could be racist. You missed the entire point of the article and that is sad. She was not saying that all white people are bad and should feel bad. She was simply talking about the truth of being black in America. It’s not just about Trayvon or the man who wrongfully killed him. It’s true that we will never know the 100% truth about the situation since none of us knew them or were there that day. But what is true is that racism is still 100% alive in America, whether you see it or not. The Hunger Games controversy makes that rather obvious. @Shane Mabrey, was accusing the author of being high really necessary? Zimmerman was told by 911 dispatchers not to follow or engage. It’s not a matter of opinion. It was a direct command because they told him directly not to follow or engage. If you would’ve chosen to be as idiotic as Zimmerman and ignore those orders, that’s on you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ekspage Erica Page

    Also @EricaandKayla Dealba, saying that Trayvon should have called 911 makes sense in theory, but not when you are a young black man. Because I am black, I will speak for black people and say that many of us (not all) hate cops because many cops (not all) are racist. And a lot of black people don’t seek out the help of cops in situations like that because they don’t believe the cops will actually help them. Which is true a lot of the time. If you would like proof on that, just google “black man beaten by police” and see what comes up. Or look up what happened to Kenneth Chamberlain, November 19, 2011 in White Plains, NY. He was a retired police officer and marine with a heart condition. His medical device accidently went off and cops were sent to his home. When he told the cops off the error, he was harassed and called racial slurs for approximately 1 hour before he was tased and eventually shot and killed. So don’t you dare blame Trayvon’s death on Trayvon because he did not call the police when he was being stalked. Because that is a judgement. And as you said, it is not our place to judge. And blaming victims for the things that happened to them (like when rape victims are told that they shouldn’t have worn short skirts) is asinine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

    @Erica Page… You could say that about cops for any race… google Hispanic or white guy beaten up by cops. And yes, racism is alive and well today, but not just racism against black people. There are pleanty of racists that hate white people, Hispanic people, Asian people, etc. Not to mention people who hate gays, fat people, southern people or “rednecks”, etc. It is not easy for anyone. Everyone should just try to be a good person, and judge themselves. No one is better than anyone else. And everyone has a hard time. Life is hard, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation. Who are you to say that your life is harder than someone’s because of skin color? That is simply not true. Everyone has struggles. PS I did not blame Trayvon’s death on Trayvon… if you read what I wrote, i said it is Zimmerman’s fault the boy is dead. I just said maybe it would have been better had he called the police himself..

  • http://www.facebook.com/ekspage Erica Page

    It’s true: discrimination happens to a lot of people. But it also true that some people have harder lives than others. Do you know what White Privilege is? It is a real thing. Google that. Gay people have it harder than straight people (hate crimes). Poor people have it harder than rich people (healthcare etc). Women have it harder than men (men still make more than women on average even when they have the exact same job titles and qualifications). And black people have it harder than white people. It is fact that you might not be aware of or understand because you are not black.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

    You are generalizing… not every single gay person has it harder than every single straight person. Not every black person has it worse than every white person. There are some gay people that have happier and better lives than straight people, and there are straight people that have better lives than gay people. The same is true for everyone. Every situation and life is completely different. You cannot say who has it better than someone else. Just because I am white does not automatically mean that my life is better than every black person in this world. You would have to look at my situation compared to every other person out there. Just because I am white doesn’t mean that opportunities are handed to me or that I don’t work my butt off to make ends meet. It doesn’t mean that I do not get pulled over on a regular basis. It doesn’t mean people don’t judge me by my skin color, weight, age, looks etc. Think about it. And I could say the same to you… do you know what Black Privilege is? Google it. Discrimination is passed down by people who teach their kids that skin color is an issue. It is passed down because you tell them they will have a harder time because they are not white. That is not fair, and it only spreads negativity instead of trying to change people’s perceptions. If everyone would just drop the race thing altogether, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many problems.

    • http://www.facebook.com/onesmartsandwich Rebecca Lynn

      Those gay people might be happier when they are safe in their homes, but ask them if they feel like they have it just as easy as a straight person, especially if they want to adopt a child or even more simple, get married. Generalizing is all we can do at this point because race is an issue. If it weren’t, then we could look at each case separately, but you can’t just disregard it because you want to. Overlooking a problem, attempting to sweep it under the rug is what causes it to grow. Living in the south has taught me that. And I know plenty of gay or black or whatever non-white female like myself people who have a “better” life than me. They have more money than me. They have bigger houses than me. They have better jobs than me. They have newer cars than me. But I have never worried about being attacked because of my race. I have worried before about avoiding a person on the sidewalk or not running with a bag because I might be suspected of some crime. I can’t image that kind of fear. Ultimately, we’re on the same side. Race should not be an issue. But currently, it still is. No matter how much you and I or anyone else wishes it weren’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=73200517 Jesse Bartholomew

    Thanks for what you wrote. It was honest and sincere

  • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

    Race doesn’t have to be an issue if everyone would just grow up.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=18900644 Ramou Sarr

      You are completely and utterly missing the point here. Racism isn’t a feeling or Oh, this black guy was mean to me once. Racism! What we are talking about here is the systematic oppression of a very specific group of people. George Zimmerman had a history of patrolling and controlling Black bodies in his neighborhood. Go do that research on his dozens of 911 calls last year. Trayvon’s Blackness is what made him suspicious to Zimmerman. Nothing else. No, not everything is about race, but this very much is. And pretending that it’s not is extremely dangerous.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kendall.De.Jong Kendall De Jong

    Thank you for your article, very well-written.

  • http://www.facebook.com/coreyjf Corey Feldman

    As usual Rachel, I am blown away by your writing. Its a scary world we live in. Unlike you I have the safety through privilege of being a man. And Like you I am Jewish, and my features aren’t “ethnic” enough that I have concerns walking the streets. My boys are 3 and 5, I’m sure you don’t recall but you met them at Russ’s wedding (they were younger then). But since Trayvon Martin, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought, and mourned for the day I need to explain to them why there are boulders along the perimeter of our synagogue. Its far to easy to get lost in privilege and forget.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=18900644 Ramou Sarr

    This was good. And I admit to being hesitant and automatically really judgey when reading any Martin article written by a non-person of color. But you did good, girl.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ekspage Erica Page

    There’s no such thing as Black Privilege. Don’t tell me to google something that doesn’t exsit @EricaandKayla. Thank you @Ramou Sarr, @Rabecca Lynn, and @Corey Feldman for understanding, although I’m saying it’s your fault for not understanding @EricaandKayla. You obviously have never taken an anthropology, sociology, education, or race & gender college level course. That’s okay. But you really should because you have no idea what you’re talking about. Saying that discrimination comes from people who tell their children that they will have a harder time because they are not white (your words) is unforgivably ignorant, however. And if you don’t see that, than that is sad. I’m not sure who you’re telling to grow up (black people, the author of the article, the people commenting on this article, people who have been discriminated against, or society at large) but race IS an issue. It has been since slavery was legal in America for over century. It has been since the 1960’s and the whole civil rights movement. Things might not be as bad, but ignorance didn’t just disappear from our society. And you’ve proven that rather well.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Erick.and.Kayla.Dealba ErickandKayla Dealba

      At least I stand up for what I believe is right… and I believe that no one should be judged based on color alone. I believe that every person in this world should be treated equally. I believe that my life is no better or no worse than others around me. I help people when I can, and try my best to be a good person. I speak my mind because it is my right, and I would rather die than give it up. I treat everyone I meet with respect and kindness. You do not know me, you know nothing about me. You don’t know my educational background, and I think it is pretty low and petty of you to stoop to insulting my intelligence when I did not do that to you. I have just as much right to speak my mind as anyone else on this site, and I can do so without attacking someone’s intelligence. You are right in assuming I have no college education, bu that is because I could not afford it, plus I had my brothers to take care of because my mother is ill. I would love to go to college but I don’t see anyone handing me the money to do so. Stop being unnecessarily mean and judgmental.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606045988 Van Huynh

    Well in other news, I donated to that rock climbing wall. I hope more people do too because of your post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=710470318 Sarah H

    Wow this article has opened up a can of worms. It’s an interesting topic, and something I am very interested in because it is clear that racism (and many other “isms”) are alive and well. I am white and I try to never judge someone by the colour of their skin. My work is fairly multicultural – we have people from many different backgrounds there (Malaysia, Philippines, Japan, China, Greece, Indonesia, plus quite a few white people with a European background – even a couple of girls born in Germany). I really love it. I get on well with pretty much everyone there and I love the fact that we are so diverse. One of my closest workmates is Philippino, another is Malaysian, and I sit next to a Japanese guy and we get on really well too. Plus it’s quite interesting that on my team, there are 6 guys and 5 of them are gay! As far as I can see, they do not get hassled at all for being gay and I love that too. I think I’m actually really lucky with my work environment because I really think most people there are good people and they don’t care what race you are or what your sexuality is. I know that there are a lot of people out there who would not fit into my work environment because they would not like the diversity there.
    I do have to say that I do not have much contact with black people – I think in general there are not so many black people in Melbourne – compared to people of other races – we have LOTS of Asians in Melbourne – many coming to study at the Universities there.
    At University, I studied Anthropology and I was particularly interested in apartheid because I just do not know how people could do that stuff to other humans. Granted, it’s not the first time – segregation in the US and also WWII. I hope that as people are taught about this stuff at school, they will stop and think about how they would feel if it happened to them. I’m white, and to be honest, I do feel lucky to have been born white and I do sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I had been born black. I do think that there are certain priveledges that white people have (and yes, I realise not all white people are well off and not all black people are poor) – for one, I don’t feel judged because of my skin colour. I know that in Australia when white people came here, the Indigenous people were not treated well either. It’s just really sad that people are judged because of their skin or sexuality or indeed sex. If we could put all that crap aside then the world would be a much better place.

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