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Trayvon Martin and the hoodie as sign and signifier


Trayvon Martin is all over the headlines these days. Brian Stelter wrote an interesting piece on how the story finally got there. One of the most interesting things about how the story went national is the role of social media…especially after the clusterfuck that is Kony 2012 reminded us all of the perils of slacktivism (and founder’s syndrome). For me, however, one of the most poignant pieces of the Trayvon tragedy (and it is a tragedy) is the role of the hoodie.

Trayvon’s sweatshirt has become the evocative symbol that sums up this entire drama. Wearing a hoodie, or talking about them, currently means you are commenting on what happened in Sanford, Florida.

(image via NY State Senator Eric Adams)

It’s a pretty stunning reminder about what messages our clothes send and the power of fashion. Hoods have been worn throughout history by everyone ranging from cloistered monks and 12th century hooligans, to nerds getting PhDs and 17th century English women secretly visiting their lovers. But hoodies themselves, and we’re talking hooded sweatshirts, were first mass produced by Champion in the 1930s and marketed towards warehouse workers upstate New York. It was ROCKY that brought the hoodie into popular culture, and it soon became a signifier of belonging for a variety of subcultural outcasts including graffiti artists, skaters, and kids into hardcore music.

I guess that’s where my affection for the hoodie comes in. I’ve worn one around 265 days a year since 1993 (and definitely one day more during leap years, since New York is really cold in February). When I was a tiny, whisp of a teenager my black hoodie was the armor I could hide behind. The hood lent me a bit of anonymity, while my penchant for sewing band patches on the front pocket gave me a sense of identity and made me feel as though I belonged to a tribe. As an adult, I don’t view my hoodies with as much meaning (although they still feel like a protective layer). One reason for that is I’ve grown into my own identity. Another is that everyone wears them now. Like jeans, the hoodie has gone from a working man’s uniform to a closet staple for everyone…even Geraldo (who, I’d like to point out, once tried to poach an interview from me…while wearing a hoodie). Cheerleaders and Real Housewives wear fuzzy velour hoodies, my father wears one emblazoned with my alma mater, kids wear cute ones with bear ears, and I own a cashmere one. Everybody has a hoodie. So how is a fucking sweatshirt still perceived as threatening?

It’s because “grown ups” are, and will always be, scared of “the youth”…especially, youth of color and, particularly, young black men. I really don’t think African-American kids wear hoodies in greater numbers than white kids. And just as the hoodie used to be an easy way for me to signify both leave me alone and I’m part of this particular crowd, it’s an easy symbol for an idiot, or a racist, to associate with suspicious or threatening. And it isn’t just Americans playing up this lunacy. In the UK the term hoodie is synonymous with youth behaving badly. Sweatshirts with hoods are actually banned in some places, an awesome sort of rule that has resulted in four-year-old kids and middle-aged teachers being asked to leave supermarkets.

My skin color is best described as “mildly translucent”. But, as a number of people have pointed out, “there are rules of conduct for boys of color that are meant to keep them from being murdered senselessly.” It’s not something I’ve ever had to deal with and it’s not anything the (spoiler alert) son I’m expecting this summer will ever have to deal with. The first piece of clothing I bought for him was a black hoodie:

And right now it just makes me sad. It’s 2012 and a simple hooded sweatshirt is still an article of clothing we don’t all get to ascribe our own significance to…for some of us, it’s solely up to how others perceive some cotton.