I was just shy of 18 when I bought the hooded sweatshirt — a metallic silver thing that cost about $10 on the Aeropostale clearance rack — to take with me to Northwestern University in the Chicago suburbs, knowing my parents would be worried when they saw it.
They were. I was the second of two sons who came of age in the New York of the ’90s, when police stop-and-frisks were deemed unfortunate rites of passage for young black men. To my parents, wearing a hoodie seemed like I was inviting harassment.
I reminded my father of their reaction when we were discussing the Trayvon Martin case last weekend. He was livid about Geraldo Rivera’s plea to black and Latino parents to not send their children on the street wearing “hoodies,” until I reminded him that he and my mom once made the same plea, with me, 10 years ago.
I don’t consider getting shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer an everyday possibility, but the air of suspicion is. I am a gangly black man who sings and smiles while walking down the street. I typically intimidate no one. In a hoodie, I am mistaken for a thug.
On a college campus, my teenage self figured that a hoodie denoted you as a student, not a suspect. I wanted one desperately, because I had a reputation for terrible taste. During a school pride week my junior year in high school, a teacher praised my orange-and-black flannel shirt and khakis as the best outfit she had ever seen on Tacky Thursday. I wasn’t in costume.
I hadn’t even been at college a month when the first campus police alert dropped in our e-mail. I was putting on my silver hoodie to get ready for dinner. The alert said a student had been mugged a few blocks from campus; police were looking for a black male, in his late teens or early 20s, wearing “hooded sweatshirts.” It was the first of many.
I threw my hoodie on the floor. I put on a plaid shirt and called a friend, who was white, to ask him to meet us for dinner. He wore his hoodie with privileged nonchalance. I tried not to be angry. But when I looked at Steve that night, I saw the visual representation of society’s double standard.
“You see a white man wearing a hoodie and you think, oh, he’s coming from the gym or it’s cold outside,” said Howard Conday, a 27-year-old business manager from Bowie. “But as a black man, you have to be more guarded. You see how uneasy people become when they see you with it. I would never wear a hoodie in public in D.C.”
Conday is a recent graduate from Howard, with graduate degrees in law and business. He recently helped to organize the “Am I Suspicious?” video on YouTube that is probably being shared somewhere on your Facebook feed right now.
In the video, Conday speaks against racial profiling and the future that was robbed from 17-year-old Trayvon. He flips up his black hoodie, faces the camera and asks: “Do I look suspicious?”
Yes. For many people, in that hoodie, Conday does look suspicious. He looks like the bogeyman. So does any other black man in a hooded sweatshirt. Such unfortunate truths only fostered feelings of discomfort and paranoia among the black men of my alma mater.
Some of them stopped wearing hoodies altogether. One relished the ability to scare his classmates when walking from the library — he was as skinny and friendly as I was. No one in life ever viewed him as a threat.
One night, I tried doing a bunch of interviews for the school paper wearing a hoodie — familiar faces froze in fear when I approached; one student dropped her keys and questioned if I was in fact a Northwestern student. These interviews occurred a few yards away from my dorm.
I wore argyle sweaters and skinny jeans and even the tacky flannel with reckless abandon, but found myself subconsciously constructing rules for when I could and could not wear a hoodie. They became as cemented in my mind as other unwritten rules that parents teach their black sons: Don’t antagonize the police, don’t run in public, never walk with both hands in your pockets (lest someone thinks I have a gun).
1. I would only wear the sweatshirts on weekends and never outdoors at nighttime.
2. I’d try not to venture off campus wearing one. If I did, I would wear the hoodie only if I was walking with women or white people.
3. The only exception was a sporting event, in which case I would always wear a hoodie.
A few months ago, I stopped wearing my hoodie to a gym close to the my workplace; it became too dispiriting to have my colleagues look straight ahead when I walked past them.
I hate myself for creating these rules. It makes me feel weak for capitulating to the perceptions of people expecting the worst. It makes me feel whiny about the burdens that come with being a black man, which I’m proud to be. It tainted my experience at Northwestern, a school that I remain proud to call my alma mater. And then, there are those lingering doubts: Why is this piece of clothing so paralyzing? It’s. Just. A. Hoodie.
Now, of course, it’s not just a hoodie. It symbolizes protest as much as a picket sign. Parents now don’t worry about their children just being stopped, but also being shot if they’re seen wearing one. And being in solidarity with Trayvon is now the cause du jour for all the cool kids.
Considering all this, I felt supremely comfortable donning my hoodie again to walk to the gym on Saturday evening. I pulled the hood over my head because it was raining. I walked a few steps outside my apartment when I’m pretty sure a woman clutched her purse as she walked by me. Despite all the protests, the fear is still real.
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