About 2 years ago my wife and I stopped for pizza way up in the Souderton/Telford area (philly suburb outskirts). We were in the area already and had received a strong recommendation for this particular place. As we walked into the restaurant, we immediately received stares from everyone in the facility, adult and child alike. Once seated, my wife who is white, and who tends to not always pick up on glares from others as quickly as I tend to, immediately said to me “whoa, did you feel that!”, and of course I responded by saying “uh, yeah, of course I did”. Our presence there was disruptive to whatever norms that were typically played out in that building. It was summer time, and I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts. And my black skin was bare, on display, and held social meaning beyond ethnic difference. I could not hid or cover myself from the racialized gazes that looked at me and projected meaning onto my black body. I honestly do not know what exactly was running through the minds of the people who rudely stared at us as we came in and took our seats. Was I perceived as a threat or did I appear suspicious? Was it taboo to be an interracial couple in their minds? Or maybe it was just my hyper-visibility as other, and different. I will probably never know precisely what those stares meant, other than that they were not welcoming glances. My body had once again become an object to be observed and interpreted, which was not my first experience with this, nor my last, but yet certainly a memorable one.
Since college, I have learned and mastered the importance of manufacturing a public image when I go out. Yup, that’s right, I intentionally choose clothes to wear to manipulate how I am being perceived by others, particularly by the dominant culture. What you must understand is that I do not have a choice, as a young black male I must always know how I am being perceived by others, and play into that, to not know could prove detrimental. For example, since graduating college, most people probably conjure up in their minds an image of me in which I am wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat. However, when I was in college, my uniform of choice was most often a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodies. There is something familiar and comfortable about a hoodie for me. The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into my own self awareness of identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live. The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as space does for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, reminding me of who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to the racialized gaze.
One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was when two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that they were afraid of me when they first met me freshman year. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have felt that way, because after all I was Dru, and everyone who knew me loved being around me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule. I actually applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me what I had known I was experiencing more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely a Christian College problem, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.
This narrative has been lived out over and over again with different characters. Hoodie or no hoodie, there is a gaze which has been racialized to see dark skin and make it opaque, in that it cannot be hidden. The visibility of dark skin on human bodies in America immediately makes one the other, but not mysteriously other. Nope, the dark skin is believed to be known, understood, and mastered. Dark skin can be interpreted not only as uniquely visible but uniquely suspicious and threatening. The racialized gaze imposes this storyline on unfamiliar bodies. The hoodie allows one to shut out those who gaze at you while also making one hyper visible and apparently more readable in the minds of the dominant culture.
Trayvon Martin’s last moments become transparent when we are honest about the racialized American experience that plays out over and over again. Zimmerman saw an unfamiliar black body and based off of his own words, he reinterpreted Trayvon as suspicious. Trayvon, just a child, adorned in his hoodie both blocked the direct gaze of Zimmerman and yet nonetheless became more victim to Zimmerman’s racialized gaze. Zimmerman believed that Trayvon was “they”, the other, who “always get away”, in reference to his belief that young black men had recently committed crimes in his neighborhood. Trayvon’s presence then is a disruptive presence for Zimmerman, and so he believed that he must be removed out of his gated community. Zimmerman took on this responsibility himself, convinced that he knew Trayvon. Zimmerman could not see a child terrified for his life before him because his racial gaze impaired his vision.
Let’s be honest, while I believe Zimmerman is guilty of murder and our justice system needs to respond accordingly, he did not create the racialization that is in our country, but rather he is a byproduct of hundreds of years of racism in this country. Since the 1600’s, people of European descent in America have been gazing upon the African, seeing only 3/5’s a person, uncivilized labor, inferiority, and danger in those beautiful black bodies. This impaired vision is societal. The hoodie in black urban communities in many ways is a response to the racialized gaze. We covered ourselves up and defiantly hid ourselves from view. We controlled who saw us and who didn’t. Yet the racialized gaze only grew. The hoodie reminded us simultaneously of the stereotypes projected onto us by the dominant culture andalso the rebellious spirit born out of the urban hip hop culture. It taught us to resist. So, the hoodie for me then has interwoven well with my embracement of the subversive prophetic tradition and my anabaptist leaning. Consider how Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of the Zealots, calling people to take up the cross. So too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s hip hop subversive spirit to begin to challenge the criminalizing gaze that is fixed on black bodies in America. We can ALL cover ourselves with symbolic hoodies from the racialized systems and stereotypes that disrupt justice, by resisting with a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ.