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The Power of a Hoodie (or the explicit damage of an implicit bias)

How has the tragic death of a black teenager in Sanford, Florida become symbolized by a hoodie – a sweatshirt with a hood that is a wardrobe staple for every high school and college student in America?

George Zimmerman – a biracial man of white and Hispanic descent – is accused of shooting and killing Trayvon – an unarmed teenager who was returning from a 7-11 snack run to his home in a gated Florida community.  George was the watch captain for the neighborhood.  Trayvon was a boy who lived in the neighborhood.  Trayvon was shot to death by George, but George has not yet been arrested as of the date of this blog because he says he killed Trayvon in self-defense.  Further facts are available to anyone who seeks them, but this blog is not about an adjudication of these facts…it is about the hoodie that Trayvon was wearing when he was shot to death.

Many are marching for and demanding George’s arrest because they believe he is a racist and that his crime is a hate crime.  Craig Sonner, George’s attorney, firmly insists that - “Is George a racist? The answer is no, absolutely not. He’s not a racist.”  The television pundits are weighing in on the emotional dialogue, and the talk of racism has entered the “Is Trayvon Martin the Emmitt Till of this century?” proportions.

My two cents – racism in 2012 is not about racists…it is about things like hoodies.  The more we talk about George as a racist, the less we understand about racism in 2012.  The reality is that George is very probably not lying when he says he is not a racist.  The reality is also that race played a critical role in George’s thinking in that crucial moment where he saw Trayvon as a threat.

So, how can Trayvon’s death be about racism without George being a racist?  Because racism in 2012 is not about racists, it is about implicit bias that impacts all of us.  It is about the smallest of things…like hoodies…that have the biggest of effects.

Geraldo Rivera jumped into the hoodie fray on Fox News when he insinuated that Trayvon might be alive if he had not worn a hoodie.  The members of the Miami Heat responded by posing in hoodies to support the further investigation of Trayvon’s death.  (See below for the team picture.)

When we see young men – especially young men of color – in hoodies, we have images, feelings and even conclusions that come to mind.  These images, feelings and conclusions are different than when we see women in hoodies or young white men in hoodies imprinted with college names and logos.  Our eyes are efficient little cameras that snap thousands of pictures a second and inform our brain of what we are possibly seeing way before we realize that we are forming explicit opinions on what is in front of us.

A young black man in a hoodie is not just a young black man in a hoodie…he is an image that our brain contextualizes using popular media impressions, our own life experiences, our expectations and everything else that we have absorbed through our exposure to the world around us.  When we see a young black man in a hoodie, we don’t see a future orchestra conductor, college professor, neurosurgeon, or business executive.  Similarly, if we see a young white man in a suit, we don’t see a future criminal, rapper or potential threat.  The hoodie, like the suit, offers our brains a mental shortcut to what we think is probable and causes us to bypass real thought.  The hoodie, then, is not a hoodie…it is a gateway into everything our brain thinks a hoodie means.

If we understand the incredible power of things like hoodies, we can begin to separate racism from racists.  We don’t have to be racists to apply these mental shortcuts.  In fact, we all use these shortcuts everyday, and we act on them all the time.  Most of the time, our actions don’t result in irreversible tragedies, and when they do, it is easier for us to revile the individuals as racists because we have to separate them from who we are.

I saw marchers in Chicago a few days ago wear hoodies that said “We are all Trayvon Martin.”  I agree.  But, the backs of those hoodies need to say “We are all George Zimmerman.”  Because we are.  Unless we deal with that, we cannot fully deal with what led to Trayvon’s death.

This is not to say that the hoodie is to blame.  It is not the hoodie, but it is the social context in which we have absorbed and internalized images that don’t at all comport with who people are.  By blaming Trayvon’s death on a “racist” we allow ourselves to excuse the ways in which all of us participate – and continue to participate – in ways that allow this to happen.  Blaming the racist gives us an easy way out of how we all allow racism to continue.

-By Arin N. Reeves