When I was in the 5th grade, I lobbied my mom for two peer-pressure-induced things:
- a pair of Levis blue jeans
- to be able to watch the new television show, “Happy Days”
Both took a lot of persuasion, begging, groveling, bemoaning, and probably some crying, but eventually I made a strong enough argument (or else drove my mother to the breaking point) to succeed. I was told that I could watch “Happy Days” with my parents (evidently they felt the need to define things like “hickey” for me) and while I could not get a pair of blue jeans per se, I was allowed to pick out a pair of light blue Levis corduroys that I wore with pride all the way through, I think, the 8th grade. All the way until they wore through in the seat and were no longer fit even for cut-offs.
I was thinking about those Levis this morning as I walked my dog through the park wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Being a middle-aged white woman, I imagine I’m not very threatening in the latest demonized wardrobe. Sadly for Trayvon Martin, this rule – this stereotype – didn’t apply to him. He was a young black man in a hoodie and as such was a threat to the fearful, trigger-happy George Zimmerman. Trayvon is dead due to his hoodie. I was only warm. Bill Belichick is… well, he’s a slob, but that’s another story.
Or is it? Why did it take such persuading on my part to convince my mom to let me wear those Levis all those years ago? Why was she worried about “Happy Days”? Strangely enough, there was a connection. Levis, to her, represented something that young girls didn’t need to project, i.e. they didn’t need to dress like boys. You had to buy Levis in the boys department at that time. They didn’t make jeans for girls yet. You had to go to the boys department and pick out your size by waist and inseam, like boys and men do, not in non-measurable sizes like girls and women. They were pants for boys, not girls.
They were also jeans and jeans represented a level of dress that was unacceptable for school. Mind you, I didn’t go to a Catholic school or a boarding school or any type of private school with a dress code. I went to the public school in the neighboring county. I went to school with kids from farms and suburbs; low- to middle-class, all of us. But my mom taught at the same school and she felt strongly that there should be a difference between what a person wears when s/he is going to school, compared to going in the backyard to play. School was time in public and as such, you needed to look presentable. She defined this as something better than jeans.
Over time, of course, I wore more jeans. I even wore blue jeans before I finished high school. Still, the lesson of how I was to look in public stuck with me. It sticks to this day. I iron my clothes in the morning, I rarely wear jeans to work (and only this year started doing so on Fridays), I won’t go anywhere other than the gym or the dog walk in sweatpants. Like my mom, I believe very much in the importance of the difference between public and private, and I believe in maintaining that differentiation as best I can.
But no doubt, I am in the minority.
I concede that one can make a strong argument that appearance is overrated (ironically, since we are a culture obsessed with fashion and looks). In an ideal world, we would see beyond the clothes one wears or the car one drives. In an ideal world, we would look beyond the color of a person’s skin, their sex or gender, their socioeconomic status. In an ideal world we would look beyond all of these things to see only the person. In an ideal world, George Zimmerman would have seen a young man named Trayvon Martin. That’s all. He would have drawn no conclusions, nor made any assumptions about Trayvon based upon his jeans and his hoodie and his hands tucked in his waistband. But surely we all know how very far from any ideal world that we are today.
That said, I wonder where our individual responsibility lies in terms of the messages we send to people by the way we present ourselves to the world. I was riding the light rail to the airport in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting next to an African-American woman about my age. A young man, who looks a lot like the pictures of Trayvon I’ve seen on the news, got on the train at one of the stops and for the next 15 minutes or so, stood by the door alternating scrolling on his iPod with pulling up his pants. This kid was not threatening to me in any way. He was a kid in his jeans and his hoodie and a jacket, riding to wherever he needed to be that morning. When his stop arrived, he got off and the woman next to me said under her breath, “I’m so glad I don’t have any boys.” I shared that I was thinking the exact same thing and we laughed about the ridiculous fashion statement one’s pants falling off one’s ass makes.
We laughed. George Zimmerman fired a gun. Thus I return to my argument that when we live in a world where people will in fact shoot you because of the clothes you chose to wear that day, is it not maybe time to think a bit about the choices we’re making? I listened with interest at Tom Ashbrook’s March 20th episode of “On Point” where his guests, Mychal Denzel Smith and James McBride, along with several callers to the show, talked about some of the things they were taught as youngsters, as young black men, to help them survive in a world that hated them for no reason beyond the color of their skin. The lessons in no way serve to condone the hatefulness. They aren’t meant to encroach upon anyone’s civil liberties and/or free will to wear whatever the hell they choose to wear in public. No, they are lessons in survival.
They were taught not to run away from a possibly harmful scene for fear of looking like a guilty black man (a lesson that Trayvon evidently had heard, for when his friend on the phone told him to run, he refused). They were taught not to cross the tracks. They were taught to be home when it got dark. Are these all lessons and/or rules that imply one is submissive to an established order? Maybe. But more, they are lessons that kept those young men alive.
My mother said, “Don’t come crying to me if someone mistakes you for a boy when you’re dressed like one.” It’s a point well taken. And I know it’s a L-O-N-G way from being mistaken for the wrong sex to being shot on someone’s front lawn, but it’s still the same world. It’s still a world where people make assumptions, where people hold wrong ideas, where people stereotype, and where people are inundated with messages to fear and hate anyone who looks or talks or acts different from us. We hear it from political candidates, television and radio talk shows, movies, books, and even the “red alert” terrorist rating scale brought to us complements of our Department of Homeland Security. We simply cannot escape the message, the idea, that we are threatened. Constantly. We live in a heightened state of fear because we’re taught that fear will keep us safe. The logic escapes me, but it is there all the same.
So I’d like to suggest that until we find ourselves in a better place, a better world, that maybe we look again to some of the rules we let go awhile ago. Maybe we can start to think again about how we look to others, how we present ourselves in the world. Maybe moms and dads, aunts and uncles, friends and family, athletes and superstars – adults – can model again for our young people some behaviors that will keep them safe; behaviors like, if you’re not a gangster, don’t dress like one. If you want people to take you seriously, stop looking like a clown. If you want the respect of your teachers or your boss, show up dressed in such a way that says, “I’m here to listen and pay attention.” Sweatshirts and baggy gym shorts and pants falling of your hips don’t say that. Neither do tight blouses that show off your lingerie or jeans low and tight with “princess” written across the ass. What else does this say besides, “Look at my ass!”? Look at my ass, my breasts, my crotch. That’s what it says.
We can argue until the cows come home that it shouldn’t be this way. We can say with every good, civil libertarian, high-browed and educated liberal mindedness that such thinking is just wrong. We SHOULD be seen for who we are, not what we wear. And to that I will answer, “Yes, we should.” But we are not. And Trayvon is dead, not entirely, but in part, because he looked like a young man who might cause trouble. He fit a profile. And if I was his mom, as much as it’s against my core beliefs to tell him to dress differently, I’d have rather done that than attend his funeral.