About Me

My photo
My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Power of Symbols: The Hoodie and the Short Skirt

Like bloggers everywhere, I cannot help but weigh in on the Geraldo Rivera comment that Trayvon Martin's hoodie was "as to blame" as his assailant, George Zimmerman, for his murder.

I hope it's not really necessary for me to say I disagree.

But Rivera does bring up a point -- albeit ham-handedly -- about the power of symbols in our culture.  In sociological terms, everything is a symbol.  Words are symbols.  They stand for things.  What *do* hoodies (and pants worn below the butt, and baseball caps worn backwards, and...) symbolize to many people?  

In a word, danger.

It's not fair.  As Glenn Fleishman (@GlennF on Twitter) tweeted today: "Hoodies kill kids just like halter tops cause rape." 

Indeed.  Saying the hoodie is to blame for Trayvon's senseless killing makes about as much sense as saying a girl wearing a short skirt who gets raped was "asking for it."

It's precisely that obvious parallel that gives me pause, because -- as a white mother to a teen white girl -- I am deeply conflicted about what I allow my daughter to wear.

On the point that Rivera made -- that he tells his sons not to wear hoodies, not to wear pants "down to their ankles" -- I find myself nodding my head.

Not my academic, sociological, analytical mind.  But my parental, over-anxious self.  The part of me that wants to do everything possible to keep my girl safe.

For while I want to say that my child should dress however the hell she pleases (and, she pretty much does), I cannot help but worry that some outfits give different messages.

Different outfits are different symbols.  

Jeans, long-sleeved shirt, flats?  Nicely dressed teen girl.

Short skirt, bare legs, flats, top that shows a little form?  *I* still think "nicely dressed teen girl" but I'm afraid others may see something along the lines of "loose" or "asking for attention."

It's surely a sign of societal sickness that parents everywhere have to worry --- with good reason -- about what their children wear.  That parents of minority boys may, in particular, be wary of whether or not their sons are perceived (wrongly!) as "thugs."  That parents of girls (of any race) may be rightly worried whether or not their daughters are perceived (again, wrongly!) as "asking for attention."

But make no mistake:  a 130 pound kid with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea -- hoodie or no hoodie -- did not deserve to be killed (or even bothered by) by a 250 lb neighborhood "watch" man who carried a *gun*.  

And if anything ever happens to my daughter, I'll personally strangle the first person who says that her attire was "as to blame" as her assailant.

But we ignore *at our peril* the kernel of truth to Rivera's worries.

Sometimes, we do need to be aware of how we are perceived.

Even if the person doing the perceiving is -- clearly -- the one who is wrong.


  1. Like the adage, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" perceptions are as varied as the individual eyes we see the world through.

    "What *do* hoodies (and pants worn below the but, and baseball caps worn backwards, and...) symbolize to many people? / In a word, danger. "

    I do not see those symbols as dangerous but as a style choice, and a choice from a teenager's point of view likely to mean the projection of strength, or a style choice that emulates someone a child look up to, or a choice of comfort over style, or no choice at all, as in the hoodie and jeans are the best clothes a child owns. So, my perceptions are much different perception that many may hold, for whatever reason, as danger.

    When I was regularly surrounded by teenagers who wore their baseball caps backwards or wore sagging pants or other symbolic dress, items like tee shirts that ranged from the promotion drug use or items of clothing that seemed highly sexualized, I was in a position of authority and familiarity, teacher working a concession stand or the gate at sports games, teacher chaperoning a dance, teacher leading a field trip, leader of summer camp, et cetra. Even though I might not agree with a form of dress, rarely did it matter to me what a child wore. In fact, most of the time, it was the adults in the child's world who had a problem with what the kids were wearing. NEVER did a child say to me, "Teacher, I cannot understand the lesson you are giving because so and so is wearing clothes I don't like."

    Martin and Zimmerman's cultural expectations as to what is truly dangerous and what strength was required to illuminate that perceived danger intersected with tragically final results, that I am certain everyone involved, either directly or indirectly, would want to change.

    Interestingly, the Stand Your Ground law that was used to excuse Zimmerman for his actions is not receiving the same attention as the fervor for Zimmerman's prosecution. Justified shootings in Florida are up three fold in comparison to what was considered "justified" prior to the laws enactment. (CNN report 3/24/12 http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/24/justice/florida-teen-shooting/?hpt=us_c2)

    Trayvon Martin's death should never have happened! The people of Florida and the elected representatives who promoted this harmful legislation bare responsibility too.

    Regardless, I seriously doubt the legislators or the people who put them into office will see any jail time for this most American tragedy.

  2. I think you kinda missed the point -- I'm writing from a parent's perspective (and I think Rivera was speaking from his one as a parent as well). No doubt that the kids have no problem with what they wear. But it's naive to think we as parents don't need to be concerned with how they (and we) are perceived based on what they wear. Some outfits may arguably put them in more danger, as Trayvon's case tragically shows.

    That said, the racism element here is undeniable. *My* boys could walk around in hoodies and jeans below their butts (the jeans which, by the way, won't happen as long as they live with me) *and they probably would never get shot*.

    The gender issue is more complicated -- ALL girls and women risk being perceived negatively based on what they wear, though sexual harassment and violence are so pervasive *and happen regardless of attire* that the stereotype of clothes = risk is just that -- a stereotype. But the symbols still remain. The *perception* by others is still there. (Perhaps ironically, a previous post by me, "Baby Slut Wear," underscores how uncomfortable I am with modern teen fashion. No matter how much I intellectually want my kid to be able to wear whatever the hell she wants, I myself cannot shake that some outfits look cheap and...slutty. If *I* as an educated person have that reaction to them, how much more likely somebody without the education does too?)

    Sexism, racism, violence, stereotypes, privilege. It's all wrapped up in this post. :)

    *Even though we must simultaneously work to change the stupidity behind the assumptions.*


Politeness is always appreciated.