Memo to self: burn all the hoodies under my roof. Wearing hoodies should go on my list of
things African-Americans ought not to do – though I’m sure it won’t. But I do have a list (acquired over the years) of suggestions and warnings from the dominant culture. No, Geraldo Rivera is not the first fool to make suggestions regarding the dress and presentation of African-Americans. And after shaking the dust off my list I can still read the early penciled in responses to me and my racial collective from those adults whose admonishments in some cases changed my life but in the larger scheme of things revealed much more about the pathology lurking in the quiet halls of covert racism. The subject matters include but are not limited to:
1. Cursing: “Your English is atrocious!” My junior high librarian. I suppose she was right. So I set out to prove that using swear words did not mean my vocabulary was lacking. Now, I swear with impunity and still maintain an impressive vocabulary.
- The death of Dr. King: I listened to Robert F. Kennedy’s speech after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King and caught the whiff of condescending assumption. His forced soothing manner implied that all the natives were going to riot because they had no better way to handle the death of a fallen leader.
3. Regarding my Afro hairdo: “You should wear your hair differently.” “have you been standing too close to a light socket dear?” “Duh, can I touch it?” From whites believing in nothing but their own originality. Alas.
4. Regarding the pronunciation of the word striped: “Dear, it is pronounced with one syllable. You do not want to be ignorant the rest of your life do you?” This from the well-meaning mother of one of the few white students left at Compton High School in 1967.
5. High school teacher talking to an African-American mother on the phone: “Your daughter was arguing loud in the hallway and being offensive because she was twirling her neck and swearing – you know – talking black.” I asked this young teacher what she said to the parent of the white student who was just as ‘creative’ in her speech. “Did you accuse her of talking white?”
- Regarding my marriage to a white man: “What about your children?” It was 1985 in western New York and I was shocked at the question from my then superintendent. I was amazed that as we were returning from an educational conference this man could let slip the most uneducated of questions. I fairly shouted, “Wait! Wait, so I should not be married or entertain my right to parenthood because your children wouldn’t be able handle my inter-racial children?” He was offended at my defensiveness! He told me he was only concerned about the welfare of my children. Really? Why would he NOT think to make HIS children less racist.
- An early harbinger of concern: when we adopted our seven-week-old bi-racial son in 1987, our white social worker looked at my husband and, very bluntly stated, you will be the white father of what some will consider a most feared element in this society; a black male. We looked at each other in bewilderment believing deep in our hearts that our world had changed for the better. And we were right (and lucky) – for the most part.
- Geraldo Rivera: a man, who should be a lot smarter than he sounds, says my son and the sons of others should not wear hoodies because of some racist gunslinger whose right to carry a gun overshadows a black man’s right to choose what he wears. He has since apologized (in a manner of speaking). Apparently his own son was quoted as saying he was ashamed of his father’s stance on the hoodie issue. This represents proof that stupidity is not necessarily generational. My outrage at the Trayvon Martin fall-out lacks the appropriate surprise because I know, as do many African-Americans, that there is always someone emboldened by ignorance, stupidity or both to declare that black men get what they deserve (in this case) because of their choice of clothing. By Rivera’s rationale, a scantily clad woman is simply asking to be raped. Hmm.
What does this all mean? If Trayvon Martin’s death is to have any meaning at all we need to acknowledge that all parents want to raise children to be free to move about in society at large. Once this is accepted, then the Trayvon Martins of this world belong to all of us. We need to stand together and express outrage at all the perpetrators of social injustice – especially those who believe an innocent victim, somehow, warranted his fate.