Stereo Types

The not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman case may have punctuated this trial, but it opened up conversations about the legal system, Stand Your Ground Laws, and prejudice. President Obama’s remarks last week on why the not-guilty verdict had caused such pain for so many, were  an authentic and powerful acknowledgement of the everyday humiliations endured by black males– youths and adults.  He spoke about the experiences of black men (and teens) being followed while shopping in a department store; hearing the click of car doors locking as they stopped nearby; and watching as women clutch their purses tighter if they are close by or sharing an elevator. Many black parents have lamented that they have had to teach their children that being black in America includes the many indignities of being followed or singled out–just in case.  Mr. Obama was most powerful when he said, “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” he continued,”Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago.”  Some people quickly distorted his words and cried race-baiting, as though mentioning (or even acknowledging) race (which was denied during the trial) is so taboo and so distorting, that all it does is provoke. (And who might it provoke????)

In so many ways our culture has evolved and become more inclusive, but scars and serious problems remain. The word “prejudice” doesn’t get thrown around as much as it did when I was young. After the seventies, as identity politics became more solidified, the word “prejudice” was an insufficient term for discrimination based upon race. We don’t hear the word “chauvinism” very much any more either. In the seventies, a chauvinist was usually a sexist male. The original meaning of chauvinism, however, is exaggerated patriotism. It later became used as a synonym for sexism. Today we see many chauvinists who embody the bellicosity of the original and later usages of chauvinism. They also tend to call others racists or race-baiters, as though any mention of race now is meant to reopen old wounds, while ignoring the mention of race (or any other means of discrimination) is somehow more evolved. We tend to treat racism, sexism, homophobia, and chauvinism as overt attitudes of bigotry. Even without chauvinism, we discriminate. “Discrimination” has become a term used to define unjust treatment of different categories of people. Discriminating also (and originally) means distinguishing characteristics among categories.  It is clear from so many events and stories, none less than the shooting of Trayvon Martin, that prejudice, in the most general sense, is ever-present. Because humans discriminate (not necessarily negatively), humans pre-judge (not necessarily negatively). Still, we constantly discriminate and pre-judge positively and negatively based on appearances.

From the moment that Trayvon Martin was shot, I was surprised that people equated the Hoodie with dangerous black males. To me, the Hoodie is part of the youth dress code. I suppose that regardless of race, any kid in a Hoodie (with the hood up) can arouse suspicions. Except if it’s raining. Then the hood has a utilitarian purpose, not a cultural reference. Suggesting that the way Trayvon Martin was dressed aroused suspicion is like blaming the girl or woman for wearing short shorts or a low cut top as though she “had it coming”.  The truth is, as parents and teachers, we must explain the categories that get distorted. For many, this is a sad commentary.  I agree that it is sad that as a culture we judge, and too often mis-judge, based on appearances. We must also acknowledge that in addition to prejudices, there have always been aggressors who use excuses for their behavior.  As parents and teachers, we must teach our children about the messages that clothes send, intended or unintended, that speech and physical presence shape perceptions in all ways. We must remind ourselves of our own categories and assumptions.  There will always be people who will have distorted perceptions, and we may be able to enlighten some, but many will just not get it. Because prejudice must always be examined, we must make our children aware that prejudice exists and that some may act on those prejudices.

I have read several articles in the past week that have noted that women have refused to say hello or respond when approached by a black man, as evidence of a still enforced stereotype of the “scary black man”. I have been thinking about the fact that women, often judged more on appearance than men are, often perceive threat by men regardless of race.   While the history of racism is undeniable, the lack of understanding of women’s experiences (regardless of race) from the dawn of time,  also needs to be reinforced. While not all men have threatened women, women have always been threatened by men. When women are called rude or prejudiced because they choose to be responsible for not sending any potentially confusing messages, men(regardless of race) need to understand women’s historical experience as well.

With a culture that glorifies violence, and gun laws that have not only not diminished violence, but include numerous tragedies beyond Trayvon Martin’s death, we must continue the conversations about our history and culture; about positive and negative discrimination, and about how we can reduce violence and bigotry. Neither hoodies nor short shorts are the problem. How we interpret is the problem. When we stereotype, we have an oversimplified (and distorted) image of a person. Hoodies and short shorts are stereo types.

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