Posted by: MC | March 27, 2012

Under the Hoodie

No, Geraldo.  It’s not the clothing.
It’s about looking under the hoodie.

By now, most Americans are aware of the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old young man who was visiting his father’s home in a gated community of Sanford, Florida.  Trayvon lost his life to a single gunshot fired by a man who lived in the same community.  At the time the fatal shot fired, it was dark.  Trayvon, who had gone out to the corner store, was talking on his cell phone with his girlfriend back home in Miami.  When he wasn’t with his dad, Trayvon lived most of the year there with his mother.

Trayvon died wearing a hoodie.  There was a package of Skittles candy in his pocket.  He had pulled his hood onto his head when he noticed he was being followed by a man shouting out – questioning what Trayvon Martin was doing.

What was Trayvon doing?  For one thing, he was being 17 after dark.  He was on a walk to and from 7/11 to get candy.  He was talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend.  He was duly intimidated by the man following and shouting at him.

Trayvon was being in his life under that hood – a young black man living his life as if his skin color and clothing didn’t matter.  He was being a young black, a son, a friend, a person who mattered to all the people who so desperately miss him today.  That’s what Trayvon Martin was doing.

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon says he did so in self-defense.  Because of a “stand your ground” law protecting perpetrators of violence who claim self-defense, Mr. Zimmerman has yet to be arrested.

Next followed the horror for everyone involved – unspeakable shock and grief for Trayvon’s family and other loved ones.  There was the anxiety and fury of many who heard – the concern of most.  And there were words – lots of words – across the commercial media, through social networking, among family and friends, in living rooms, classrooms, churches and legislative halls.

There have also been actions.  Calls for justice.   Avoidance of arrest by the shooter.   Community gatherings for mourning and for protest

The primary response in public discussion is opposition.  Each speaker supporting victim-positions; either the victimization of the killed young man or the victimization claimed by the man who fired the gun.  This is usual.  It is understandable.  It is the form of discourse we participate in most frequently during a day.  It is deep in our culture as a country.

This is the way it works.  My experience, feelings and values (all linked) lead me to understanding right and wrong.  Your experience, feelings and values (all linked) do the same thing for you.  In the face of fear, pain, conflict, and certainly in the face of horrific circumstance I go immediately to a very fundamental and rigid application of my rules.  So do most of us.  If there is a lot of overlap in our ways of seeing and knowing, we commiserate.  If you have a different set of rules – a different sense of the world, we move into opposition.  It can get violent.

This dynamic is as much at the root of what happened to Trayvon Martin as it is to all of the discourse following.

There is a theme in 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change that addresses this.  As I listened, I heard a heartening and impressive commonality in the deeply held interests and concerns across the range of American people.  Yet,

…also clear and strong was how attached (even in love) we are with the polarities built into our public life.  Part of why the red/blue thing is so strong is that we depend on the “evil other” to define ourselves as righteous.  We need the opposition we hate.

Later in the book, just after leaving a coffee shop in Jackson, Mississippi, I returned to this observation:

Maybe the reason we don’t talk across difference is because contradictions like this are too confusing.  It’s just easier to demonize one another.  Oddly, to do that requires a strange dependency on one another and on the opposition between us.  For one group to define itself as right it must emphasize the wrong group’s differences, even when they are minimal or perhaps nonexistent.  In this kind of opposition, each group needs their story of the other group to know who they themselves are.  We are not them!  Each groups’ story must consistently spin the other one as bad and wrong.  Needless to say, this dynamic takes a decent amount of attention and a lot of energy.

In the past few days I’ve encountered these two perspectives on ways for responding to Trayvon’s death.  They are exceptions to the habit of opposition, more in keeping with the greater unity of relationship, interest and concern I heard in the 100 Voices.  One is an action.  The other is words beneath action.

A few days after Trayvon Martin’s death, I heard from my sister.  She called just before getting in her car after work.  Dressed in her middle-class hospital administrative staff clothes, she had donned a hoodie and was preparing drive two hours to Sanford, Florida where she would join a rally supporting Trayvon Martin’s family and community.  On her way out of town, she stopped twice.  Once to pick up three friends who have been living on Bo Diddly Square as part of the Occupy Gainsville movement.  Her second stop was at a 7/11 to buy Skittles.  Each of the hundreds of people gathered in support of the Martin family wore a sign, “Do I look suspicious?

Just before my sister called I’d read these words from an African American businesswoman in Seattle (a friend of a friend on facebook)

“My hope is that we will all decide this is no longer who we wish to be and change it.  We have shamed others before in this same circumstance and it has not worked.  Another boy is dead.  We must try a new tactic or decide we are insane for attempting to get a different result doing the exact same things over and over.   What if you tried loving them into the realization that we do not need to be afraid of this little boy or of anyone?  My hope is that we will all see and decide this is nothing for shame to solve.  It has not worked.  But rather this is an incredibly vivid opportunity to learn who we really are and if what image does not suit us, to change it.”

The business woman’s words, the action of my sister and the others gathered in Sheldon, Florida – these represent a level of discourse distinct from the oppositional positionality that is so reflexive in our culture.  Both are based in and call for listening.  They arise from relationship.

The health and maintenance of human community depend on listening and relating.  The invitation of the 100 Voices and of so many Americans beyond that number is to recognize our interdependence as the necessary prerequisite to any oppositional discourse.  We must be in society – in social relationship with one another – for any public contention to take place.  Without society, each of us isolated, we would contend only with ourselves.  Without relationship there would be no stage or audience for any display of opposition, no matter how noble or just.

But listening and relationship don’t draw advertising dollars.  They aren’t “sexy” in the way of thrills, high-stakes competitions, espionage and intrigue.

Still, there’s a chance we can wise up to the truth beneath the surface.  We are people in relationship.  The discourse of interdependence is inescapable.  One way that happens is with listening – with seeing the face and the life under the hoodie.


  1. Thank you for your optimism at the end of this post. I learned about Travon’s case on a sunny afternoon in a small Oregon coast town wearing a black hoodie and a friend asked if I was wearing it as an act of solidarity. When I asked what he was talking about, I couldn’t believe the story.

    Earlier that morning, I left for what I thought was a quick coffee run only to have the car break down on the side of highway 101 in the middle of no where. I instantly went to a place of fear thinking I was going to end up being one of those stories on the news: African American woman disappears in the forests of Oregon after leaving to buy coffee. I spun into negative self talk around leaving without a phone or ID and not feeling safe. After deciding to change my thoughts and do something, I started walking. As cars passed by, I continued to walk up and down the hills and curves certain no one was going to help me out because of my image. Then, I decided to stop feeding the monsters and make a wish out loud “I wish someone kind, caring, and safe would pick me up and take me back to my family.” Nearly immediately, David in the white truck pulled off the road and offered me a ride back to town.

    Trayvon didn’t have an opportunity to make a wish for safety. Zimmerman didn’t take the time to make a connection. He stayed in the dark space of fear and unknown and continued to feed the monster. He didn’t allow for the light of understanding and compassion to shine through. He didn’t look into Trayvon’s eyes to find out if he was friend or foe.

    Lives can be changed-and in this case saved- by taking the time to have a conversation with a stranger. 100 Voices: Americans Talk Change teaches all of us that. Thank you for the reminder. I hope we all can take action to “stand our ground” and make a mission of making looking under the hoodies sexy.

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