Wednesday, July 17, 2013
What About Hoodies?
When I was a boy, growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, I owned a red sweatshirt with a hood. This wasn't called a "hoodie." It was a utilitarian article of clothing meant to be worn on very cold days, when just turning up your collar and wearing a hat wouldn't have sufficed to keep your neck and head warm. Jackets and coats with built-in (or attachable) hoods were a commonplace long before people began to think of hooded wear as a fashion statement.
In considering the meaning and effect of wearing certain kinds of clothing, it's best to remind ourselves that clothing is never a purely neutral--or purely utilitarian--statement. Every kind of clothing, from underpants and suspenders to pierced body jewelry and hoodies, is a fashion choice. This is not to say that much clothing worn by people around the world isn't primarily a response to necessity, or a simple lowest denominator of choice. But in Western cultural traditions, going all the way back to antiquity, the meaning and significance of what is worn, how it is worn, and what kinds of combinations and adornments are added, has constituted a form of taste and expression--personal, social and artistic. It's nearly impossible, in our epoch, to wear anything at all, without, in effect, making a statement about one's identity and background and so forth. Unintentional connotations are ubiquitous, but stereotypical fashion statements usually are easily recognizable as to source and basic meaning.
A prostitute with a mini-skirt and skimpy top, heavily made-up, standing smoking on a street-corner in the city at midnight, can be expected to be recognized. An executive wearing a $4000 suit in downtown Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon can be expected to be recognized. A Catholic school girl in a wool plaid skirt and white blouse standing at a bus stop can be recognized for who and what she is.
Certain kinds of clothing become identified, through the evolution of fashion throughout the culture, with certain identities. Fashion trends may originate from anywhere. Fashion may be a way of defining class distinctions, or of reinforcing typical or marginal kinds of stereotypical identity typing. Certain kinds of fashion statements become familiar signals, intended to express a political or social message. Such messaging may have crucial purposes in certain contexts.
Among minorities, in America, certain kinds of fashion statements serve as badges of pride or flags of warning by users. Among African American men and youth, most heavily influenced by the facts of incarceration and crime in their communities, the uniforms of identity have moved towards an adoption of prison uniform styles, as both a kind of statement of macho "badness" and a protest against the imposition of a perceived prejudicial persecution in the typecast "white" culture generally. Low-rider pants, for instance, became adopted first in the African American ghettos, and then spread throughout the culture as a fashion statement.
Among youth, what's "cool" or "bad" may be adopted or incorporated into the culture as a form of adolescent rebellion, though only as a form of playful indulgence, since it's unlikely that most white American teenagers would adopt any of the associated identity behaviors that characterize ghetto youth or criminal types. It's the attraction of that aura of naughtiness, even of dark ambiguous threat, that appeals. The glorification of the criminal sub-type is a common cliché in our culture, going back to the wild west, the bootleggers and crime syndicates of the 1920's and 1930's, and continuing all the way up to the gangs and drug lords and Mafia underworld of our present day.
Among the criminal sub-cultures of the African American and Hispanic communities in America, wearing a hoodie has become a de facto self-identifying uniform, associated with the criminality of disguise and "dark"anonymity. "I'm black, I'm covered up, you don't know me, you aren't going to know me, I'm dangerous, watch out for me, leave me alone, beware!"
We're all familiar now with the surveillance tape sequences of youths wearing hoodies holding up convenience and and liquor stores and pharmacies. The hoodie shields the wearer from identification, and thus serves as a disguise for the "hood" who's committing crimes in the "hood" (neighborhood). The root word hood thus becomes a heavily weighted signifier, filled with menace and threat and dark power. Vicarious borrowing of all these negative qualities is undoubtedly going on throughout the culture, but only under certain conditions, i.e., in urban streets after dark, it's the full expression of the hood culture at its most potent and dangerous.
Black teenagers and youths sporting the "hoodie" look thus become de facto emulators of the criminal sub-type familiar in their own communities. They are identifying with the dark side of their own culture, and ramifying its contextualized rebelliousness as a form of "bad" behavior, even if there is ambiguity in the equation. "I be bad" may be nothing more than playful mischief, but the associations are all frustratingly negative. If being "good" is corny, compromising and even ethically unattractive, the opposite can't be regarded as a positive choice. The persistence of the "bad" stream of African American culture--the stereotype of the macho black youth, violent, sexually aggressive and dominating, an outlaw "gangsta" filled with pent-up resentment, cruelty and bad vibes (a la hip-hop and rap)--does enormous harm not only to African American communities, but to the greater sphere of culture.
The Travon Martin killing in Florida has drawn public attention to the plight of African American youth and its preference for the trappings of the criminal sub-type. But this is not a new phenomenon. In African American sub-culture, calling a black man bad ("He be so bad!") has actually been seen as a kind of badge of iconic attractiveness. Whether conceived as another expression of the frustration of a suppressed minority, or as an attempt to erect a countervailing antithesis to the dominant cultural profiles, it leads only to bankrupt ideologies and futile demonstrations of destructive behavior--all the devastating effects of dependence, crime, neglect, self-hatred, smoldering unrest, violence, etc.
We live in a free country, and anyone is allowed to wear whatever their personal taste dictates, within the laws of decency. When an underground fashion statement spreads throughout the culture, it may or may not continue to carry its original associations. But there are degrees of taste, and context does matter. If you are a young African American male, wearing a dark sweatshirt with a hood is a symbolic act.
In Ralph Ellison's great novel, Invisible Man , the protagonist-narrator passes through his life as a nameless entity, seeking an identity in the highly charged antagonistic world of pre-War Harlem. Today, we would probably regard the narrator as a naive, well-intended victim of racism, but much of Ellison's frustration is directed towards the corruption that besets the black community itself. Ellison's story is told from the inside out; what we see and know comes through the mind and eyes of an invisible man. In the end of the story, this invisible man believes that experience has taught him to honor his own priorities, and that he must not allow his obligations to both the white and the black to deter him from his own personal realization.
The central issue for many African American men is to find a place in the world that is not seen as a capitulation to exploitation and manipulation. As a metaphor for the invisibility of the black identity, the wearing of a hoodie is a perpetuation of the anonymous stereotype. African American society must discipline itself, to reject the profile of a sullen, rude, lazy, flagrant, bullying, unkempt, menacing, kinky dark angel. Mimicking the trappings of the criminal look leads not only to the tragic consequence of being perceived as a loser, a dark angel fated to perpetual "badness," but keeps alive the lie that a pathetic rebelliousness can be an honorable alternative to joining the larger society.