The meaning of a hoodie

Why the hoodie should not be a symbol of criminal intent

by Lisan Jutras

Seth Wenig/AP

When George Zimmerman put in his call to 911 in Sanford, Florida, moments before he shot unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in his own gated community, the first two descriptors of the “suspicious” male he reported to dispatch were “black,” and wearing “a dark hoodie.”

The dangers of being black are well documented in North America. However, the hoodie, which has carried a very specific valence in other western cultures (their criminal connotations are so strong in England, New Zealand and Australia that they’re banned in various shopping centres in each country), wasn’t much of a flashpoint here in the 40-some years it’s been around. Until, that is, the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent Million Hoodie Marches, which took place in major American cities last week.

Geraldo Rivera, a man best known for having his nose broken in a skinhead brawl on his own TV show in the 80s, added fuel to the fire on Friday when he commented to Fox TV that he was “urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly not to let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”

Uproar ensued. Like the Toronto police officer whose careless comment that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” if they wanted to remain safe, Rivera seemed to be speaking out of some protective instinct. The sad point that they both failed to make was that crimes against women and young Latinos and black men will continue to happen no matter what they are wearing, and placing the blame on the victims gets people’s backs up. However, unlike Officer Sanguinetti, who was schooled in a major way by the SlutWalk, Rivera should have known better – he was speaking in the wake of the Million Hoodie March.

Daniel Maree, a 24-year-old South African transplant to New York, is a digital strategist at global marketing giant McCann Worldgroup. He’s also a black man who wears hoodies. The march was his idea. He wanted, he said, to turn the hoodie from “a symbol of suspicion to a symbol of empowerment.”

When you pack the streets with thousands of people dressed in hoodies, one thing becomes clear: even though it’s been a hip-hop staple for years, the hoodie in North America does not belong to any one subculture or youth group. Like jeans, it’s a piece of clothing that’s probably worn every postal code in the country. It is, let’s face it, sartorial fast-food, a schlubby, collegiate garment designed for comfort and convenience, and equally at home on a jogging yuppie as a school kid of any colour, but especially on teens.

I had a 15-year-old student in one of my English classes in Japan who did not like me very much. (She didn’t like a lot of things very much, except, inexplicably, the piano stylings of Richard Clayderman). She was tall and athletic looking and I remember vividly the way she would nervously pull down the sleeves of her big red hoodie over her hands. In moments of particular discomfort, she would pull the drawstrings tight on the hood, so her features peeked out from a tiny O.

The desire to evade the feeling of being scrutinized is common to both teenagers and criminals, although for entirely different reasons. A hoodie is great for this. (It’s not a stretch to argue that, in the UK, where closed circuit televisions are everywhere, yobs came to use the hoodie as protection against constant visibility.)

How do you know someone’s intent in wearing a hoodie then? You don’t.

It was this confusion, in part, that cost Trayvon his life. It’s still unclear whether or not George Zimmerman, during his 911 call, referred to Trayvon as a “f-cking coon,” – he did mutter something under his breath, but it’s not perfectly audible. Still, even without this enormous hint, it’s not hard to imagine that a large part of what cost Trayvon his life was his colour.

The Million Hoodie March packed the streets with hundreds in what might as well be the national garb of the U.S.A. A hoodie, in North America is not yet, and should never become, a symbol of criminal intent.

What people fear when they look at the hoodie is not what it shows but what they think it conceals. Which was precisely Zimmerman’s downfall. When Zimmerman saw a black kid in a hoodie, he saw a criminal. He couldn’t see that he was staring at a kid with a handful of candy.




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The meaning of a hoodie

  1. And poor Trayvon didn’t know he was about to attack an armed man. The real story here is “Citizens on Patrol”. By the time this is all done there will be enough shame to go around for everyone, including the president who should have set the example in thoughtful consideration of fact not expression of inner emotions.

  2. a short dance at the end of a rope should settle this

    • That’s a dangerous statement to make without applying any context to your comment, especially in relation to this story.

      Are you advocating an execution or a lynching? Either way, not helpful.

  3. A violent over-reaction from a gun toting redneck in a southern state? What a surprise!

  4. Maybe the hooded sweatshirt would be less threatening if we went back to calling it the “Kangaroo jacket” instead of hoodie which envokes images of gangstas in da hood. 

  5. Perception matters. I wonder how people would have responded if the pictures of Martin and Zimmerman circulating around the media were, respectively:
    http://steelturman.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83451bab869e20168e9300142970c-450wi
    http://media.trb.com/media/photo/2012-03/69001439.jpg

    In the more frequently circulated pictures Trayvon looks like a sweet kid with big doe eyes, and Zimmerman looks like a pedophile (even his orange golf shirt looks like a prison uniform at first glance).

    Which pictures were displayed on the news wouldn’t have changed any of the facts of the case, but I’d wager it would have a huge impact on public reaction. George Zimmerman isn’t the only person making a judgment call based on appearance.

    • Interesting observation!

    • I didn’t know pedophiles had a look.

    • This is true the picture may that the meida are circulating may not be the most up to date. Although the family has put out 3 pictures taken 9 days before his demise. My point is either way Zimmerman could not have know anything about Martin when he choose to chase him. He just knew he was black and that was enough for him to call the authoiries, and then take the law into his own hands. I am in support of justice not becasue Martin was black, but because he was targeted based on his race and not his action/character. 

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