The hoodie, a seemingly harmless wardrobe staple, seems to be vexed by a long history of violence which gives way to fear-mongering and discrimination.
Alison Kinney's Hood (Bloomsbury, 2016) explores the material and symbolic vibrancy of this everyday garment and political semaphore, which often protects the powerful at the expense of the powerless-with deadly results. Kinney considers medieval clerics and the Klan, anti-hoodie campaigns and the Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib, the Inquisition and the murder of Trayvon Martin, uncovering both the hooded perpetrators of violence and the hooded victims in their sights. In this excerpt we discuss how hoodie’s are use as an excuse to discriminate. In this excerpt we discuss how hoodies are often used as an excuse to discriminate.
To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
Hoods as garments, hoodlums/hoods as people, and neighborhoods don’t necessarily have an etymological relationship, but etymologies don’t have to be true to have real consequences for people and places. The word “hoodlum” and its 1930s variant “hood” can stick to anybody, so long as somebody else thinks he’s a problem. Taking it one step further, the dehumanizing British slur “hoodie,” which conflates the garment and the person wearing it (it’s fraught even to identify the figure of speech — metonymy?) demonizes a supposed hoodie-wearing type. The “hoodie” is young, male, working class, and/or poor. In the UK, he’s often of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, sometimes white or Asian. In the US, he’s usually Black, often Latino, and assumed to wear the hoodie for nefarious, antisocial purposes.
In October 2014, Andrew Padilla noticed a sign in a Harlem store window: “DO NOT ENTER WITH HOODIE OR MASK: IF SO YOU ARE NOW TRESPASSING.” At the time he’d spotted it, “I’d just come out of a meeting with some people who’d come from Ferguson to Harlem. We were talking about Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and how these killings can’t keep happening. Then I saw the bodega with the ‘no hoodies’ sign. It made me think back to the coverage of George Zimmerman’s trial.”
Padilla had a favorite brown hoodie. “It was comfy, it was casual, it made me feel good, kept me warm. I wasn’t wearing it initially as a political statement, it was just an item of clothing. But now, wherever you are, it’s a political statement. That’s nuts.” On that day in October, he pulled his hood up over his head and walked into the store. “I asked the bodegero, ‘Hey, did your sign really say no hoodies allowed?’ and he got mad uncomfortable: ‘Er, um, people wear them to rob us.’ I said, ‘I could wear a clown mask and rob you. There are so many things I could rob you in.’ I tweeted a photo of the sign and put it on my website, and a reporter reached out. There’s a guy from Philadelphia selling these signs across the northeast out of his car at ten dollars a pop. There’s a market for hate and ignorance. That says a lot: not as much as American Sniper grossing more than Selma during MLK weekend, but a lot.”
The signs were the brainstorm of entrepreneur Joe Stark, who said, “We’re trying to put robbers and shoplifters on notice… When you get a guy walking into a store and he has a hood up, a mask up, it can be a scary thing.” Stores in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, posted them; CBS reported, “The store managers we spoke with say it’s not hoodies they have a problem with: it’s how some people wear them.” Such as two Harlem customers, Princess Johnson and her newborn baby, who were both wearing pink hoodies when store management hassled them out: “I can’t even get her milk, because they said we’re trespassing. So, I feel a little offended,” Johnson said.
You can’t (legally) ban people from shops or schools because they’re Black. You can ban them for wearing hoodies. Over the past decade, several other public and private anti-hoodie initiatives have been proposed, debated, and often implemented, though sometimes defeated, in (not an exhaustive list):
• The Austin, Texas, Public Library, 2010.
• Stores and business districts: the Kapiti Coast, New Zealand, 2005. Brisbane, Australia’s “Hoodie Free Zone,” 2011. Anderson, Indiana, 2014. Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and New York, 2014–15.
– In 2005, a Kentish mall led the way in mall bans on hoodies, with Tony Blair’s endorsement: “It is time to reclaim the streets for the decent majority.” The mall also banned leafleting and canvassing.
• Schools: Maesteg, Wales, 2005. Meriden, Connecticut,2007. Andale, Kansas, 2009. Hoboken, New Jersey, 2013. In 2014, Beallsville, Ohio; Jackson County, Florida; and Staten Island, New York.
– One Portsmouth, Virginia, high school ingeniously banned hoodies on the grounds that they harbored bedbugs. It did not ban such bedbug-harboring objects as shirts, sweaters, pants, backpacks, desks, light fixtures, or walls.
– The relationship between hoodies, identity, and free speech was evident in the 2014 one-girl hoodie ban on Saskatchewan eighth-grader Tenelle Starr, of the Star Blanket Cree Nation. Her school forbade her to wear her purportedly “racist,” “cheeky,” and “rude” fuchsia hoodie printed with the message, “GOT LAND? THANK AN INDIAN.”
• Cities and states: Topeka, Kansas, 2012. Castlebar, Ireland, 2013. Oklahoma, 2015.
• Nationally: Greece, 2007.
– For a decade in the UK, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, judicial rulings that punished non- criminal “nuisance” behavior with the threat of fines or jail time, explicitly banned many individuals from wearing hoodies.
When, in 2006, one “over-zealous” UK shopping center guard asked a customer to lower her hood, the incident reached the BBC News. Afterwards, the store publicly apologized. Why? For having criminalized a middle-aged, middle-class white woman. “I couldn’t believe he was talking to me. I’m supposed to look like a nasty thug?” said hood-wearer Kay Parncutt, adding, “I know now how the youngsters feel to be treated like a criminal for wearing something different. I felt humiliated by the experience, so it must be even worse for teenagers who already encounter problems growing up.” Not just teenagers: Rachel Garlinghouse has written about the day a white woman called her Black toddler son a thug.
In 2008, the government of New Zealand attempted to reach out to kids with National Hoodie Day, whose slogan was, “It’s what’s under the hood that counts.” In the Kapiti Coast District, a community board member named Dale Evans protested the holiday by dressing up in a Ku Klux Klan hood and carrying a sign that said, “Its wotz under da hood dat counts.” He wasn’t the only protester; MP Ron Mark denounced the holiday, saying, “It is so inflammatory and incites the wrath of the average Kiwi out there who is struggling to deal with the tagging on their streets and the gang culture of some young people who use the hoodie, who use black American rap culture as their theme.”
Such assumptions about hoodie-wearers are also rife in histories of the hoodie. In the 1970s and 1980s, so the story goes, Black American graffiti artists, hip-hop fans, and gangs adopted hoodies, not because they looked cool (or warm), but to evade the police, hide their identities, and flaunt their underground/underworld connections. There’s no room in this narrative for actual hip-hop artists like Gothic Futurist RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ, who wore a fake-fur-and-plastic robot-insect-samurai hood: graffiti writers were fighting a war, he said, to wrest control of the alphabet, a mission they’d inherited from fourteenth-century hooded monks. The hoodie narrative also doesn’t account for the huge influence of sports superstars, or designer Norma Kamali — or the revival of the mid-century Ivy League look for 1980s preppies: the hooded sweatshirts, gabardine windbreakers, and yacht anoraks of the white privileged class, who for roughly a century had been slouching toward “sportswear.”
Origin stories for the hoodie’s popularity lean hard on stereotypes of urban Black cultures, omitting all these other simultaneous, mutual influences, including the strongest influence of all: branding. (Abercrombie, anybody? Tommy Hilfiger? Nike?) The hoodie belonged to jocks, rappers, fashionistas, Ivy Leaguers, punks, and laborers all at once, but the culture that finally made it a staple of mainstream style was the dangerous underworld of the fashion industry, large-scale garment production, marketing, retail, and vast corporate wealth. As Halifu Osumare says, “The hoodie has become one of those cultural markers of the gangster outlaw. It is part of the construction that happens within capitalism... So now when people see a Black man with a hoodie in the street, it becomes an image of a potential thug or gangster. You have these stereotypical images in mind not of what everyone is actually like but what capitalism has promoted as part of this style trend.”
Maybe people would see hoodies differently if they adopted the Saskatchewan term “bunny hugs” instead. Or, if the bias against young Black men in hoodies presupposed them all to be Yalies. Everybody wears hoods, but nobody’s calling President Bush (Yalie!) a hood. “I love wearing hoodies,” says Andrew Padilla in Harlem. “I haven’t seen the statistics, and I don’t know from comparing the closets of white people on the Upper East Side and people in Harlem, who’s more likely to wear a hoodie — but I’d venture to say it’s a pretty common item of clothing.” He adds, “There are lots of crimes happening on Wall Street, but we don’t stop and frisk people who wear Brooks Brothers suits. What suit was Sheldon Silver wearing? What kind was Bernie Madoff wearing?”
To be profiled as a hood, hoodlum, or hoodie, a person doesn’t need to be a troublemaker or criminal. He doesn’t need to be wearing a hoodie. So long as he has an identity that somebody else criminalizes and dehumanizes, all he has to do is exist.
Excerpted from Hood by Alison Kinney, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury Academic. Copyright © 2016 by Alison Kinney. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.