Understanding the power of a hoodie

April 7, 2014

By Matt Hawkins

Flanked by an image of Trayvon Martin’s now-infamous hoodie, Duke professor Dr. Maurice Wallace deconstructed cultural meanings associated with the popular clothing choice. Wallace was a March guest in The Body Project’s lecture series.

Wallace, associate professor of English in Duke’s Department of African and African-American Studies, suggested the hoodie has become black youth’s symbolic attempt to hide from despair and racism.

“The hood has become, if not the uniform of black experiences, that tradition’s cover, a literal man-veil, cloak, protective screen that intimates one more reason that the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin offers so much more meaning,” Wallace said. “The veil’s fabric is protection from the oversight and supervision of modern racism’s hyper-surveillance that today’s hoodie fashion represents.”

Hoodies help black youth cope with a culture dominated by destructive stereotypes, extra environmental pressures and higher rates of depression than other minority groups. Because of racial stereotypes, youth grow up feeling as if they are constantly being watched. As a response to constant stares from the majority culture, blacks developed a desire to “see without being seen.”

Thus, the hoodie took on multiple meanings, both as the symbolic veil and the menacing look ascribed by popular culture. The microscope under which black youth live in the broader culture has given the clothing itself a sense of power.

Because of the projected attitudes and symbolism, Wallace suggested other items — even candy — could’ve been viewed with the same fears.

“If all black boys started eating Skittles, we would demonize Skittles and urge our sons not to eat Skittles,” he said.

To resolve issues beneath hoodies’ menacing stereotype, Wallace urged people to reach out for the people cloaked in the garb.

“If we read the hoodie a different way, we are invited to consider that the black male life is at such a risk it’s depressing,” he said. “The hoodie might invite us to take note of not only black boys’ interior lives, but to try to imagine what it’s like to be them.”

In addition, he wanted to address systematic issues that hinder the development and wellbeing of youth.

“There’s nothing wrong with black culture,” he said. “What’s wrong are the forces that work on black culture to create indifferent and aloof black boys.”