(WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 23: Ifeoma Ike, C, is comforted by other Capitol Hill workers Michael McQuerry, L, and Nina Smith, R, as they take part in a Hoodies on the Hill press conference/vigil for Trayvon Martin on the east step of the U.S. Capitol on March 23, 2012, in Washington, DC. Hoodies on the Hill is a moment of contemplation in memory of Trayvon Martin sponsored by The Congressional Black Associates (CBA) | Black Republican Congressional Staff Association (BRCSA) | Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA) | African American Men on the Hill (AAMH) | Greeks on the Hill |Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association (CAPASA) | Deltas on the Hill. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images))

Opinion: Under the ‘Hood’ racial profiling

This past December, a few hours before Christmas Eve, I set out to buy the ingredients for a coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican drink popular during the holidays. Without thinking, I grab my Yankee fitted and grey hoodie, which I wear under my coat during the winters in New York City, and made my way out the grocery store.

I get a phone call from a friend as I walk out the door. We wish each other a Merry Christmas, and we catch up briefly about the nights that awaited us. As I finish up the phone conversation I see a black pickup truck rumbling down the street. I continue my walk and say goodbye to my friend. However, I notice that the truck makes a U-turn and begins to follow me. At first, I think he must be looking for parking, and I stay cool.

However, the speed and distance of the truck seem calculated, and I felt my heart begin to race.

I try to remain calm and continue down the street as the truck pulls over to the curb against traffic. One of the darkly tinted windows pulls down, and a white man gestures with his hand from the driver seat to come over to the car. I step a bit closer to see what he wants but stay on the sidewalk keeping a safe distance. He says, “You look familiar.”

My heart really starts to pound against my chest, and I think for sure that this is it. I’ve seen this many times in my study of history, popular culture and the evening news. I fit a description and for all the wrong reasons.

In that moment many things go through my head. I try to see if I recognize this man, and I don’t. My first thought is to run, but I know I haven’t done anything wrong. To be honest I’m just a square Latino nerd who enjoys wearing fitted hoodies, and also happens to be a graduate student at Berkeley. But none of this matters in the moment, nor would it matter if things took a turn for the worst. I blurt out the only thing that comes to mind: But you don’t look familiar. He squints and frowns. He asks me, “Are you sure?!” I reply: Yes. I’m sure. He then turns to the passenger seat where a white woman, who was sitting hidden this whole time, peeks out and also takes a look at me. She takes a good look and shakes her head, as if to say no. At this point I’m not trying to figure out why, and I begin to walk away and start down the street again. The truck continues to follow me for another half a block. Then the engine suddenly rattles as the truck speeds down the street away from my neighborhood.

That night, before Christmas dinner, I begrudgingly tell my mother about the incident. An immigrant from South America and a no-nonsense but very loving and at times overprotective parental figure, I knew for sure that my story would cause her great anxiety and fear, but I felt it was important to let her know. Her reaction instead shocked me.

While first consoling and showing a sense of concern, she then said the following: Eso te pasa por andar con esos ‘hoodies’ [That’s what happens to you for going around wearing those hoodies].

What came immediately to mind was perplexing but also illuminating: I felt like a girl.

I had heard it a million times from other parents and adults in my community when addressing the street harassment of girls and women. “Eso te pasa por andar con esa falda” [That’s what happens when you go around wearing that skirt]. It’s the blame-the victim ideology, which some people use as both a way of conveying concern and expressing disinterest or powerlessness in confronting the root causes of the violence. But here I was not only rationalizing my frustrations with this “blame the victim” talk, but I was also feeling what it was like to be blamed.

The recent shooting of Trayvon Marton triggered the recollection of my story. Events like those of the killing of Martin have a way of exposing the subconscious of the U.S. and its unresolved tensions around race, class and gender. Still these exposed teachable moments are quickly obfuscated and silenced as we fall back on the neat categories and discussions that are available to us in moments of crisis.

However, what should not go unexamined are the ways in which Trayvon’s fate was not about his decision to “wear or not wear a hoodie.” It is not just a race issue. The hoodie does not produce or represent criminality, which would otherwise be an easy and quick explanation to one of the many problems facing young men of color.

In fact, we could trace hoods and hoodies at least as far back as the Middle Ages and their usage by monks and priests. In more recent history, athletes and workers have made hoodies popular. And yes, hoodies have a home in hip hop culture where they are synonymous with graffiti artists and rap ciphers where hooded practitioners convey anonymity, status and/or bravado.

However, there are other meanings to hoodies.

I recall tutoring a young man in Oakland, only a few blocks away from where Oscar Grant was murdered. The young man was having a hard time focusing on his work. I asked him to tell me what was wrong. In response, he pulled his hoodie over his head and started to cry. I took him out to the play yard to have a talk where he told me he was having nightmares and that he was seeing death everywhere. He said he saw death when his uncle’s house was foreclosed, when police harassed young men on his block, when he saw homeless people on the street and when he saw people begging for food to eat. In brief, death for this young man was not only in the physical sense but could also be a part of the social world.

For my student, the hoodie was a place of solace and protection. It reminded me of that lyric from the Game’s track “My Life”: “My mind f****** up, so I cover it with a Raider hood.” You see, for some young men of color the hoodie is a security blanket in a society that systematically excludes and/or confines them to certain areas of existence. Thus, anonymity through the hoodie is not a clear sign of criminality, as some suggest. It is a survival mechanism that offers sanctuary.

As caring and loving adults, especially those of us who consider ourselves educators, we must have the courage to ask the question which many will not: Who and what is under the ‘hood’?

In my estimation underneath the ‘hood’ is a place where young men hide from the many forms of violence, the fears, the anxieties and the insecurities that come from the trauma of living in a world that devalues them. As the blanket offered Linus security in the Peanuts cartoons, the hoodie is a piece of cultural armor that provides a sense of protection for young men of color in an intolerable, unethical world. If we begin to understand as a society what is underneath the ‘hood,’ then we can better understand a world that turns young men of color into caricatures upon which we project our anxieties about race, class and gender. Understanding who is underneath the ‘hood’ would mean taking the first steps towards the possibility of finally loving young men of color.

Opinion: Under the ‘Hood’ racial profiling tumblr m1mg0gqy7O1r1767o news NBC Latino News

Angel R. Gonzalez was born in Colombia and raised in the Bronx, NY. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Education at the University of California, Berkeley

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