Tuesday, July 26, 2016

I see London, I see France...

I was listening to a radio piece the other day about the way our clothing reflects how people react to us, specifically young black men wearing particular items of clothing such as hooded sweatshirts that project a threatening image to some people. The "hoodie" controversy came to a head a few years ago after Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager was confronted by George Zimmerman, a self proclaimed one man citizen police force in his gated community in Florida.

The confrontation ended with  Zimmerman shooting to death the unarmed Martin whom he described as a suspicious character, namely because of his attire, you guessed it, a hooded sweatshirt.

In the aftermath of the Martin shooting and the initial failure of the police to press charges against Zimmerman, major campaigns featuring celebrities and public figures including President Obama sprung up all over the world that questioned the stereotype of people who choose to wear this particular item of clothing.

In the radio piece mentioned above, the narrator, a young African American man, interviewed an African American mother who did everything she could to discourage her teenage son from wearing hoodies and other items of clothing she feels could get him into trouble simply by wearing them. Because she forbade her son the right to wear whatever he pleased, the narrator expressed his inability to come to terms with the mother whose actions he felt contributed to the stereotype and the racism that is inherently part of it. After a long and exhausting conversation, both the interviewer and his subject began to understand one another, she finally came to terms that her son, as a young black man, is treated differently in our society than people of other races.

For his part, the interviewer admitted he began to understand that all the mother was really interested in was her son's welfare. My initial reaction to this startling revelation was "duh." Then I had a revelation of my own, the guy obviously has no idea what it's like to be a parent.

As the parent of two children, a 15 year old boy and a 9 year old girl, not a day goes by without experiencing some degree of fear over the welfare and safety of my children. Living in a city where donning the wrong color shoelace in the wrong neighborhood could get you killed, you'd better believe I'm not going to let my children leave the house wearing inappropriate clothing regardless of their perceived "right" to wear whatever they please. But it goes beyond that. The way we present ourselves to the world has a great deal of impact upon how we are judged. That may seem petty and superficial; we all like to claim that all that really matters is what the person is like on the inside, not the outside. But like it or not, first impressions play a big role in our opinions of others. The way we carry ourselves, dress and speak really does matter.

Here I'm reminded of a piece I wrote several years ago that mentioned the brilliant comic George Carlin and a routine he did called "the seven words you can't say on TV". His point was that those seven words, I'll leave it up to you to figure out which ones they are, are just that, words, no more, no less. They describe things, namely body parts and bodily functions, that other perfectly acceptable words describe. According to Carlin, what's the big deal about them, words are just words right? Please indulge me the opportunity to quote myself for a moment:
...Carlin was wrong. Words are by far our most powerful tool, more powerful than any weapon. They have the power to shape lives, inspire people to greatness and to despair, to inspire love and to inspire hate, to create and to destroy people as well as nations. Certain words in every language are reserved for the purpose of expressing unmitigated anger, to incite, to arouse or to disgust. They serve a very useful purpose (as we all know when we hit ourselves on the thumb with a hammer), when their use is limited.
I went on to say that once cuss words sneak into the common lexicon, they lose their effect and other, nastier words take their place.

To a lesser extent, what we wear speaks volumes about who we are, and how we wish to be judged. Just as certain words are inappropriate in certain situations, the same holds for our attire. Wearing tank tops, shorts and flip flops, while perfectly appropriate at the beach, would be considered the ultimate symbol of disrespect at a funeral.

Respect is what it all boils down to. Unless he is going to Jimmy Buffett's funeral, our hypothetical tank top, flip flop wearing funeral going friend may believe he is making a statement or grand gesture in his choice of attire, but all he is really doing is showing a lack of respect for those around him, and perhaps more significantly, a lack of respect for himself.

What got me thinking about all this was an incident that happened this morning. As I was taking my daughter to her summer camp, a teenage boy passed us sporting the not so recent trend in street fashion, sagging pants. Calling this kid's pants sagging would be a gross understatement as they were pulled up just above his knees not only exposing his boxer shorts, but his legs beneath the underwear.

Every generation comes up with its own kind of attire designed with the specific intention of pissing off its parents. In my day it was long, disheveled hair, ripped jeans and army jackets. To this day my mother still talks about the way I looked in high school. Today, it's almost inconceivable to encounter a person in his or her twenties or thirties without a tattoo and multiple body piercings, something that continues to make me cringe even though I'm beyond used to it. A few generations before me it was the Zoot Suit. In the Wikipedia entry on the subject, the author said:

Wearing the oversized suit was a declaration of freedom and self-determination, even rebelliousness.

Like many fashion trends, the Zoot Suit was born in the African American community, and later became popular with cross-cultural hepcats. The hoodie and sagging pants also became fashionable among non-blacks.

At the risk of sounding like an old prude, I have to say that unlike all other teen fads, sagging is "fuck you" fashion taken to its extreme As ridiculous as so many teenage fashion statements over the years have appeared, what sets sagging apart in my opinion is the willingness of the sagger to humiliate himself (saggers are always hims) in public. There is a primal revulsion toward seeing someone's undergarments, so much so, small children invented the mocking chant to ridicule someone exposing his underpants, the beginning of which is the title of this post. Freedom, self-determination and rebelliousness, all of which are a part of the logic behind sagging as well as every other youthful fad ever invented, in this case take a backseat to a willingness to give up all sense of dignity and self-worth. In essence the sagger is telling the world that he doesn't give a shit about you, about society, and most importantly about himself.

So this morning the sagger my daughter and I witnessed, proceeded to squeeze his extremely skinny body through the turnstiles and up to the L platform without paying a fare. My initial reaction was explain to my daughter that his bad behavior was an isolated incident, that she shouldn't judge other people dressed like that by this guy's conduct, yadda yadda yadda. Instead I chose to let it go; my daughter is too smart for such pedantic explanations; she knows full well that guys who don't care enough about themselves to pull their pants up, certainly aren't going to care a lick about what people like her think of them.

The narrator of the radio piece would certainly object to that sentiment, especially coming from an old white guy. He might say I was perpetuating racism through stereotypes. But I beg to differ. If there is such a stereotype, it was the kid with the pants pulled up to his knees who snuck through the turnstile who is embracing it. That no doubt is the reason why I hear complaints about sagging far more often from black people than white people. As a group of people who feel a general lack of respect from community at large, it must be particularly painful to see some of their young people with such little respect for themselves.

All I could feel when I saw Mr. Underpants today was pity. I could only imagine that he lacked parents, like the woman featured in the radio piece, who loved him and tells him every day that his life means something. That woman's son was lucky because he had someone who loved and cared enough about him to tell him to pull his damn pants up.

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