The Power of the Hoodie; Or, The Paradox of the Political Meme

March 24, 2012, 6:57 pm

Which of the following assertions accurately represents your response to the “Million Hoodie” marches held around the United States yesterday?

  1. We are all Trayvon Martin, the African American teenager in Florida who was shot and killed by white neighborhood block watch captain George Zimmerman on February 26 2012 in Sanford, FL while carrying snacks and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, or “hoodie.”
  2. A hoodie (hooded sweatshirt or other garment with an attached cap intended to be worn over the head when not slung across the shoulders) is a ubiquitous, often inexpensive, fashion garment worn by people of many different genders, races, sexual orientations and class backgrounds.
  3. Wearing a hoodie over your face is a good way to organize against racism.
  4. According to media personality Geraldo Rivera, wearing a hoodie over your face is a good way to get yourself murdered by the block watch.
  5. Florida is a uniquely dangerous place for Black men.
  6. Never update your Facebook status late at night.

I’m going with #6. Late last night I finally suffered a stab of annoyance as I saw the nth Facebook post, or ad for a Facebook page, in which I had the opportunity to “like” a picture of a person wearing a hoodie draped over his or her forehead in memory of Trayvon Martin.  The first time I saw it I thought it was pretty cool. Twelve hours later the hoodie thing had evolved into a meme:  college professors, suburban teens, Ivy League students and graduate students of all races and genders were posting pictures of themselves shrouded in a hoodie to bring attention to what any of us might describe as a lynching.  Zimmerman’s fatal attack on Martin was, like lynchings a century ago, aided and abetted by the police of Sanford, who had judged the shooting to be lawful; and the Florida Legislature, who passed the law that theoretically permits a citizen to shoot someone by whom s/he feels endangered.

Impulsively (and isn’t impulse the essence of what the late night brain and social media produce? Is impulse also not the essence of the meme?) I updated my Facebook status thusly:

“Could we stop it with the hoodie meme and think seriously about racism for a second? Just a *second*????”

Because my FB is linked to my Twitter feed, my iPhone began to erupt with responses from people who I do not know, at least one of whom was really pissed off. This individual had perhaps participated in one of the Million Hoodie Marches that day, the largest of which was in New York’s Union Square, a historically radical site where Occupy Wall Street has lately been maneuvering to establish an outpost.  She wrote:

“Who are YOU TALKING TO? Who do you think YOU need to remind that racism is systemic or ab[ou]t lynchings? Whites? Non-blacks?”

For those of you who aren’t new media savvy, writing in caps is the equivalent of shouting at someone, so this person was REALLY UPSET. Sometimes you can get thrown off of discussion boards and wikis for WRITING IN CAPS because it is considered AGGRESSIVE.  ”@TenuredRadical,” she continued a few tweets down, “Issue is you need to be more specific of who is target of your race critique…[new Tweet] Since you don’t specify, it could read as if YOU don’t know what’s going on/what non-whites, particularly Blacks, are doing.”

OK.  Here you go.  My critique is aimed not at the expression of serious, anti-racist sentiment, but at the idea that creating a political meme on the Internet is, in and of itself, an effective organizing strategy.

Social media, many have argued, has created previously unknown possibilities for mobilizing political constituencies to effective action.  Yet, I would like us to consider the following questions. How has social media altered what actually constitutes action in our current political moment? To what extent do constituencies formed on the Internet dance around the outside of a social justice issue by choosing words and objects to stand in for more complex and less easily explained problems, fetishizing these words and objects, and by doing so, erasing or ignoring the possibilities for structural intervention?

I would rather live in a nation that had Million Hoodie Marches than one that didn’t; and much as the realities of many Occupy encampments (I live a few blocks away from one) can legitimately cause discomfort in reasonable people, I would fight to defend them too. However, for every Arab spring that results in the toppling of despotic regimes (and the outcomes of these revolutions are by no means clear), there are a thousand progressive social media campaigns that encourage us to believe that by “voting,” or clicking “like” we are engaging in meaningful political action.

I have long been troubled by the capacity of social media to eviscerate events of all their social and historical context, and the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme seems problematic to me for two reasons.

The first is that Trayvon Martin is a real person who was the victim of lethal injustice. “Performing” Trayvon Martin on the Internet or on the streets is a) impossible, because he is now dead; and b) permits the neoliberal fantasy that our identities, the political meaning of our identities, and our real-time similarity to the person or persons for whom we seek justice, can be chosen and perfectly inhabited.

My second intervention is about the consequences of fetishizing the hooded sweatshirt, or “hoodie,” and how social justice organizing might be affected by such a tactic. Hoodies have multiple meanings within youth culture, and also reflect the practical choices families make when they clothe their children on a budget. In the recent past, hoodies have been prominently associated with urban youth styles that deliberately drew on gangsta rap fashion (coming from the “‘hood”); and with male dot commers, who dress down to give the finger to the American corporate financial structures that they feed off of to create massive fortunes.  The hoodie, like blue jeans or running shoes, is part of almost anyone’s wardrobe.  Because it looks almost the same whether it is expensive or inexpensive, when disseminated as a sign in mass culture, the hoodie acts primarily to obscure class or to demonstrate the nostalgic cultural ties of celebrities and artists to communities to which they no longer, or never did, belong.

While Trayvon’s hoodie may have been a personal fashion statement, or a practical choice designed to protect against an unusually cool Florida February, or simply the jacket that he grabbed while going out the door, we have no evidence that Trayvon was making a political statement or that he was intentionally hiding his face.  And yet even without any knowledge about what he intended, Trayvon Martin’s wearing of the hoodie is now permanently imbricated in the vast tensions that I have described above. Once Trayvon’s hoodie was chosen by activists as the symbol of George Zimmerman’s choice to commit murder, Trayvon himself necessarily began to disappear.  The hoodie conceals the specificity of his murdered body, just as neoliberalism conceals the structural mechanisms that are accelerating the accumulation of wealth among the few. And like neoliberalism, Trayvon’s murder required state sanction, in the form of conceal and carry laws and Florida’s Stand Your Ground, that generate proxy violence towards the many.

Simultaneously, in its eagerness to make visible a constituency that might act in opposition to such violence, the internet meme promoted by the organizers — in this case, publicly depicting oneself wearing the hoodie in the privacy of one’s own home — demonstrates an unprecedented capacity in advanced capitalism to reduce politics to images, and to generate such images in a way that erases the status and privilege of the wearers, as well as the long history of racial violence of which Trayvon Martin has now become a part.

But let us return to the encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, where the hooded sweatshirt must acquire the stability that is necessary to the production of the paradox of the political meme.  What meaning did the hoodie have at that precise moment, when the path of a white vigilante armed with a gun and a reasonable belief that his right to use it would be upheld by the state, intersected in space with a young black man bearing snacks and the reasonable belief that he would live to eat them? Which of the hoodies I have described above articulates the political intervention that ought to be made at this moment?

I would argue that none of them do, but the problem with the political meme is that, under neoliberalism, each of us gets to “choose” complete identification with Trayvon Martin when, in fact, that identification must always be incomplete.  Using a hoodie as a symbol for solidarity with the victim of a lynching does ethical violence both to the historical specificity of that Florida evening and to the place Trayvon Martin might take in the long history of young black men who have been murdered, beaten, arrested, enslaved, stop-and-frisked, had their descriptions circulated on watch lists as if they were criminals, left at the taxi stand, followed around stores, and simply avoided on the sidewalk because of the crimes that white people think they might commit.

I do not live in the South: I live in a northern city, in a mostly liberal state and in a city that is over 70% black or Latino.  Messages I have received from my block watch association, and approved by the police department liaison, include the following:

  • When encountering black or Latino male youth on the street we (white people) should avoid eye contact so as not to provoke an attack;
  • Reports of black male youth walking or riding their bicycles through the neighborhood, the implication being that this in and of itself might be a sign of criminal intent, rather than a sign of going to work, school, or a friend’s house; or simply being out for a bike ride;
  • Alerts that black male youth have been seen looking at cars and that we (white people) should not leave anything of value in our cars.

Periodically I write a note to the list serve organizers (as I used to do to the campus police at Zenith University, who also paid no attention), saying that such messages were criminalizing; and that describing an actual criminal suspect by his race, particularly in a place where that racial group was dominant, served only to solidify the mythical view of many white people that sighting such a person moving through space was evidence of an imminent crime.

They write me back, hurt and offended.  ”Are you calling me a racist?” one response asked angrily.  Another responded: “It is you who are playing the race card here! Not me!”

Despite these offensive messages and the difficult exchanges that follow, I have remained on the block watch list because the internet is part of our contemporary public square. It seems to me immoral to retreat from the list simply because my voice is ineffective there.  As an addendum, several months ago, unidentified thieves broke into multiple cars in the condo parking lot next door, rifling glove boxes and leaving things of obvious value (GPS devices, computers, cell phones) untouched.  When I expressed dismay at what I perceived as the class rage that might have motivated this event, a white resident looked at me like I was an idiot.  ”They were after people’s guns,” she explained, surprised that I had not understood this. “Don’t you know that a lot of people in this neighborhood keep a gun in the car for when they come home late at night?”

As a community member, it is clear to me that many of “we” may also be George Zimmerman, a feature of this tragedy that is being overlooked in the rush to merge “our” identity with that of the murdered Trayvon Martin. As a cultural critic, I propose that internet memes, produced in the name of anti-racism and social justice, can quickly obscure the political issues they initially seek to address. Activists who use memes to inspire collective action also need to be aware that, much as the internet pushes us to living in the present and the now, linking a contemporary sign to a longer past can be problematic. A “Million Hoodie March,” for example, has a genealogical connection to the summons to “millions” that has a mixed history, particularly in deploying homophobia, sexism and heteronormative maternalism in defense of a black masculinity that embraces patriarchal privilege.

There were obvious alternatives to a million hoodies. Why did activists not focus on the proliferation of guns, for example? As Chauncey de Vega points out in this incisive post, when we displace the hoodie as a symbol for activism, “Black People’s Magical Power to Turn Harmless Objects into Guns” becomes a narrative thread which makes modern lynchings distinct from those committed in earlier periods.

The adoption of the “hoodie” is an invitation to a false collective fantasy that “we are all Trayvon Martin.”  We are not all Trayvon Martin. The criminalization of black men in United States history needs to be accorded the specificity and critical analysis it deserves without the rest of “us” seeking to share or identify with it.  It does a further violation to the murdered when an organizing strategy revolves around asking “us” to “become him,” however purposefully situated in progressive community that strategy is.  Elaborated in cyberspace through the meme, it encourages the political romance that a brief moment of “becoming” represents meaningful anti-racist action, and the myth that one needs only to inhabit the body of a victim to understand how violence, racism or homophobia operates.

None of us breathes the air of Trayvon Martin’s grave, so let’s not pretend we are wearing his hoodie either.

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