If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies…. — Albert Einstein
Looking for an old lesson plan on a table near my classroom’s desk, I glance up along the wall, distracted by a photograph of last year’s 6th graders. I pause and notice: several of the boys are wearing hooded sweatshirts in the back. Because I had chosen to keep the tone of last year’s photo more impromptu and casual than I had in the past, I didn’t have a problem with the boys keeping the hoods up on their hooded sweatshirts.
And unlike Geraldo Rivera, the only times I ever chose to lecture them on their hooded sweatshirts was when I asked them to remove them in class, as I did my own caps, because we were inside rather than outside. If anything, I found the hoods annoying from a “manners” standpoint, I never suspected that any of these boys were going to turn into the Unabomber, even if their behavior at school was less-than-exemplary.
But in the midst of the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, attention was immediately focused upon what the boy was wearing that night, in the rain, as a possible reason for his murder, as if somehow the hooded sweatshirt is, in and of itself, a target. (Over this past rainy weekend, while at Disneyland with my little girl, the rain caused quite a few hoods to get broken out, my girl and I included…as Latinos, I was thankful I was at Disneyland in California rather than the Magic Kingdom in Florida, for legal purposes, obviously!)
Much of the conversation over choice of dress is reminiscent of a conversation my father had with me years ago before I left for a summer on the East Coast for summer school when I was still a high school junior. Growing up in West Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, he’d experienced racism as a Mexican-American youngster. His worry, prior to my stepping on to the plane, was to remind me that I might run into racial ignorance, and that if a bigot confronted me in anger, insisting I was Puerto Rican rather than Mexican-American, I shouldn’t necessarily see fit to correct the misconception. He was concerned that I would find myself trying to educate the potential bully rather than extricating myself away from that bully.
Sometimes though, we can be shocked at how much ignorance is out there, resulting in a suspension of disbelief that can, in the most extreme instances, prove fatal. Take, for instance, the Iraqi woman murdered in the San Diego area over the weekend:
Hanif Mohebi, director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that many Muslim women in the area were worried that Ms. Alawadi had been targeted because she wore a headscarf in public, as many observant Muslim women do.
“The majority of the community that wears scarves are concerned,” Mr. Mohebi said. He cautioned against a rush to judgment before the police had finished investigating. Still, he added, “the community has gone through some hate crimes before, and the assumption the people have is that they’re going through one now.”
Reflecting back upon my purpose in sharing my students’ own thoughts on what it means to be “the darker brother”, I feel like my father must have felt when he was lecturing me 30-odd years ago about trying to educate an ignorant person about the difference between a Mexican and a Puerto Rican. Will any of it really matter to someone who would be inclined to judge a person entirely based upon their appearance? Or, in the case of Shaima Alawadi or Trayvon Martin, murdered over how they dress? Looking at my class photo from last year, how terrified might have George Zimmerman become–even though they were only 11-12 years old–had any of those boys decided to walk down his street?