Warning: Potentially provocative post. You might not like it, but I’ve got to write it. Please proceed with caution.
In middle or upper-middle class contexts only white kids can dress “sloppy”/”crunchy”/”Boho-Chic”/”Thrift-Store-Chic”/whatever-you-want-to-call-it and get away with it. You know the look — it is hip and in style (again) right now — mis-matched, thrown-together-non-outfits, stripes-with-plaids, slightly-too-small-shirts, a-wee-bit-raggedy-around-the-edges, hand-me-downs-&-thrift-store-finds with a shabby-cool, slightly-gritty, “self-expression”-ist, “he-dresses-as-he-pleases” edge. You know — the disheveled uncombed hair, the cheap flip-flops, the random accessories that don’t quite match — there is a whole look that goes with it. It is a very popular style of dressing (both for adults and children of all ages) in many of the social circles with which I, for one, am well acquainted. But here’s the thing: Only white kids can wear that. Only white kids can do that. Black kids, especially black boys, cannot.
I should probably rephrase that: middle and upper-middle class black boys can try to pull off that look, but if they do, there will be consequences.
Middle and upper-middle class white parents who dress their kids that way are enacting a profound form of privilege that is way too often completely unrecognized.
I know about this. I’ve been silently observing this phenomenon for the past eight years, and trying my darndest to keep my mouth shut. Let me tell you something– When I dress Meera (my white daughter) like that, there are no questions asked. I can bring her anywhere, looking like a raggedy mess, and people everywhere will still smile at her and comment to me about how adorable she is. The rare times I’ve allowed Kyle and Owen out of the house looking like that have been disastrous. My black boys are met with blatantly disapproving looks, subtly stand-offish reactions, obvious lack of friendliness and politeness, and I receive comments about how “nice” it is of me to “take in these boys” (or questions about The Fresh Air Fund). Those times have been quick lessons in re-affirming what I already know: My black sons are best served by carefully scrutinizing their presentation-of-self so as to appear to the world as clean-cut, well-groomed, and polished as possible. (And believe me, having them appear that way in public, all the time, is exhausting. And expensive.)
Luckily for Kyle and Owen, I know enough about all of this to know the importance of presenting them to the world just so and teaching them how to someday do it themselves. Luckily for Kyle and Owen, I’ve had countless conversations with wise and experienced parents of black boys who have mentored me in these unfortunate Ways of the World. Black parents know that dressing children is more than just dressing children. They know firsthand that dressing children is about privilege and lack-there-of. It is about how black kids will be perceived, and received, and about how they’ll be responded to by the world.
But dressing black boys is more than that too. It is also about — quite literally — life or death. It is a way of trying to cloak our kids in cues, symbols, and markers to the world. Cues, symbols, and markers that are intended to protect them, like a suit of arms, from what we know exists. Cues, symbols, and markers that are meant to scream — no, make that ‘politely and quietly state’ – “I am not a threat”; “I am not here to scare you or hurt you or make you uneasy”; “I am a good boy from a good family.”
Not that a ‘bad’ boy from a ‘bad’ family deserves to be shot and killed — no, not at all — that is not the point. The point is this: the instinct of any parent is to attempt to do absolutely anything humanly possible to protect their child from harm’s way. Dressing our children is the simplest of things we can do.
But the scary thing is that we can dress them and primp them and teach them every trick in the book (and believe me, this is not just about clothes — we spend an unfortunate amount of time talking with Kyle and Owen about speech, body language, facial expressions, manners, etiquette, and how to choose one’s battles), to present themselves in disarming and non-threatening ways… and still… they might be gunned down in broad day light for doing nothing but walking down the sidewalk.
Yes, of course, hypothetically this could happen to any white kid too. Hypothetically. But, in reality, it just plain doesn’t. The cold hard truth is that if Trayvon was white, he would not have been killed. Period. And anyone who thinks otherwise is just fooling themselves, or worse– is in total denial about the state of affairs today.
This hyper-vigilence about presentation-of-self will become increasingly important as my boys’ independence and time away from me increases. When they are with me they are protected, at least to some extent, by my whiteness. But when they are out and about in the world without me they are just them: big black boys. And they will be perceived how that is perceived.
How can we protect our kids from this world? We can’t. The only solution is to change the world our kids are in. That is daunting (if not impossible). And change (what there is of it) is slow. In the meantime my boys will be wearing polo shirts and khakis (because that is — as slight, if any, of a help that it is — something I can do). And they’ll sometimes be wearing hoodies and jeans too (really nice ones — because that is what they want to wear, and I don’t have the heart to deny them completely). And all the while I’ll be constantly, constantly, constantly a little bit on edge with worry for them. And unless you have a black son, you have no right to judge me for any of that.
So, you wonder why I dress my boys the way I do? Well, now you know.
* * *
Please read this: