Trayvon Martin was a black teenage boy. He was walking home from the convenience store when he caught the attention and ire of George Zimmerman. Perceived as a “punk” and a threat, Martin was accosted by the older man, and a physical altercation ensued. Trayvon Martin died when he was shot through the heart at close range. Though Florida’s expansive “Stand Your Ground” laws were invoked in media conversations, that defense never even entered into the trial. Zimmerman was acquitted when a jury decided he’d killed Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has since said Martin’s death was “God’s plan.”
Some Americans believe that race was not central to this killing or to the case that followed—they have believed it from February 2012 right up until today. But ask yourself: How many times you have been stopped and harassed because you looked threatening or suspicious wearing a hooded sweatshirt? For me, an Asian American female, that number is zero.
Yes, my gender alone distinguishes me from Trayvon Martin, but my partner Mike is a white male, and he, too, can only say “Zero.” We have never been stopped nor questioned, no matter how many times we’ve pulled on our hooded sweatshirts for warmth (and, in my case, to hide sea-tangled hair) after early morning surfing.
Stopping for breakfast or to run errands, Mike and I may not look polished in our hoodies, but we’ve also never had to worry that our appearance would cause suspicion. That’s privilege. It’s such a privilege, this presumed innocence of ours, that the morning after Zimmerman was acquitted, we went ignored even while acting suspiciously. Hoodies up, we casually stopped to look at a condo for rent in an affluent beach community in southern California. We knew from the online ad that the condo was vacant, so we parked outside, walked up the stairs to the unit, and peered into its windows. We sauntered around the grounds and walked into the unlocked community laundry room and garage. Several neighbors saw us, and they smiled.
I couldn’t help but think that the scenario would have been very different if Mike and I were black. Mike and I don’t have to wear our class in order to obviate being treated like threats or criminals; we can wear hoodies and board shorts without worrying that others will be suspicious, fearful, or make assumptions about our class status. Just being “not black” affords us this benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege because it is not something we have earned, but it is gifted to us every day regardless. I have always known about my privilege intellectually, but I felt it keenly last Saturday.
That some are afforded this privilege while others are systematically denied should make us all more empathetic. People perceive and experience the same event differently, depending on visible status markers such as race, gender, age, and class. Such status markers are more than just categories, they form a “system of social practices” that organize social relations. Status markers presume difference, and so people will react to and engage with Mike or with me differently than they would with someone like Trayvon Martin, even when we’re dressed the same.
We would like to believe that we don’t make assumptions based on race or gender, but evidence proves otherwise, as this social experiment of three individuals (a white male, a black male, and white female) trying to steal a bike clearly reveals:
As the sociologist Robert K. Merton insightfully observed nearly three-quarters of a century ago, “The very same behavior undergoes a complete change in evaluation in its transition from the in-group to the out-group.” As the video above indicates, the behavior of a black male (an out-group member) is regarded entirely differently than the same behavior of a white male and white female (in-group members).
The in-group/out-group divide goes further, with grave consequences in our criminal justice system. For example, Jennifer Eberhardt’s research has shown that race affects the severity of sentences that juvenile offenders receive, even for the same crime. Just the idea of a black juvenile offender leads people to imagine juveniles more like adults. Even liberal white Americans who claim low levels of prejudice project more blame onto black boys and sentence them more harshly. As Eberhardt has shown, “race has the power to dampen our desire to be merciful.”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I don’t know how I would explain Trayvon Martin’s death or the acquittal of his killer. But even just imagining being a parent to a black son makes me feel immense empathy for the parents of young black men. Can just that simple exercise make others more aware of race and class privilege, more aware of the power they have to recognize and even challenge that privilege and its consequences? As Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Jennifer Eberhardt and Aneeta Rattan, “The Race Factor,” New York Times, June 12, 2012.
Robert K. Merton. 1968 . “Self-fulfilling Prophecy,” in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd edition. New York: Free Press.
Cecilia L. Ridgeway. 2011. Framed by Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cross-posted at The Society Pages.
Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.
julia — July 25, 2013
Heartbreaking insights. Also reminds me of this article up on Threadbared, focusing more on what we wear and how that affects how people read us: http://iheartthreadbared.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/the-hoodie-as-a-sign-screen-expectation-and-force-excerpt/
Guest — July 25, 2013
"Stand your ground" was explicitly included in the instructions to the jury and Juror B37 mentioned it repeatedly in her conversations with Anderson Cooper. I'd say it entered into the case.
pduggie — July 25, 2013
Great article on the way privilege functions. Thanks! The bike thing is interesting.
1) if you did that study with an Asian and the Asian was regarded in the same manner as a white, would that demonstrate that Asians are in an out group?
2) What role does Bayesian analysis play. You see an event that looks suspicious. and calculate say a 30% chance that what you see is indeed a problem. Then you are given additional information about the race of the person in the suspicious incident. All other things being equal, you know that race A has a higher crime rate that race B. The person is from race A. Do you now have less confidence in your initial guess at suspicion, or more confidence? Bayes theorem says more confidence.
I tell you i talked with a person on a train. You try to guess their gender. You have a 50/50 shot at being right. Then I tell you the person had long hair. Your confidence at a guess that the person is a woman increases by bayes theorem, because it it more likely for a woman to have long hair all things being equal than a man, and you know this.
You still may be wrong, but your confidence in your answer increases, not decreases.
(in the race case, you can add male, young, in this poor neighborhood, etc.) all increase confidence if, statistically it is known the statistics relative to other specified categories.
This is a huge problem.
[links] Link salad for a wake weekend | jlake.com — July 26, 2013
[...] Wearing Privilege — Does a hoodie make you a threat? [...]
Cody — July 30, 2013
I have a hard time taking this article seriously, considering the author states that she is hiding her "sea-tangle hair after surfing early morning surfing" or her boyfriend and she are in hoodies and board shorts. She says they don't have to wear their class to avoid looking suspicious, but they're absolutely wearing their class. I can't say two black men or a black man and woman in similar circumstances wouldn't be treated as suspicious, but the additional class and cultural signifiers are strongly confounding variables. Not to mention, a hoodie looks a lot different at eight in the morning than it does at one in the morning. Walking around a condo at eight in the morning looks different than it does at one in the morning. Driving up and waving to or approaching the neighbors with questions is different than avoiding contact with the neighbors.
Its difficult to decipher the second video, since I'm explicitly being asked to question biases, but the same thing applies. Some of the faces are showing classic body language of concern, some are showing defiance. Many are pedantic, the face of public service announcements. When someone asks "do I look suspicious?" with eyebrows pulled down and in and jaw set forward, my initial answer is "yes". Race may or may not play a role since all the people in the video asking the question were of a similar race.
Clothing, body language, and mode of transportation are social markers. They're part of the language. Its wrong that race is part of that language, but pretending that race is the totality of the language is grossly inaccurate.
Wearing Privilege: Robert K. Merton and the In-Group vs. the Out-Group — July 30, 2013
[...] post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner [...]
Village Idiot — August 3, 2013
Quoting: Hoodies up, we casually stopped to look at a condo for rent in an
affluent beach community in southern California. We knew from the online
ad that the condo was vacant, so we parked outside, walked up the
stairs to the unit, and peered into its windows. We sauntered around the
grounds and walked into the unlocked community laundry room and garage.
Several neighbors saw us, and they smiled.
Try that same experiment on an otherwise empty, poorly-lit street at night and see how the neighbors respond if they notice you.
I bet it won't involve smiles and you might end up looking into the barrel of a gun and if you were looking into those same windows at night then finding yourself being held at gunpoint should not come as a surprise and would be justifiable. Doing this "experiment" in the daytime is utterly irrelevant to the issues under discussion and even a cop would draw their gun and detain you if they saw you peeking into the windows of a dark/unoccupied condo at night (with a hoodie on or not). So on second thought, don't try this experiment at night or you might learn a lot more about perception and risk assessment (and the real world) than you bargained for.
Anyway, it will be exceedingly hard for someone to discern your skin color at night if your hoodies are up until they are relatively close to you, and even then only if they're almost right in front of you. Letting someone we don't know get that close to us when we're walking down a dark street at night can be hazardous to our health.
So to be concerned about the motives of unknown people who may be concealing their identities (hoodies up) on an empty street (minimal traffic; few to no pedestrians) at night is entirely sensible and not automatically racist because until you're too close to someone to avoid or evade or defend against a potentially-hostile encounter with them then you quite likely won't be able to discern insignificant details like their race or sex in such a context (esp. since concealing one's identity is one of the things some folks wear hoodies for).
So it'd be prudent to give shadowy strangers encountered at night the benefit of the doubt by assuming they're potentially violent criminals and keeping your distance while staying alert and ready to respond to an assault however one is inclined to whether that means running like hell, drawing a weapon, or even screaming "Fire!" at the top of your lungs (almost nobody rushes towards cries of "Help!" but "Fire!" might at least get bystanders or people sitting indoors to look in your direction thanks to their sense of self-preservation "Fire? Where?" and the mere presence of witnesses sometimes end assaults).
fatty — September 7, 2013
Yes we should protect ourselves when we fill our safety is being threatened but , Zimmerman's safety wasn't being threatened because he called the police first because he felt Travon Martin looked suspicious, and was up to no good had he minded his own business Travon Martin would still be alive Its called racial profiling!