Black Hoodies and White Privilege

My Black son got a black hoodie for his birthday. 

When he took it out of the Batman gift bag, I felt a shiver creep up my spine. The white relative who gave it to him probably didn’t spend any time thinking about what it means to give a Black person a black hoodie.

***

“I had to send Max to the principal today,” said Mr. Cane, scanning the room making sure his first graders were on task.

“You did? What happened?” I asked.

“I didn’t see it, but your son punched Bradley in the face.” 

Shit.

“The principal talked to him and said he thought it was an accident, but a couple of the boys said he did it on purpose and I’m inclined to believe them.”

Shit.  

“I’ll talk to him when we get home. I’m sorry you had to deal with this, Mr. Cane.” I said.

My body language said, “Boys will be boys,” but inside I was dying to take my son’s teacher by the shoulders and demand he give me every last detail of the Max versus Bradley situation. Unfortunately, it was time for math.

Volunteering in Max’s classroom every afternoon for a semester taught me a lot about how he learned, what he learned, and who he learned it from.  

When the bell rang at the end of the day Max and I merged, hand in hand, into the cacophony.

“I heard you went to the principal today,” I said.

“Yeah, I hit Bradley in the face, but it was an accident.”

“Mr. Cane said some kids told him you did it on purpose.” He let go of my hand.

“I didn’t, Mommy. I swear. I was practicing my punches, like this, and his face just… got in the way.” Max had been playing a lot of Wii boxing after school.

He isn’t a very good liar, so I was pretty sure he was innocent. An email from the principal confirmed my suspicion. “When I saw him crying in the chair outside my office, I could tell from his response that it was an accident. I told him to stick to practicing at home.”

***

My Black son got a black hoodie for his birthday.

We live in a world where I’m going to need to lay out the rules of how to wear a damned sweatshirt sometime in the near future:

Never wear a hoodie over your head when you’re alone on the street, day or night.

Never wear a hoodie at the mall.

Never wear a hoodie when you meet someone for the first time.

Never wear a hoodie in the rain, use an umbrella.

Never wear a hoodie in the car.

Never wear a hoodie on a plane or any public transportation.

***

The following day I was sitting criss-cross applesauce on the rug to teach my half of the class the difference between a pentagon and a hexagon, when I noticed Bradley was not paying attention.

“Put the notebook away Bradley and join the circle, please,” I said. He eyed me under his overgrown bangs.

“Why can’t I keep it?” he said, tossing it high into the air. The repeated slaps of spiral-bound paper demanded an audience.

“Because we don’t need it right now. Put it away, please.”

He threw it up again and slapped it on to the floor, forcing a heavy sigh in my direction.

“Put the notebook in your desk where it belongs.” I pointed across the room.

He rolled his eyes, grabbed the notebook, and rose to his knees.

“Thank you, Bradley.”

When am I ever going to get a fucking job?

“Okay, everyone. Who wants to tell me how many sides a hexagon ha–”

Ebony grabbed her face and started to sob. She didn’t see the notebook coming when Bradley flung it across the room instead of walking it to his desk. The spiral part hit just below her eye.

Moments later, I relayed the entire scene to Mr. Cane.

Ebony got an ice pack.

Bradley got a warning.

***

My Black son got a black hoodie for his birthday.

Sure, I can protect him right now from most of the evil in this world, because he’s eight years old. But soon, dangerously soon, I won’t be able to protect him when the consequences of being black are a lot more sinister than a trip to the principal; when it’s raining and he just wants a bag of Skittles from the corner store; when he’s minding his own business at the fucking playground.

The black hoodie hangs from a hook in the hall, lifeless. My son says he doesn’t like it. He says it’s too tight around the neck. I’m going to get rid of it soon, but the ghost of it will hang there forever.

20 thoughts on “Black Hoodies and White Privilege

  1. Will color every disappear from people’s minds? Ever?
    “Oh, you Indians are smart in math”. “You Indians are smart in science”. “You guys rock in computer science”.
    Truth? I can’t stand math. My daughter barely passes science. Computer science is an enigma to both of us. More than our weakness in the subjects themselves, the feeling of “failing” expectations is traumatic.
    Of course, nothing compared to the trauma you undergo, fearing for life itself. What can I say but “I wish I could do something to make you and your son feel safe in our planet”?

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  2. I like the use of the hoodie as a personal symbol, as well as a public, cultural one. The dialogue is strong. I wanted there to be less of a jump between the sections, maybe there is a different way to display the juxtapositions?

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  3. Funny how different people read differently, The juxtaposition of the hoodie parts with the classroom really worked for me. The stark contrast of “mistakes” in a safe environment and all the black hoodie can represent was vividly conveyed with this format.
    I feel compelled to comment on the content now. I feel for parents these days. How can you possibly cover all the warnings and lessons needed to keep them safe? I am so glad there are still thoughtful parents such as you who will try anyway!

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  4. This is such a strong piece. I love how you juxtaposed the story with the other half. I wish you could present all of this as evidence of prejudicial behaviour from Mr Cane. Well done getting this one done just the right way. 😍

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  5. I’m glad Oldendaysk mentioned the juxtaposition because I didn’t catch it until it was pointed out — not because you buried it but probably just me being dense today. I can see it now, of course, clearly. Anyway, for some reason, I wasn’t linking the black hoodie (a very loaded image with all the injustice that goes with it) to the incidents in the classrooms. It may be, too, that the black hoodie is just such a powerful symbol that I was wrapped up in it. Maybe limiting the number of scenes, given the limited word count, would be one way to approach this. I’ll add too that you have a great affinity for dialogue.

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    1. Thanks, Meg. I do love dialogue. The black hoodie is meant to reinforce how futile it feels to try and protect my son. Even when I’m in the room and have a relationship with the authority figure he gets treated unfairly. SO much of what white parents can do for their white children is out of my control as a mother. It’s scary and infuriating at the same time.

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