Written by Shaina Amar
April 30, 2021
Throughout its existence, the hoodie has served as a cultural icon, providing both negative and positive social connotations, depending on the maker, wearer, and purpose of the garment. This post, using an intersectional lens, will explore the differing social and symbolic meanings attached to the hoodie, as a site of criminalization and resistance.
The following section provides an overview of the hoodie throughout different periods, highlighting its many forms, functions, and symbolisms, from its historical origin towards its contemporary design. The second section unpacks the hoodie as a site of criminalization, through its role within the racially motivated murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and its creation of the ‘hoodie defense’. The final section re-casts the hoodie as a symbol of active resistance towards racial profiling, injustice, and white supremacy.
HISTORY OF THE HOODIE
12th Century Monks in Hooded Cloaks. PHOTO VIA MEDIVALIST.NET.
Early Iterations of the Hoodie.
17th Century Woman in a Hooded Cloak. PHOTO BY DETROIT PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPANY.
The earliest recordings of the hoodie date back as far as Ancient Greece and Rome, through the hooded cloak. The garment was commonly referred to as a paenula or lacerna and was typically worn by men to protect themselves against the elements (Smith, 1875). Throughout the Middle Ages, hooded cloaks continued to be worn as overgarments and quickly became associated with monks as a symbol of religious devotion and spirituality. The hooded cloak distinctly stood out from the dress of the masses with its simplicity of design that signalled a move away from worldly excesses (Kaartinen, 2002).
During the 17th century, hooded cloaks were again re-popularized, this time by women attempting to conceal themselves, often reserving them for when they would meet their lovers (Antonelli, 2018). These early iterations provide the basis for more contemporary understandings of the hoodie. The modern hoodie is made of knitted cotton jersey as opposed to woven wool to prevent shrinkage, has an attached hood and drawstring, often with a marsupial pocket (Rahman, 2016).
The Modern Hoodie Design. PHOTO BY MAURICIO ALEJO VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES.
RISE IN POPULARITY TOWARDS MASS PRODUCTION & CRIMINALIZATION
The modern hoodie design gained popularity throughout the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of athletic competitions and spectatorship at athletic events (Antonelli, 2018).
The first contemporary hoodie emerged through the Knickerbocker Knitting Company, more contemporarily known as the popular brand Champion. At this time, American colleges were beginning to professionalize sport, allowing for the creation of standardized uniforms, amongst which the modern hoodie was born (Muzquiz, 2018).
The Hoodie in Sport: Four Players for the New York Giants Model Early Iterations of the Modern Hoodie in the 1960s. PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES VIA THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.
Throughout this period, the hoodie began to be associated with comfort and warmth and was quickly adopted outside the sports arena (Muzquiz, 2018; Rahman, 2016).
Cassius Clay in 1963 Wearing a Hoodie on the Streets of London as Athleisure. PHOTO BY PA ARCHIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES VIA DAILY MAIL.
During the 1970s, the hoodie infiltrated the emerging hip-hop scene in the Bronx. Here, the hoodie became associated with graffiti, B-Boys, and punk culture, further aligning it with youthful rebellion (Aprahamian, 2019; Sling, 2019).
By the 1990s, the hoodie became an established staple of youth street culture through its popularization by hip-hop artists like Wu-Tang Clan and LL Cool J (Rahman, 2016). The hoodie rose to mass popularity for its simplicity of design and the anonymity provided by the hood. It was conveniently attached, providing both a source of protection and comfort (Antonelli, 2018). Here the hoodie began to represent the distinct desire of youth culture to disassociate from the mainstream, older generations, and authority figures (Aprahamian, 2019; Rahman, 2016).
The Hoodie in Hip-Hop Culture Towards Mass Production: Wu-Tang Clan “36 Chambers” Blends Elements of Hip-Hop With Punk Spirit. PHOTO BY EDUARDO CEPEDA.
However, the symbolisms associated with the hoodie and hooded bodies are not neutral and, instead, evoke different social meanings and stigmas depending on the specific wearer and their proximity to power (Bey, 2016; Nguyen, 2015). Through the intersections of race, class, and age under the system of white supremacy, othered bodies become associated with deviance, danger, and exclusion, often through the criminalization of culture and dress (Aprahamian, 2019).
“Rap culture celebrates defiance, as it narrates the experience of social exclusion.” – Angela McRobbie
Rap music provided a poetic vision of the social realities of inner-city life for racialized youth. Through the subsequent moral panic created within the media, hip-hop culture quickly became associated with crime and violence; by extension, so did young Black bodies wearing the hoodie (Aprahamian, 2019).
THE HOODIE AS A SITE OF CRIMINALIZATION
Disciplinary and punitive governance is an everyday reality for Black youth in the United States, who experience increased surveillance and sanctions at the intersections of disadvantage and negative social constructions (Elliott & Reid, 2019).
Under the racial hierarchy of white supremacy, whiteness is the standard against which all other races are measured and subsequently ‘othered’ (Fanon, 1952; Bey, 2016). This racial hierarchy often manifests and is communicated through the white gaze. The white gaze establishes a proposed confession of wrongdoing on the Black body for its mere presence in public (‘white’) space where it is presumed not to belong (Fanon, 1952; Bey, 2016; Nguyen, 2015).
“The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation……not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man – Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
THE HOODIE & THE MURDER OF TRAYVON MARTIN
The tragic display of the hoodie within the racially motivated murder of Trayvon Martin exposes the specific use of clothing as a form of Black criminalization.
On February 26th, 2012, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man volunteering as a neighborhood watchman, spotted Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in a “dark hoodie,” and reported him to police as “suspicious” and threatening in the white gated community he patrolled (Sanford Police Department, 2012). Zimmerman then began to follow Martin, first in his truck and later on foot.
7-11 Surveillance Video of Trayvon Martin
Martin was on his way back to his stepmother’s home after going to the convenience store to purchase a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea when he noticed Zimmerman stalking him (University of Missouri Faculty of Law, 2014). Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend, it was raining, and he was being followed by a strange man, so like any teen, he proceeded to put up his hood as a form of protection. Zimmerman, already having deemed him a threat, moments later fatally shot Martin in the chest (CNN, 2021; University of Missouri Faculty of Law, 2014).
Audio Clip of Zimmerman’s Call to Police
On privileged wearers, hoodies are perceived as comfortable and neutral garments, yet Martin did not experience this luxury (Turney, 2019). Instead, as a Black youth under an oppressive system, the hoodie became a socially constructed symbol of his criminality (Nguyen, 2015). Martin became conceptualized as a ‘threat’ simply for being young and Black and wearing a hoodie in an affluent white neighbourhood (Bey, 2016; Yancy, 2008).
“When Zimmerman saw Martin he saw criminality, understood as the commission of crime, an intention to commit crime, an escape from prior crime, or some combination of the three” – Stephen H. Marshall
Martin’s wearing of the hoodie was presumed to be deviant, and he was considered a ‘dangerous threat’ despite simply being a teenager engaging in youthful dress and behaviour. Martin was unarmed, bravely trying to escape a terrifying situation (Hurtado, 2018; Nguyen, 2015). For this, and for being somewhere he was not considered to belong, he was cast as menacing, profiled and murdered by Zimmerman (Eliott & Reid, 2019; Yancy, 2008).
“You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangster…people are gonna perceive you as a menace…the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was. Trayvon Martin would be alive today but for the fact that he was wearing thug wear…” – Geraldo Rivera, Fox News, the ‘Hoodie Defense’
The hoodie, within the social construction of Martin’s ‘criminality,’ was used in an attempt to justify Zimmerman’s outrageous actions as necessary: both when he used violence on a child, and later when he attempted to absolve himself of murder, through the creation of the hoodie defense (Alvarez, 2015; Nguyen, 2015).
Trayvon Martin’s Hoodie as Evidence in the George Zimmerman Trial. PHOTO BY NBC.
THE ‘HOODIE DEFENSE’
The ‘hoodie defense’ further highlights the criminalization of Black youth in public space through its inherently racist construction. It exposes the lack of neutrality around the hoodie, as it was used to victim-blame and to attempt to absolve George Zimmerman of murder.
Zimmerman’s defense team claimed that, fearing for his life, Zimmerman had no choice but to shoot Martin (University of Missouri Faculty of Law, 2014). However, if we critically examine Zimmerman’s account, it attempts to justify a 28-year-old man following a teenager after already requesting police assistance – which was on the way – and being explicitly told NOT to pursue him (Hurtado, 2018; University of Missouri Faculty of Law, 2014). As such, Zimmerman’s claim to self-defense is not only preposterous but absolutely outrageous. There is no conceivable possibility that an unarmed, 17-year-old child in a hoodie, running for his life, presented a real and immediate threat requiring Zimmerman to shoot his firearm.
Instead, the ‘hoodie defense’ exposes Zimmerman’s racist motivations and provides evidence for the continued use of clothing to criminalize Black and othered bodies, as a surrogate for direct references to flesh (Fanon, 1952; Nguyen, 2015). Zimmerman’s racial targeting attempted to dehumanize and discredit Martin as a victim, by portraying him as nothing but a thug and as such undeserving of sympathy (Bey, 2016; Harris-Perry, 2012). However, through the hoodie defense, the racial and colonial pursuits of white supremacy are discursively obscured; through the ‘unbiased’ condemnation of the hoodie as opposed to the overt racialized body (Nguyen, 2015; Fanon, 1952; 1961).
The use of the hoodie to symbolize deviance and fear of Black youth, instead of direct references to skin, provides a more covert strategy to target, dehumanize, and control (Bey, 2016; Aprahamian, 2019). Through this strategy, Zimmerman’s profiling using the ‘hoodie defense’ can appear impartial and not racist as it simply relates to Martin’s choice of clothing, when, in fact, it is Martin’s specific status as a Black youth in this dress that pre-determines him as ‘threat’ in public space (Nguyen, 2015; Harris-Perry, 2012).
The moral panic surrounding gang violence, and its association with racialized youth and the hoodie, provide for the us-vs-them mentality at the centre of racist attempts to justify Zimmerman’s outrageous actions (Aprahamian, 2019; Nguyen, 2015).
“When you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark skinned kid… wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles… people look at you and they — what do they think? What’s the instant identification, what’s the instant association?” – Geraldo Rivera, Fox News
Through the ‘logic’ of ‘hoodie defense’, Zimmerman’s racist motivations and the murder of a child are reconceptualized as a ‘necessary’ protection for dominant (white) society against the socially constructed, ‘deviant’ Black other (Fanon, 1952; Bey, 2016). Zimmerman’s ‘hoodie defense’ then exposes the general lack of neutrality around the hoodie itself, through its consistent use to target and shame Black youth in public space (Aprahamian, 2019; Nguyen, 2015).
To those with privilege, the hoodie continues to offer an impartial symbol of comfort and protection but for Trayvon and other Black youth it is not neutral (Turney, 2019). Instead, under an oppressive system that marginalizes these wearers, the hoodie provides a discursive strategy to criminalize and victim-blame (Rahman, 2016; Nguyen, 2015). Some commentators have essentially suggested that, like victims of sexual assault, Trayvon Martin, a victim of racial violence, ‘asked for it’ and provoked his own murder by choosing to wear a hoodie. This begs the question: has anyone asked what George Zimmerman (the real threat) was wearing?
THE HOODIE AS RESISTANCE
Trayvon Martin wearing the hoodie can also be re-conceptualized as his own active resistance to his oppression through anti-Black racism and white supremacy, which ultimately inspired a social movement.
“Putting on a hoodie as a Black man involves a decision to make a statement that could make some people mistrust you, get you hassled by police, even killed.” – Richard Thompson Ford, Author of Dress Codes: How The Laws of Fashion Made History
Despite frequently negative associations of young Black men in hoodies, symbolized through the cultural imagery of the thug and the use of profiling, Martin resisted this subjectivity (Elliott & Reid, 2019; Bey, 2016). Instead he wore his hood unapologetically as a form of protection against the real danger, the racist and enraged Zimmerman.
Martin’s death initially only received the attention of local news media (Graeff et al, 2014). However, through the tireless work of his parents and growing supporters, his death began to populate national headlines (Hurtado, 2018), thus exposing the presumed disposability of Black life and his overt act of resistance. Following Martin’s death, the hoodie itself was the subject of significant media attention (Graeff et al, 2014). Through the now competing stories of Martin’s supporters and George Zimmerman’s, the hoodie entered the public imagination as both a symbol of Black criminality and as an active object of resistance to this narrative (Nguyen, 2015).
Following the lack of state charges for Zimmerman, protestors took to the street in solidarity, demanding justice for Martin and an end to racial profiling (Hurtado, 2018). In the following weeks, Million Hoodie Marches began in Florida, New York, and over 100 other cities across the United States (Harris-Perry, 2012; Nguyen, 2015). These protests highlighted that this could have happened to any Black youth under a racially oppressive system.
Teenager Brendon Daniels Holds Up a Can of Arizona Iced Tea and a Bag of Skittles in Support of Justice for Trayvon, on July 17th, 2013 at a Rally in Orlando, Florida. PHOTO BY DAVID MANNING/REUTERS VIA NBC.
Demonstrations also focused on Florida’s stand your ground legislation (Alvarez & Buckley, 2013). Like Martin’s own resistance, these protests dissented against the use of the hoodie as a symbol of Black criminality and demanded an end to racial profiling and injustice (Nguyen, 2015). Growing pressure for racial justice continued and eventually, authorities had no choice but to charge Zimmerman (Alvarez, 2015).
Protestors Demonstrating With Signs of Support For Trayvon and his family. PHOTO BY DAVID MANNING/REUTERS.
Protestors Demonstrating In Support of Justice for Trayvon, Prompting the Creation of The Black Lives Matter Hashtag And Movement
Large Crowd Gathers In New York For “Justice for Trayvon”. PHOTO BY TRACY A. WOODWORD/GETTY IMAGES VIA THE WASHINGTON POST.
In spite of significant and meaningful support from Black and other allied communities, Martin was continuously villainized in the media and Zimmerman’s trial (Hurtado, 2018; Fung, 2012). Media outlets and Zimmerman’s defense team unfairly used his youthful indiscretions as an attempt to paint him as a criminal and an undeserving victim (see Graeff et al, 2014, for a complete media analysis).
Despite ample evidence of Zimmerman’s prejudiced motivations and the overt harm he caused, he was eventually acquitted by the state (Alvarez, 2015). Through continued protest, the hoodie became an identifiable symbol of political unrest used to challenge racial oppression and injustice (Hurtado, 2018).
Man Holds Up Hoodie in Memory of Trayvon Martin at a Rally for “Justice for Trayvon” in New York, on July 20th, 2013, Following the Acquittal of George Zimmerman. PHOTO BY DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES VIA WASHINGTON POST.
By re-conceptualizing the hoodie as resistance, we can understand that despite his clear victimization, Martin at no point relinquished his agency. Instead, through his supporters and their continued dissent against Zimmerman, the state, and the power structures of white supremacy, Trayvon Martin, who was silenced by death, maintains his innocence, and the hoodie is rightfully acknowledged as a symbol of political power.
Despite evidently racist motivations and the murder of an innocent child, George Zimmerman remains a free man. Since his acquittal in 2013, Zimmerman has been charged with multiple violent incidents (CNN, 2015; Alvarez, 2015).
George Zimmerman’s Violent Arrest Record Following His Acquittal
Martin, who today would only be 26 years old, had his life prematurely taken from him (Harris-Perry, 2012; Hurtado, 2018).
Trayvon’s resistance, death and the larger demonstrations they inspired further expose the on-going criminalization of Black bodies through dress and the state’s continued protection of white supremacy over justice, even in the death of an innocent child.
The hoodie, like justice itself, is not neutral. Instead, it continues to represent an active site of criminalization for Black bodies, especially Black youth, who are routinely portrayed as deviant and threatening in public space (Elliott & Reid, 2019). This is evidenced through the more recent murders of Black youth like Michael Brown, 18, Tamir Rice, 12, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, Daunte Wright, 20, and countless others, who continue to be gunned down for merely existing in white space (Harris-Perry, 2012; Nguyen, 2015).
Despite this horrific reality, we must not forget that the hoodie also symbolizes political power through acts of dissent and resistance to racial oppression and the constructs of white supremacy (Hurtado, 2018).
Trayvon Martin is gone but will never be forgotten, he is remembered years later for sparking a renewed commitment to the ongoing struggle for Black liberation.
Despite racist perceptions, Trayvon’s life and Black Lives everywhere have always and will continue to Matter, while we await justice for Trayvon.
A Mural in Dedication to Trayvon Martin in the Community of Sandtown, Baltimore Following the Violent Arrest of Freddie Gray on April 30, 2015. PHOTO BY ANDREW BURTON GETTY IMAGES.
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