Up until a week or so ago, I held various positions at a local bakery. “Various” is an important term because the initial arrangement when I was hired was for me to be a cashier and storekeeper. This arrangement was eventually upheld, but because I was hired before the storefront opened, I worked in the kitchen, mostly cleaning, washing dishes and making poison (egg salad).
Once the storefront opened I began cashiering. Because I worked around food, I had to wear a hat. I actually wanted to wear a hairnet (because I hate untangling my hair after stuffing my hair into a hat), but they were adamant about me wearing a hat, so I obliged.
The first hat I wore was my old navy blue Yankees cap, but because it was a tight fit, I eventually started wearing the hat pictured above, a goldenrod fitted baseball cap with the Pittsburgh Pirates Logo on it. After 3 shifts of wearing this hat, I was told that the hat was unacceptable because it did not fit “the vibe” of the bakery. My boss, a Trinidadian immigrant dude, told me that my hat made the bakery look “like a Foot Locker.” I didn’t understand why my yellow hat was less compatible with the bakery’s “vibe” than my navy blue Yankees hat, which is the hat I would wear for the rest of my employment there, but I like having a job, so I followed directions.
At first I thought that the animosity toward the yellow hat was latest the arbitrary manifestation of my boss’ hate for me (he definitely hated me), but I think there was also some racism involved.
When he initially expressed his disdain for the hat, he did so at length: he walked into the store, summoned me to the back, then proceeded to speak to me about the hat for 70 minutes. The details of his reasoning are pretty troubling.
First, there’s his comment about Foot Locker. Aesthetics matter, especially when you’re trying to sell people stuff, but why is Foot Locker the aesthetic antithesis to the bakery? Most of the customers in our area were white; was he suggesting that Foot Locker is only for black people? Would he have made the same comment if I were white? Would he have made the same comment if I were a woman? Why was the yellow hat not a problem until I worked in the front? There’s no clear answer to these questions, but I found his example to be unsettling, especially when he repeated it.
Beyond the Foot Locker comment, he asked me why I would voluntarily wear hats. “Don’t you get stopped by the police?” For whatever reason, I’ve actually never been stopped and frisked by the police, but the implication he made is that if I wear hats, I deserve to be profiled and that’s it’s “only a matter of time before it happens” (Translation: It’s only a matter of time before I get what’s coming to me) .
Responding to my incredulous expression, he tried to back away from this harsh statement by mentioning how he once saw me walking late at night (2AM) – with a hat – and how if he were a woman, he would have been scared. I know that cities have never been particularly hospitable places for women, and I’d never argue that an unfamiliar woman or person has any particular reason to trust me, but he wasn’t telling me how to try to avoid aggravating people’s discomfort. He wasn’t advising me how to navigate the treacherous waters of troubling social realities like rape and sexual assault. He was telling me that as a black man, people have the right to be scared of me.
Backing him up were, “statistics,” the patron saint of bullshitters. According to the statistics, he argued, I am more likely to be a criminal because I’m black and male, thus I should be treated like a criminal. And conveniently, the only way to escape my inherent criminality is to not wear hats and be indoors by dusk.
Crime is real and crime by black males is really real, but this notion that someone can assess my propensity for crime on sight assumes that there’s a logic to criminality. It assumes that the criminal profile, a stable, reliable image of a criminal, actually exists. Most pressingly, this notion assumes that the people who “assess” my alleged criminality are purified of racial, generational, gendered, national, historical, regional and [insert more adjectives here] prejudices that might skew their assessments.
That’s just not true. And it misses the reality of how race plays out. To alter the words of Cameron Kunzelman, ideology doesn’t care about the clothes. If someone is scared of black males, that person is going to be scared whether I’m dressed like Bill Cosby or dressed like Lil’ Wayne. Neither my sartorial choices nor their “knowledge” of statistical probabilities are going to change the fact of that person’s racism.
Plain and simple, my former boss and Don Lemon and Bill Cosby telling me that the key to being respected is “looking better” is nothing but intraracial racism masquerading as advice. Needless to say, it’s bad advice. Have you seen me in my yellow hat? Flawless.