On My Yellow Hat

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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.

Yellow hat

Give it Up

The following is an email I received from my school’s police department. It contains a host of problems, some of them grammatical. It is also slightly funny.

CRIME ALERT!

On Saturday morning  at approximately 1:24 a.m. two Mercer Law School students were walking home from downtown Macon.  At the intersection of Cherry and New Streets, they were approached by two black males.  One of the males pulled a gun, pointed it at the face of one student, and said “Give it up!”

The students were unharmed but they were robbed of personal belongings.

Mercer Police strongly advises everyone to avoid walking in off campus public areas late at night or in the early morning hours.
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Why the red and purple fonts? I don’t know. Nevertheless, we’re not here to address email aesthetics, so let’s talk business. The email begins with “Crime Alert!” Since when did one armed robbery warrant such a sensational declaration? This robbery is not the 5th armed robbery in the past month or the 40th armed  robbery within the past year. It is an isolated event. Part of me wants to believe that the email was given this heading just to make sure it was not overlooked like every other email sent out by my school’s police department, but my intuition tells me something else is at play.

I don’t like to rely on just intuition though, so let’s delve deeper. Why does the email give such an explicit account of the robbery? “Give it up!” said one of the allegedly black male assailants after “pulling his gun.” “Give it up” is not some special catchphrase. I imagine stick-ups around the country involve this phrase. Why wouldn’t they? It’s easy to say and easy to understand. My point is that this is an incredibly unnecessary detail that only serves to escalate the tone of the “alert.”

Furthermore, why are solely race and gender mentioned? No other descriptive details are offered. Height, age, hair color, clothing, eye color, skin tone, and any other potentially useful details are all elided. On one hand, perhaps the victims simply  did not notice these things. In moments of fear, certain things stand out and other are forgotten. On the other hand, as enforcers of the law, officers are trained to do as much as they can to ensure that the law is enforced. Ergo, these omitted details would have somehow been fleshed out.

All this email will do is increase [white] people’s fears and black people’s alienation. That email’s description is so goddamn vague that I could be a possible suspect. Even if students do not act wary when around me, the possibility that they could -solely because I’m black –  makes me feel distant, unwelcome, even guilty. Moreover, the details of the perpetrators are given just because. There is no call to help with identification or anything. Nevertheless, for some unknown reason, these guys’ race just had to be mentioned.

Mercer already has a tenuous relationship with the surrounding community. Admittedly, through the efforts of students, faculty, staff and members of  that community, this relationship is improving. Thus,  when emails like this are sent out, emails that explicitly say that the community is hostile and dangerous, these efforts are undermined. In reality the areas around campus are just as dangerous or as safe as the areas on campus.  It’s an open campus. Accordingly, I take steps – no matter where I am – to decrease the chance of something bad happening to me. Nevertheless, I am patently aware that at any given time, something awful can happen to me, in spite of my efforts at prevention. As a community, as people, we Mercer students need to accept that. You are never entirely safe. With that knowledge, you can choose to futilely enclose yourself in structures  [like racism] to “protect” yourself or you can cautiously venture out into the world and accept that you, like everyone else, are susceptible to the laws of probability.

In short, I ask that you take this notion of absolute security and give it up. It does nothing but cause you to retreat into questionable, ultimately harmful ways of dealing with the world, particularly other people. Undoubtedly, that email was sent with good intentions, but those intentions belie a skewed vision of the world. If college students, the supposed “future” of the nation are experiencing the world in such a distorted manner, we’re further away from a “post-racial” world than I thought.

By the way, is it just me or does “post-racial” sound like a really bad cereal?