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Rachel Riederer: How the Million Hoodies March Quells Our Unreasonable Fears

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March 29, 2012

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Photograph via Flickr by david_shankbone

Above: Trayvon Martin’s father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton at the Million Hoodies Union Square protest in New York against the shooting of Trayvon in Sanford, Fla.

The Million Hoodies March functions like exposure therapy to help us quell our unreasonable fears.

By Rachel Riederer

Last week while hoodied marchers were convening in major cities all around the country to demand that George Zimmerman be brought to justice for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, another news story about race and bias caught my eye. This one was in the scientific press: a team in the psychology department at Oxford University found that participants taking Propanalol, a beta-blocker used to treat heart conditions, showed significantly lower on a test measuring unconscious racial bias. (See how you stack up by taking the Implicit Attitude Test here.) Though some have reported on propanalol as a magic pill for racism, it’s not. (The 36-person sample is too small to support such a claim, and finding a chemical cure for racism was never the researchers’ intent.) But the study’s use of Beta Blockers to reduce bias does show us something important about how unconscious racism works. Beta-blockers, in addition to treating hypertension and heart conditions, are used to combat panic and anxiety disorders. They inhibit fear.

The fact that Zimmerman has been allowed to claim “self-defense” to excuse shooting Trayvon Martin in the chest shows the extent to which our culture has internalized the idea that black men are a threat. The idea, because the physical reality seems to show little reason for fear: Zimmerman is burly and Martin was slight; Zimmerman was armed and Martin wasn’t; and Zimmerman was the one following Martin around the neighborhood. The new conservative argument claims that Zimmerman’s actions were justified Martin’s hoodie made him seem thuggish, but this too fails. While it is reasonable to fear someone who is bigger than you, stalking you, and carrying a weapon, it is not reasonable to fear someone because of his sweatshirt.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that this shooting happened in a gated community—a residential setup predicated on fear and built to reinforce separation. It is an environment, that, counter to its claims of security, encourages exclusionism and breeds unfamiliarity and fear.

But we harbor unreasonable fears all the time. Above a certain threshold these unreasonable fears are called phobias, and these are commonly treated through exposure therapy. In exposure therapy the patient comes face to face with the thing they’re most afraid of, with the idea that they will be cured by seeing the irrationality of their fear. It’s easy to understand why exposure therapy works—irrational fears can persist indefinitely if you never actually encounter the thing you fear. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that this shooting happened in a gated community—a residential setup predicated on fear and built to reinforce separation. It is an environment, that, counter to its claims of security, encourages exclusionism and breeds unfamiliarity and fear. While Zimmerman’s actions are the product of one man’s violence and paranoia, they are also emblematic of fear and racism in a country that is so segregated that race-coded maps of our major cities still look like here.

This is yet another reason the Million Hoodie March was such a good idea. It’s why, when public figures from the Miami Heat and members of the New York State Assembly circulate photos of themselves in hoodies, they’re doing something meaningful and effective. Their actions function like exposure therapy, revealing the irrationality of those who fear meeting black men on the street with hoods pulled up over their heads. I appreciate it personally because despite knowing better, men in hoodies do make me nervous. I wish I didn’t feel this way; I know it’s dumb. Geraldo and others have offered an excuse for this prejudice, saying hoodies are inherently sinister because they suggest concealment. That’s false—enormous dark sunglasses make it just as hard to identify the wearer’s face, but I didn’t grow up in a culture that taught me to see skinny white women as a danger. The hoodie phobia is real and it is about race. So when I see my state legislators sitting in session with their hoods up, or see my Facebook page filled with shots of hooded friends and relatives in the glow of their laptops, I’m glad for the free exposure therapy. It’s a reminder of just how irrational hoodiephobia, or, let’s call it what it is: blackmanphobia, really is.
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Rachel Riederer’s writing has appeared in The Nation, The Rumpus, and Best American Essays, among others. You can see more of her work at www.rachelriederer.com.

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