Commentary: Don't Make Dress A Mask For Prejudice
Columnist Considers Whether 'Clothes Make The Man'
By Derrell Connor Special To Channel 3000
When you see a young, African-American male, what comes to your mind?
Does it depend on how he?s dressed? For instance, if he?s wearing a sweatsuit, or a hoodie, or a sports jersey and baseball cap with sagging pants, does that make him intimidating? If he?s wearing a suit, or a golf shirt with slacks, does that change your impression?
What about the way he talks? If he speaks a certain way, such as slang or some broken English, does that create a negative image in your mind? If you drive up next to another car at a stoplight, a young African-American male behind the wheel wearing a baseball cap and a sweatshirt, hip-hop music blaring, what would you think? That he?s up to no good? That he may be a criminal? What if he were wearing a shirt and tie instead? Would that make a difference?
I ask these questions because I wear all of those things: hoodies, sweatsuits, baseball caps, T-shirts, suits, sport coats, golf shirts and slacks?everything except the sagging pants. I like to think that I have a pretty good command of the use of proper English, although I do speak slang at times. I appreciate and listen to all types of music, including hip-hop. I listen to it on my iPod or when I?m in my car. I know lots of other African-American men who are the same way. I?ve never thought of them as anything other than positive, responsible and respectful, regardless of what they?re wearing. Most of you have heard the expression "clothes make the man." In light of the situation in Sanford, Fla., do clothes make the black man?
Several day ago, I stopped at a car dealership. I was wearing a pair of long shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. There were five salespeople inside the showroom; only one of them was assisting a customer. The other four were talking amongst themselves. They watched me wander around the showroom for almost ten minutes. Finally, I walked out. As I was walking back to my car, a salesperson who was outside with another customer came over and asked me if anyone was helping me. I told him no and that I no longer needed assistance, and I left. As I drove away, I wondered if I were wearing a suit, or even a golf shirt and slacks, would I have been helped right away? If I were white and wearing the same clothes, would that make a difference?
It?s not just the car dealership. Sometimes when I?m in department stores, there can be subtle differences depending on the way I?m dressed. There have been instances when I have been helped by a friendly employee while wearing a suit one day, come back to the same store the next day wearing sweats and treated much differently by the same employee that worked with me the day before, that is until I either remind them or he or she remembers who I am. Now granted, I realize that they see many different people every single day. But it has happened to me often enough in my life to the point where I can?t help but wonder: do I have to be dressed up most of the time to make sure that I?m treated fairly and with respect? Will the clothes I?m wearing keep me from being followed around when I?m shopping? Will it keep me from being profiled, whether in a car or walking down the street?
I want people who read this column to understand that I?m not saying that racism still runs rampant in our society, nor am I suggesting that there isn?t a certain look or type of clothes that have been equated with criminal activity. But when it gets to a point where young and adult black men feel like they have to watch what they wear when they leave the house in order to not fit a stereotype, then we as a society have a real problem. And last I checked, that?s not what America is supposed to be about.
Derrell Connor works in the insurance industry in Madison and hosts a weekly radio show on WIBA AM. His column will run the second and fourth Thursday of the month on Channel 3000.Copyright 2012 by Channel 3000. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.