Last spring, back before we moved to our sexy new location adjacent to the glorious Link, the Multimedia Project Studio (one place I work) held residence in the bowels of Old Chem. I had just finished my afternoon shift and as I exited the lab, a white police officer was hurrying down the hall. He stopped his hustle when I emerged. He brought the black radio in his fist near to his lips. “What was the description again?” he asked. A reply from his radio returned, “Black male, gray hoodie, around 40.” After playfully glancing down to examine my own Duke-blue hoodie, Blue Devils written across its chest, I looked back at the officer: “Sounds like it’s not me!” He smiled, but then proceeded to ask where I was coming from. I thought he was in a rush. Why was he wasting time for further questioning? What about the person he was looking for? I answered him, and thought about my staff profile in the MPS complete with a headshot worthy of any successful black man meme. Maybe that could help vindicate me. Couldn’t he see I was a Duke student? I had just come out of a swipe access-only room. Better yet, couldn’t he see that I had a different colored hoodie or that I WASN’T 40? (I was 19 at the time.) He then pulled out his handy-dandy notebook and asked for my ID and my current address. I could feel my expression fall into disbelieving contempt.
You’re probably thinking: White cop versus black boy, a familiar story with a predictable point. But give me a couple more paragraphs before assuming my conclusion. The categorization of that story into a racial frame is a classic example of a schema. We all use schemas to help us navigate social situations each day. My mind went to that framework, but from there my mind flashed to the then-recent death of Trayvon Martin, probably due to the same schema of the black teen wearing a hoodie. This past Tuesday marked the year anniversary of Martin’s death.
In a snapshot, George Zimmerman, a multi-racial 28-year-old, called the police around 7 p.m. to report Trayvon as a suspicious person. That call and the calls of the witnesses who heard shots are archived online along with a pretty detailed and objective account of the incident. Zimmerman (hero complex perhaps) pursued Trayvon even though he was instructed not to, leading to an altercation, which concluded in a 17-year-old boy being shot and killed at point blank range. The court case is scheduled for later this year, so my goal is to summarize, not condemn. I leave it to your exploration of the facts and the later conversations I hope this column sparks. What is clear here is that a tragedy occurred. Accidental deaths and those over trivial misunderstandings are truly losses. As in basketball, losses often carry lessons, and stopping to learn is what makes them meaningful.
Zimmerman’s call included him saying, “These a**holes, they always get away,” revealing that his schema was in use. Trayvon had bought a snack, and was conversing with his girlfriend. George knew nothing of Trayvon’s reasons for being out in the rain while on the phone, but he connected his presence to past recollections, maybe recent burglaries in the neighborhood. Perhaps the burglars were also black, or perhaps they were wearing hoodies at the time, but such facts are meaningless in creating an accurate first take of a stranger.
The Sanford Police Department’s lead investigator told FBI agents that in addition to the general circumstances, Zimmerman’s actions were based not on Martin’s race, but his attire, among other factors. I am deeply saddened by the thought that this tragedy could have been caused by something as trivial as a hoodie. It was an article of clothing for goodness sakes.
Our schemas often activate unconsciously, and the judgments we form through them may differ from the factual information actually present. We should be especially cautious when we are about to assign characteristics or motives to one another based on snippets of information.
Under every hoodie isn’t a hoodlum, in the same way that underneath every Duke shirt isn’t a pretentious, entitled student. Successful white and black men can be found donning hoodies. You’ll never find a meme with one because the stereotypes used in memes are satirical schema, but they likely filter into our actual schemas, and makes it harder to adjust to the facts of reality we encounter.
One lesson to be learned from Trayvon’s tragedy is that despite our reliance on our schemas, we must be cognizant of the mistaken conclusions they can lead to. As efficient and easy as auto-pilot is, we navigate complicated skies. You’re responsible as the pilot to take control, whenever appropriate (manual override). Our community will not gain from pretending we don’t have schemas, but rather from informing each other’s schemas by sharing our own “hoodies.”
What happened at the end of my dealings with the officer? After seeing my reaction, he seemed to sense that I was insulted, and probably predicted my further cooperation would be less eager, so he moved on. However, I had to remind myself that his paired police uniform and white skin may have been his “hoodie.” We all have hoodies—things others perceive and attribute to mean things that they don’t necessarily mean. What’s your “hoodie”? Your yamaka, hijab, greek letters? Your skin color or accent?
Trayvon was from Miami, and it happens we have some ambassadors from that area coming on Saturday. While we hope to disgrace them once within Cameron, let’s take a moment to commemorate this tragedy. Bring along your hoodie; we’ll have a moment of silence at the peak of the walkup line prior to the game in honor of Trayvon.
Alikiah Barclay is a Trinity senior. This column is the eighth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.