As shocking as the Trayvon Martin story is, there are elements that are all-too familiar to Black men forced to “be” in a world where they are perceived as different, and in some cases, dangerous. While we can only imagine being in a situation where false perceptions lead to deadly consequences, regardless of our occupation, background or socioeconomic standing, most of us know what it is to be misperceived.
While there’s been much hoopla over the hoodie worn by the 17-year-old victim slain by admitted gunman George Zimmerman, I also recognize that, at the end of the day, it wasn’t his outer garments that presented the problem, it was his outer skin. There is no outfit, no get-up and no costume he could don that would erase the misgivings some cultures have with people who are Black.
It is imperative that we come to grips with the fact that the world is filled with negative stereotypes about Black men and it would serve us best to do our part to lead the world away from its own ignorance. But know that often, even our best attempts fail under the weight of prejudice.
I remember a time when I worked for a local network news affiliate in Washington, D.C. as a producer. I was one of very few Black men with editorial responsibilities and kept hearing about former Black male staffers who failed to meet the mark. I was told that one was habitually late, another wore his “club clothes” to the newsroom and another just didn’t have the chops to do the job well.
So my response was to write the best copy possible, arrive before everyone else did and to wear a tie to work each and every day. Although the work environment was relatively laid back, I felt that rocking a tie was a door opener to allay concerns people may have had about how “safe” I was.
But then came the fateful day, about eight months into the new gig. I thought all was going well until the executive producer called me into his office with a issue he was having. To my surprise, he did not wish to speak to me about my work habits, my show line-ups or my style of management. “You need to relax a little more,” he said. “Just chill. And there’s no need for you to wear a tie. You dress better than me, and I’m your boss.”
I felt defeated. Just when I thought I’d checked every box, I realized that I was encountering an unexpected problem: over-correction. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how congenial, smart and professionally you carry yourself, you realize that people’s real problem is not with the affectations you put on. Very often, it’s with your very existence. To some people, your very being is offensive.
Trayvon Martin has been called “the perfect victim” by some. It’s a reference to the fact that he was a baby-faced boy with a relatively clean record who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. From most accounts, Trayvon was one who checked the appropriate boxes, except for the fact that he was wearing a hoodie.
I contend that even if he were wearing a designer tuxedo, his clothing is not what made him conspicuous in a neighborhood some feel he didn’t belong. His genetics presented the greatest breach of all, and there was simply nothing he could do about that.
So, as we do our best to do what we can to counteract the misgivings of the masses, we must also realize that there are some battles that are not ours to fight. While we are saddened by Trayvon’s killing, I cannot say that we are surprised.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: David McNew/Reuters)