By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide
Not surprisingly I found myself in the midst of a discussion yesterday on the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin—an unarmed young black male. As far as anyone seems to know now his crime was being black and wearing a hoodie while walking.
What struck me though, was that the conversation was among a very special group. One had a friend who was close to Trayvon and felt a personal tie to the tragedy. The others included a student recently admitted to Yale’s doctoral program in biochemistry, a candidate to FMU’s doctoral program in history, a Leon Cooperman Scholar in Economics, a McNair Scholar and others of similar accomplishments. These were the Black men of the Hunter College (CUNY) Black Male Initiative.
Stunning was the thought that any one of these extraordinary young men could have been Trayvon—wearing a hoodie and walking home. Over my career in higher education I have had the honor of knowing so many like them. Some now doctors—both medical and PhD’s, some corporate executives like my own son, some now fathers and husbands, but all truly talented. However, when I was likely to have first encountered them they were in their late teens or young adulthood. They wore baggy pants or sweats and sometimes hoodies. Their brilliance and capacity was not visible from any external measure.
What is the emblem that these young men—far from thuggish—have to wear to signify to all that they are benign, non-threatening, maybe really smart and thoughtful and kind.
Claude Steele the scholar who identified the phenomenon of stereotype threat and author of Whistling Vivaldi writes of the story that lead to the title of the book—a young Black scholar’s need to signal to the world that he is not a rapper, but a cultured person meaning no harm. So he whistled Vivaldi when walking down streets where white women might shy away or older persons might move a bit faster in the other direction.
What must it take from these young men’s very souls to know that they are so despised for no reason that they must find ways, like whistling Vivaldi, to tell the world that they are just like everyone else, trying to work hard and get ahead. Do we wonder given just the micro-insults and micro-inequities why these men might not be depressed? Might they not be also just a little bit angry—but socialized to not act on that anger, so it becomes directed inward. Is the hoodie itself a reflection of a desire to hide—to become invisible? It is hard to succeed when you think the world thinks so little of you that you deserve to die just for walking home in your hoodie with a soda and a box of candy.
My heart ached yesterday for my smart and brave young men. May they stay safe.