Henry Kaap 

“We—the people in suits—often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters.”

David Cameron described the stereotype and negative societal preconceptions on July 10, 2006, in a speech that the British media was ironically referring to as “hug a hoodie”-controversy. In general, the basic function of a hoodie is to protect the head and neck of its wearer against bad weather conditions. Besides that, it contains the theatrical potential–to guise and disguise–which on the one hand can be used in the manner of an expressive gesture, as a deviant style of non-conformism and anti-mainstream self-assertion. But, on the other hand, serves also as a cover to ensure instant anonymity and a certain seclusion from the surrounding world. Especially, this second feature, the anonymization, made the hoodie (in combination with scarfs etc.) a popular garment for protesters with various agendas and for all kinds of demonstrations–from peaceful sit-ins or occupations of public spaces up to openly destructive street riots. This act of de-identification also results in the generalizing association of hoodie wearers as rioters or people with criminal intentions. This association is rather problematic, as the events that occurred in 2012 bluntly show, when Trayvon Martin (fig. 1), an African-American high school student, was fatally shot on the night of February 26 in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. At the time of his death, the 17-year-old teenager was unarmed and dressed in a hoodie—a garment that is mainstream fashion throughout the U.S., but received, in the aftermath of the shooting of Martin, a wider significance as a ‘symbol of injustice’.

Was the boy shot because he was wearing a hoodie? Or was he targeted because he was black? Such questions were raised in a nationwide public discussion after the charges against Zimmerman were dropped because he—under Florida’s Stand-your-ground law—had acted without error to defend himself with lethal force. While those attending funeral services dressed in hoodies, ten thousands of protestors gathered in the so-called ‘Million Hoodie’ marches (fig. 2) to demonstrate against racist police violence across the nation. In addition, countless photos of people wearing hoodies were shared in solidarity via social media channels (#IAmTrayvon) around the globe, while several journalists and politicians argued that young people of color could live more safely if they would refrain from wearing this particular kind of garment.

The iconographic charge of the hoodie, along with the stigmatization of its wearers as suspicious persons, began back in the 1970s when it was adopted by Hip hop culture–dominated mainly by African-Americans. Stereotypical pre-conceptions of this subculture is evident in cases of racial profiling practiced by law enforcement.

Such suspicion may have caused the death of Trayvon Martin. During the trial against George Zimmermann, the jury also investigated the clothing of the victim (July 9, 2013). To ensure an accurate inspection, the dark-grey hoodie was presented in a certain manner (fig. 3): bloodstained, unfolded and with the sleeves wide open giving the impression of a cross symbol. The artwork-like exposition in a bright plastic frame and a white mat (passe-partout) furthermore enhanced the already heavily charged symbolic imagery: the hoodie as relic, as silent witness, as sign of solidarity, a spark of protest, as object of public interest. Already in the course of the court trials the Smithsonian Institute claimed Trayvon Martin’s hoodie for the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as it is a rare artifact that became a symbol that encouraged Americans listen to and address the wrongs suffered by many young African-Americans in the U.S. today. President Obama himself, who previously avoided addressing issues of ethnic tension during his term of office, said on July 19, 2013: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” in a speech that marked a shift in his policy by referring to the urgent need for an examination of ambiguous laws and troubling stereotypes and how these are applied to African-American communities.

Predating the Trayvon Martin case by nearly two decades, David Hammons’s artwork In the Hood (fig. 4) stands out as one of the first to highlight the connection between racist thinking and hood(ie)s. On the one hand, the title may refer to the neighbor-hood, understood as a social community that attempts to control the communal live, as, for example, through block watches etc. On the other hand, the sculpture-like mounting of the cloth on the wall evokes the impression of a hunting trophy. The hood, roughly cut off from the hoodie, is wide open, but otherwise left empty. In this fragmentary state Hammons’s art piece thus seems to signal the brutality of hate crimes. The hood is reduced to a gaping shell that confronts the beholder as a ‘faceless nobody’. At the same time, however, it also invites the viewer to identify with the wearer of that hood so as to envision becoming/being a victim of racism him or herself.

fig. 1: Undated photo of Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie, released to public by his family, used in media coverage and on posters in protest marches.
fig. 2: ‘Million Hoodie March’, Union Square, New York City, 21.03.2012, Photo by Shady Grove Oliver
Amy Siewert, a firearms expert with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, faces the jury as shows Trayvon Martin's hooded sweatshirt in Seminole circuit court, in Sanford, Fla., Wednesday, July 3, 2013. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, in 2012. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston, Pool)
fig. 3: Presentation of the hooded sweatshirt worn by Trayvon Martin the night he was shot during the George Zimmerman trial in Seminole circuit court, 03.07.2013 in Sanford, Florida. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston, Pool / Getty Images)
fig. 4: David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993, Photo courtesy The New Museum


About the author:
Henry Kaap studied Art History, Classical Archaeology and Modern History in Berlin and Rome. 2011 M.A. in Art History from the Free University, Berlin. 2013-2015: Graduate Assistant in the Department of Prof. Dr. Gerhard Wolf at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut. 2015-2016: Doctoral Fellow ibidem. Since June 2016: Pre-doctoral Researcher at the Center of Advanced Studies BildEvidenz (FU Berlin) within the interdisciplinary research project “Iconic Presence: The Evidence of Images in Religion“ in context of the Balzan prize of Prof. Dr. Hans Belting.

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Henry Kaap: Hoodie, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 12 October 2015, URL: http://nomoi.hypotheses.org/21.

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