Americans are suspicious of people who cover their heads. Unless that person happens to be Tiger Woods and the covering is one of his famous baseball caps, or maybe a 90-year-old lady dolled up for a meeting of the Red Hats. The other 99.9999997% of the population is up for, shall we say, a higher level of scrutiny when they plop that bit of cloth on the heads.
I write from experience… even the experience of a feminine-looking woman, white enough to wear 001 foundation. Admittedly, I don’t wear hoodies (they’re not my style), but I’ve seen the reaction people give to a figure in a hoodie, and I attended events where people wore them in honor of Trayvon Martin. So while I have no experience in being racially-profiled, nor have I ever been the victim of a racist encounter, I know about how hoodies are stigmatized, especially when worn by men of color. Or even men in general. Sometimes I worry about my freakishly tall, bearded brother who piles on his hoodies to keep warm in the winter. What if someone just assumes he’s up to no good and decides to attack first and ask questions later? Hell, it’s legal in Florida.
Now a minute ago, I said that I have never been racially-profiled. That’s true. But I have had a shopkeeper make a huge point of guarding the cash register the duration of time I was in the store. It was a little Mom and Pop grocery store in rural Virginia, and I had an hour to kill before getting on the bus. It was a hot, sunny day, and I knew I would be eating lunch al frescoe, so I was wearing a straw fedora and sunscreen. I stepped into the grocery store, and the shopkeeper, who had been chatting happily with the man behind the meat counter and another customer looked at me, cut off the talking, and got behind the register. She didn’t budge until after I bought a pack of gum and had exited the building. As I stood outside the door, opening the packet, I saw her leave the register and go back to the conversation. Puzzled, I asked another chaperone on the trip what would have made them do that. She said, “You’re wearing a fedora.”
The next day I left my hat behind and went in. This time it was all, “Can I help you, ma’am?” Evidently now they didn’t think my plan was to rob the joint.
Interestingly, no one has guarded the cash-register over my headscarves, although they have been met with hostility, too. I guess the stereotype is that if a woman has her hair covered up, she must be too submissive to commit violence. Anyway, in case anyone was wondering, I wear scarves because I’m Ukranian-American (Sherwood is a maternal family name), and they do a better job of keeping my head warm than any combination of hat and earmuffs. When I wear my scarves, people sometimes assume I’m Muslim (or maybe an Orthodox Jew), and things can get interesting. At a candy store in Ohio, a clerk said, “Merry Christmas” to my brother, winked at me, then said, “And happy holiday!” She was nice, but that’s not always the case. Once in Virginia, I had my face more covered than usual (up to the eyes) because I was hiding my nasty nosebleed, and was met with outward hostility. Admittedly not from everyone I met, but quite a few people stared, others nudged their companions, and one mouthed, “what the….”
It was just a few minutes, but it made me decidedly uncomfortable. For my female Muslim friends who opt to wear a hijab on a daily basis, it must be worse. France rather infamously banned the burka (it’s just as oppressive to make it illegal as it is to force all women to wear it), and many western feminists bemoan the ordeals of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Middle-Eastern countries in the name of religious law. But let’s not run before we can walk, fellow western feminists! Equality may or may not be a modern, western construct, but our attempts to go global often result in a lot of inadvertent toe-crushing.
We should test the waters at home first, and work on our own prejudices. Covering up can be an empowering choice– as long as it is the individual’s choice, and it’s nobody else’s business to call it right or wrong. I wear a scarf because I don’t like cold ears. I wear hats because they look neat. The woman next to me might wear a scarf or hat as an act of modesty, and that’s great, too. My father-in-law-to-be has a saying that “assuming makes an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me,'” and everyone will wind up an ass with all the conclusion-jumping regarding hoodies, hats, headscarves, et al. Let’s all cool down, and work on getting rid of the prejudice. We’ll all ultimately benefit.