I’ve written before about stereotypes, presentation, and perception. I’ve got to revisit these concepts in light of seeing this video of young Black and Latino men from Illinois who decided to make a video to “break down stereotypes.”
I’m afraid they have probably only reinforced a few along the way.
The video shows these young men around their school- posing, conversing, dancing, etc- all while “dressed up” in button downs, bow ties, blazers, and suits of course.
They emphasize that they are scholars, athletes, future employees and employers. They not the negative images broadcast throughout the media of. They are not “gangsters and thugs.”
But while these young men are doing what they can to distance themselves from the negativity associated with people of color en masse in many regards, they have also distanced themselves from people who are achieving the same (if not greater?) academic and athletic success who simply don’t chose to style themselves in the same manner.
Consider the story of Oakland teen Akintunde Ahmad, the Oakland teen who was recently accepted to all eight of our country’s Ivy League institutions. In an interview, one reporter noted that Ahmad said he’s been “judged and overlooked by his appearance.”
Without dissecting every piece of clothing he wears, Ahmad looks closer to St. Lunatics rapper Murphy Lee, than a boardroom ready Jay Z.
The point is, this guy isn’t on his “suit and tie,” and he’s had great success in academics and sports, and now has his pick of the litter in terms of college. What’s in his head matters a lot more than what’s on it. This man deserves as much respect as the ‘suit and ties.’ Perhaps he even deserves a bit more for doing what he was able to do while not choosing to advance the ideas about ‘respectable clothing.’
While I’m aware that they boys behind the video are trying to breakdown stereotypes, they should be informed that “the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house.” I know they’re navigating difficult, dangerous, spaces but without acknowledging the ability to achieve while also styling themselves in any way they see fit, they’ve reinforced the belief that the clothes make them man. They say that what we should not be wary of them, not because they are human beings deserving of equal respect instead of prejudice, but because “We wear suits like respectable folk!”
This message is rooted in the desire and, in some cases, the need for greater assimilation by marginalized populations seeking to avoid the danger of violent, prejudiced observers. People of color are subject to the White gaze, and often victims of it. The observations of the majority become the message, and what they do not understand become demonized. Therefor, when the majority sees styles, trends, and/or articles of clothing that they do not understand they become anathema to the group in power. They can’t recognize the value of a person beyond that, so there must not be any value in the person. These are the aforementioned dangerous spaces I know these men and myself are negotiating.
But there is grave danger in validating these notions by pairing the concept of scholarship and success with the images of “well dressed” men. It is done at the expense of those who simply don’t comply with the prevailing sentiments of an overwhelmingly racist power structure.
In a way, both the Illinois boys styling and Ahmad’s styling operate as camouflage. The ‘suit and ties’ hope to make themselves invisible to the negative White gaze. They will ‘blend in’ a bit better. Ahmad, on the other hand, will blend in with the perceived ‘thugs and gangsters’ of the world. Those in power will not be able to distinguish him from others in similar skin the same way that they are able to with the ‘suits and ties,’ despite him being quite distinguished.
Saddest of all, this will not just occur with those in power. Not only will a White onlooker perceive danger in Ahmad and comfort in suit and ties, but so will the person of color. This video, along with countless messages Black men receive from their fellows and mentors before going into academic spaces or professional spaces, says, “If you can show them you can be like them then they wont hate me. They wont hurt me. They’ll help me.”
It’s not that it’s false in every case. It’s not that it’s true in every case. The point is, whether I’m wearing a fitted or a fedora, “Aint I a [human]?”