Summary: Our very own Shemika Skipworth, Director of Finance and Operations, talks with Angela Hill of the Bay Area News Group about the the difficult conversations she's had to with her son on what it means to be young and black in America. The article breaks down the continued challenges of stereotyping and misperception.
Shemika Skipworth started having "the talk" with her son, Khalil, as early as grade school -- and not the one about the birds and the bees.
This is the other talk, the one that happens in many households around the country in which moms and dads advise their young men of color how to dress and behave in order to stay safe, to stay alive.
"We talk all the time about how people perceive you by what you're wearing and doing," said Skipworth, director of finance and operations for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland who recently moved to West Oakland from Concord with her son, now 16.
"We talk about clothing, about not having the hood of your hoodie up when you go in a store so you don't appear threatening. About how to respond to questions if you have any contact with the police," she said, adding that her son still hangs out with his friends in the suburbs on the weekends, and often he's the only African-American kid in the group.
"I tell him all the time that you guys -- and I mean young kids of color -- are just looked at differently," she said. "It's sad, but people are just taught to be afraid of you guys."
This ongoing conversation has taken on a new urgency for families since the Feb. 26 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., killed by 28-year-old neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman in a case that has generated outrage across the country. In a 911 call, Zimmerman described the black teen as wearing a dark hoodie and being "suspicious."
Since then, a sweatshirt with a hood, aka the hoodie -- a style currently cool for teens everywhere -- has become a symbol in the ensuing accusations of racial profiling. Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera asserted that Martin's clothing was as much the cause of his death as the man who shot him. He later apologized for his comments. Churches and other groups across the country held a "Hoodie Sunday" last week. Celebrities of all races led by singer Chaka Khan have made a video wearing hoodies, then removing them to reveal their identities. Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush was reprimanded last week for wearing one during a House speech. And California lawmakers donned hoodies on the state Senate and Assembly floors Thursday, adjourning the day's session in memory of the slain Florida teen.
But for many parents, the issue isn't a passing fashion fad. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, young black men die at a rate nearly 1.5 times that of young Latinos and white men, and almost three times the rate of young Asian men. Figures from the U.S. Justice Department in 2010 showed that homicide was the leading cause of death for young black men ages 10 to 24 and the second leading cause of death for black women ages 15 to 24. And while parents and mentors don't want to instill paranoia, they want their kids to be alert to the signals that certain clothing and actions may convey.
"As an African-American mother, we have to constantly have these conversations with our sons," said Kim Shipp, whose son recently graduated from Skyline High School in Oakland and is now a student at UC San Diego. "Racial and social profiling -- it's a sad fact in our society, but you have to be alert to it. In America, we're constantly showing images across the television of what a suspect looks like. I'm not saying there are not people involved in criminal behavior who wear hoodies. But it sets this preconceived idea that just because someone is wearing something like that, they're up to no good."
Shipp recalls one occasion when her son and his friends were heading out to an unfamiliar city. "I told him specifically, 'Don't wear the hood on your head,' even though it was a cold day. He did not take a liking to our conversation. I'm sure he understood it from my mother's perspective of concern, but he didn't like the idea of having to change what he does because of other people."
Skipworth's son, Khalil Bunch, says he hasn't had many problems in public, but he is always aware of others' reactions. And it upsets him to feel his clothing choices should be dictated by bias.
"Me, being a person of fashion, I have multiple hoodies of all different colors -- it's what people wear right now," said the tall, lean teen, dressed in a bright-red hoodie. "I don't want to feel that when I step outside the house, I have to be aware of what message my clothing sends."
Bunch said when he and his mother have their talks she advises things such as making sure to get a receipt for all purchases and keeping his hands at his sides if a police officer stops him so it doesn't appear he's reaching for a weapon.
"These are things my friends who are not of color would be able to get away with, but I can't," he said.
"I pray this will change. I mean, people can always hope and wish," he said. "But it shouldn't be that somebody gets shot because of the style of clothing they're wearing. That should never be an excuse."
Clothing no excuse
Carol Strand, a gang interventionist at San Jose-based California Youth Outreach, mentors at-risk youths, mostly Latino teen boys. She, too, dislikes the notion that clothing should make a young man susceptible to scrutiny.
"We don't tell the kids not to put the hoodie up when they go places. To me, that's irrelevant," she said. "Anybody should be able to wear what they want to wear. It doesn't mean you're a thug."
She does, however, advise respect. "I do try to tell my kids, don't act all hard-core when you're dealing with authorities. Try to be respectful. Don't get yourself into any more trouble than you may already be in."
While wise, this kind of constant wariness can wear on one's self-esteem.
"Growing up as an African-American you are made conscious of your blackness early, many times, from our parents out of responsibility and protection," said Abel Habtegeorgis, 27, of Oakland. "A lot of times you will be taught that you are the underdog, guilty, scary, suspicious, a threat and the target. You will have to be overly conscious of what you wear, how you talk, the way you sit so you are not threatening. With that, you can become defensive or overly cautious with invisible barriers of acceptance."
By now, though, Habtegeorgis said he is comfortable in his own skin. That's despite, he said, "navigating a society that has already prejudged who I am."
Sonny Lara, founder of Firehouse Community Development in San Jose, which mentors teens of all races and provides gang intervention, has strong feelings about what kids wear and how they present themselves. And he speaks from experience.
"I'm 20 years out of that life, but I got a bullet in the side of my face because I wanted to play the game," he said. "All the time, I tell kids the clothing you put on is a magnet on the streets. A lot of these are good kids, but they want to dress like the gangster and the thug, and then they wonder why the wrong people are drawn to them."