It Wasn’t Just the Hoodie

It Wasn’t Just the Hoodie


If you’ve been following the Trayvon Martin case as intensely as this publication then you already know the special prosecutor assigned to the case passed on a grand jury review.  Mainstream news outlets immediately tried to downplay that move, noting that Angela Corey, the prosecutor, famously forgoes the grand jury process.

But, the reality of that means she will not seek a First Degree murder conviction for George Zimmerman’s killing of the unarmed 17-year old in Sanford, FL last month.

The story continues to be much buzzed, protested and rallied about in cities all across the country.  The politics of it unravel to, but we won’t see that play out in any measurable way until, well, maybe the elections.

One angle that has surfaced is how skin privilege plays into the case – or rather how absence of skin privilege did Martin in.  Certainly, skin privilege seems to give Zimmerman some benefits at the moment.  There is a concern that he may be a flight risk as his attorneys recently announced they’ve lost touched with him.  Interesting: How did the Sanford police department assume this wouldn’t be an issue at some point?

But, skin privilege could be playing a role.  Just like it plays a role in sympathetic Whites, like an audience of FOX News host and conservative firebrand Sean Hannity, who confirmed speaking with the shooter off record.

Skin privilege means that persons who are perceived to be primarily of European descent are afforded certain presumptions and benefit of doubt when it comes to certain characteristics.

I think of privilege as being articulate, honest, creditworthy, honorable and good.  But, before even opening their mouths to prove otherwise, those of European descent get all the amenities. Once dressed in decent clothing, and looking mainstream, people who appear to be mainly “white” are afforded the presumption of being well spoken, middle class and honest.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve had several anecdotal cases of being denied the benefit of skin privilege.

1. Privilege of being honest. During a visit to a smoothie booth, I used my credit card to pay. The clerk asked for my ID.  I thought it peculiar but obliged, thinking perhaps there had been a problem with stolen cards. Of course, I waited patiently to see if the White customers behind me also using their credit cards would be asked to show their ID. The White woman behind me, similarly dressed as me was NOT asked. I addressed the clerk and he had no answer. Why?

2. Privilege of being creditworthy. While preparing to move into our first home after marrying, my husband and I stopped at a manned mall kiosk where several homes for sale were listed and tacked up along the display.  The person manning the booth noticed us but never once asked if we needed help.  A White couple walked up to the kiosk after us and before even gazing up at one listing, the clerk popped up and asked if they were looking for a home. I overheard the woman say, no, they couldn’t afford those prices, but are always just curious at how much rich people pay for homes.  Meanwhile, my husband and I – both attorneys – were presumed unable to afford the homes.

3. Privilege of being considered honorable. I recall once walking up behind a woman in grocery line with my little girl in hand.  I am dressed casually and nothing about me should scream I am a crook.  She immediately moves her purse to the front of her body.  Something about me must breed distrust and I am presumed to be a possible thief. Similarly, while in law school, a class mate of mine had left her purse in the open work room all day unattended.  At some point, I had to go into the room to print out cases. She came back in to grab a pen from her purse and, after seeing I was in the room alone, suddenly decided not to leave it there.  This was after leaving it unattended all day – when anyone could have walked off with it.

4. Privilege of being thought of as well-spoken, articulate and to have a certain pedigree. On several occasions, I have had folks of all races tell me they are impressed that my children speak English well – perhaps because they assume they will not.  I also recall a few times when I was introduced to a person alongside a colleague with a less distinguished background and the person who is meeting us would turn to my blonde friend and look admiringly, assuming she is the more accomplished one of the two being introduced.  The one with the more impressive background could not possibly be me.

It can get draining, but thus is life in America. It serves no purpose getting angry all the time over the fact that we all hold certain prejudices and preconceived notions in our heads based on race, whether justified or not.

Some people carry a huge chip on their shoulder because occasional incidents like the ones I’ve experienced are unable to leave them in the past.  Unfortunately, it causes them to draw the race card too soon and too often.

Acknowledging that doesn’t make anyone wrong or a race baiter. But not challenging oneself on these actions and behaviors or justifying them is.

Thus, it was not necessarily the hoodie that made Trayvon suspicious.  It may have been that, but let’s not discount that it was combined with the skin he was in, too.


  1. With each passing day, I'm less convinced this tragedy is an example of someone asserting 'White skin privilege' than an expression of fear driven by ignorance. In George Zimmerman, we have a person who, despite living in a gated community, believed his safety was so threatened he walked around the community armed. Had Trayvon Martin been wearing a suit and tie instead of a hoodie, would Zimmerman have called the police? What if Martin was 'White'? Did Zimmerman routinely dial the authorities every time he saw an African-American? More importantly, was Zimmerman, acting as a concerned resident of his neighborhood, doing something he believed African-Americans don't have an equal right to do?

    I raise these questions because I don't credit Zimmerman as a) being powerful enough to single-handedly oppress the Af-Am population of Sanford, FL, b) representative of the non-Af-Am population at large, and c) intelligent enough to anticipate the possibly lethal outcomes to 'concealed carry' and 'stand your ground' laws. He appears to have intended no political or social statement by shooting Martin. Race is certainly a factor here, but I suspect no more than most American social phenomena are influenced by racism. But race isn't *the* factor. Instead, it's likely a person feeling both under siege and disaffected — almost powerless — projected his insecurities onto an innocent victim.

    When we factor in the state's attorney who recommended against charging Zimmerman, Florida state law, and the facts of Zimmerman's ethnic makeup, the picture becomes more complex. Was the state attorney's decision consistent with due process and state law, or does evidence suggest it was contrived? Haven't local, state, and Federal gov't agencies responded to public outrage over the incident with more thorough investigations? We 'persons of color' need to be clear on the best way to establish justice for Martin is to make sure our laws serve a democratic society.