Monday, March 26, 2012

Rabbi in a Hoodie: I know what it's like to be stereotyped

My heart goes out to the family of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin, who was gunned down while walking home from the store in a hooded sweatshirt -- which apparently caused self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in a gated neighborhood to see him as "very suspicious" and possibly on drugs.  And did I mention that Treyvon was black?  Never mind that it was raining and he probably put his hood up to keep dry.  That combination of factors -- young black guy at night in a hoodie -- somehow made Zimmerman "fear for his life" even though Martin was unarmed.   Reports of what happened are conflicting at this point, but one thing is clear: the 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow or confront Treyvon and he did so anyway.   So who was really threatening whom?

Rabbi Gershom in a hoodie

One has to ask -- as protesters across the nation are doing -- whether Zimmerman's fear was based on any kind of reality or a stereotype in Zimmerman's head.  In solidarity with those protests, I post this pic of myself in a hoodie -- one that I wear all the time while doing outdoor chores here in northern Minnesota. 

Now, as an old white guy, I can't claim to know what it is like to be a black youth in America.  But I do know what it is like to be stereotyped.   When I'm not wearing a hoodie, I usually wear a large knitted yarmulke (skullcap).  That, along with my full untrimmed beard, makes me look like a "terrorist" to some people.  There are also those here in rural Minnesota who do not know what payos (Orthodox sidecurls) are, and see them as something effeminate.  So it's hard to tell sometimes if I am being profiled as a Muslim or a gay male.  Or, for that matter, maybe they do know I'm a Jew and don't like me for that. 

What I know for sure is that ever since 9/11, if I travel outside my local area where I am a familiar sight, I find myself being followed by security people in stores, stared at by strangers on the street, or trailed through small towns by police cars.  I have also been pulled over by cops for things like a burned out tail light a whole lot more often than ever happened before 9/11.   I haven't had any occasion to fly lately, but I have no doubt that I'd be seen as suspicious.  Would I be kicked off the flight -- or worse -- because some passenger "felt uncomfortable" with me on board?

Geraldo Rivera wants to blame the death on the hoodie implying that if Treyvon had not been wearing one outside his own neighborhood, the whole thing would never have happened.   Does this mean I should never "look Jewish" outside of an Orthodox Jewish community?  Does it mean that if I get harrassed, it's my own fault for wearing a yarmulke in public and looking like someone's idea of a terrorist?

In fact, I do admit that there have been times when I have tied my payos at the back of my neck like a ponytail and worn a stocking cap or a baseball cap -- precisely because I did not want to be bothered with stares at some public event.  As a white Jewish guy, it is relatively easy for me to pass as a gentile.   But a black guy can't change his skin color.  About the only thing we can both hope to do is change people's attitudes.  We all need to take a long hard look at how we treat each other. 

The commandment "do not oppress a stranger" occurs, in one form or another, more than any other commandment in the Bible.   Maybe the reason for that is because this is one of the hardest things for human beings to do, to trust someone who is different from themselves.  With Passover coming in two weeks, we should all give some serious thought to Exodus 22:21, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." 


Vicky Bell said...

This post deserves some attention. Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down for the rest of us to ponder.

Rooster613 said...

Feel free to share it wherever you want, and thank you for reading my blog.

Patty said...

good thoughts, and I have shared it with my facebook friends that haven't a clue what it feels like to be looked upon with suspicion.

Ron F said...

Thank you for allowing us to share your post ... I have posted it to my Facebook page.

Rooster613 said...

This article in today's (March 17) Atlantic is also of interest.

VooDooQueen55 said...

You write so well. Everyone is stereotyped to some degree. Sad, but if others would just accept others for who they are and not what they "expect" them to look like the world would be a lot more peaceful. You are beautiful just as you are.

Rooster613 said...

I agree, Voodoo, we do all get misjudged based on stereotypes, which was exactly my point. Thank you for reading my blog -- peace & blessings!

Anonymous said...

The flip side of that distrusting "other types" is being far too trusting of our own group, just because they are our own group, and appear to fit in.

The instant rush to defend Zimmerman by the right wing types. Treyvon black therefore guilty, George white therefore innocent.

Allowing monsters within the community to continue on and on, because one of "us" could not possibly be that evil, has happened in all communities. People trusted Madoff simply because he was a Good Jew, A few Catholic priests have got away with multiple abominations because "a priest would not do that"


Rooster613 said...

Well of course, Tony, there is that flip side, I won't deny that. Which is why, in Judaism, one of the Seven Universal Laws of Noah (considered to be given to all humanity, not just the Jews, after the Great Flood) is that we must settle our disputes in courts of justice instead of becoming vigilantes and taking the law into our own hands.

And that's what people are calling for now -- an arrest and a trial. We will probably never know exactly what took place moments before the shot. But we do know that if Zimmerman had listened to the 911 operator and NOT followed Martin, this whole thing might not have happened. And after it did happen, the police should have been more thorough in their investigation. And now that it all has happened, I think Florida should repeal the "stand your ground" law that in my opinion, bears a lot of the blame for this. It has been argued -- with some validity -- that Martin was also standing his ground, defending himself against a big scary stranger with a gun who had been following him in the dark.