Sunday, April 01, 2012

All too quick to judge

Luanne Rife

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

She slid into the passenger seat, plugged her phone into the charger and snapped her buckle into place in one smooth, practiced move.

"My hair looks awful. What do you think? I hate my life," the 13-year-old exhaled in her standard morning monologue.

"I'm wearing a hoodie," she added.

A moment of silence passed between us while she cut off Steve Inskeep and tuned in Danny, Zack and Monica. "Well, aren't you going to say anything?"

"What would you like me to say? You wear hoodies all the time," I replied, silently recalling the glance into her bedroom doorway just an hour before. At least a dozen hooded sweatshirts decorated the floor and hung like drapes from half-open drawers. It's the teenager uniform, is it not?

"Today, I'm wearing a hoodie for Trayvon Martin. All the kids are."

She's talked about him a lot, wondering how a boy not all that much older than she can be shot dead walking home from the store in a nice, safe neighborhood. She walks to her neighborhood store. She knows teenage boys like him. They look like friends to her, not menacing thugs. Why would anyone think just because you are young, black and have a hood pulled up that you're up to no good?

She doesn't quite get it yet that too many people judge character based on how you look and that she isn't the only one checking her appearance. She's fixated on the minutiae: the hair strand that won't cooperate, the pimple that pops on the forehead, whether anyone else is wearing these jeans. It all seems so shallow and so 13.

She doesn't get it when we say you can't wear a T-shirt in public that says "I'm sexy and I know it" no matter how much of your own money you spent on it, how many of your friends have the same shirt or that it doesn't mean what we think it means. Yes it does, and people judge.

Well they're wrong, she'll say. But that doesn't make her right or safe in trying out too-short shorts or too-low tops.

She just doesn't get why we say no and are soooo protective. We're so mean.

Then a boy in Florida is shot dead because of how he looked, and she's beginning to get it, and it scares her.

It's hard to turn on a TV, radio or computer without bumping into adults talking about the case, many of them going on about things they don't really know; pundits casting judgments on the boy or the man, on things others said and did or failed to say and do; parents of black teenage boys explaining how they teach their sons to look and behave so as not to draw suspicion.

But at her middle school where the kids are talking in texts and on Facebook and staging a hoodie day, nothing is said, she reports. I wonder much what teens think, how this case is affecting their views, their sense of self and how they are perceived.

Later, we're in the car again. The pickup in front of us is going all of 20 mph. It's been a long day. We're tired. We're hungry. We just want to be home. Annoyed at the crawl, we poke fun at his driving. From what we can see of him, he looks sort of creepy and is rubber-necking and gawking while driving, not in the way one would search for a house number or a lost dog with flashers blinking, but in the way one would suspect a lecher or burglar might case a neighborhood. We banter a few sinister exchanges.

"You know," she says, "maybe he just has a short time to live and is slowing down to take it all in."

Maybe so. We could run through a dozen scenarios, each one making us feel a different way about that man - some kindly, some irritated - and likely not one of them accurate.

We think on that a moment. We aren't in that driver's seat, nor were we in George Zimmerman's truck. We didn't walk a mile in Trayvon Martin's hoodie. We don't know what was in any of their hearts, only our own. Sometimes it's not goodness, which is the hardest thing to see, let alone admit.

Rife is on The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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