The other day, my six-year old son noticed an African-American dad dressed in baggy jeans with his boxers showing making a purchase for his kids at Gap. While waiting in line my son pointed and asked, “Mom, is he poor?” When I looked up and saw that it was an African-American dad, I wasn’t sure what I should say next. Should I talk to him about how African-Americans have been and continue to be discriminated against because of their race and physical appearances? Should I start by talking about how there aren’t very many African-Americans in our neighborhood and how he may assume things based on what he has seen on TV, movies, or magazines?
Before, I could answer he went on to say “…why is he showing his underwear?” I quickly realized that his focus was actually on style of clothing versus race. So I blurted out, “No…it’s just a type of style. I’ve seen people wear it that way before.” He didn’t really believe me so I told him that we could check Google images later. I started to talk about how style is a way to represent who you are in the world and, slowly but surely, managed to shift the conversation back to him. We ended the conversation with him talking about how he gels his hair a certain way to look “preppy” just like Zach Morris from his favorite TV show Saved by the Bell.
When we got home, I did start to wonder how I would explain this style to him. From a few quick Google searches on hip-hop culture and fashion styles, I learned that sagging originated in the prison system, and became a popular fashion statement in the 1990s by various hip-hop artists. From my initial research, I discovered that there are various reasons for sagging. Some saggers (i.e. people who sag their pants) do it to show as a fashion statement to show off their colorful boxers, while others do it as a symbol of freedom to reject the values of mainstream society.
I am always looking for ways to embrace difference in our lives. This is not an easy feat, given that we live in an upper middle-class suburban neighborhood where every house looks like “little boxes on the hillside” (lyrics from the theme song of the TV show Weeds). Basically, the point is that people in our neighborhood do not sag their pants. The people in our neighborhood are also made up of primarily Whites and Asians. This led me to talk about how race can also plays a role in why we choose certain styles over others to represent who we are in the world. The styles he often sees are either mainstream clothing or Asian-Indian style clothing (e.g., saris). I’m glad he asked me that question, because there are various reasons why people do sag their pants but one of them is not because they are poor.
Race is a powerful social construct in our world. I speak from my own initial, alarmist reaction to my son’s question, which spurred my mind to go astray. Race is always intersecting with something or the other (such as gender or class). No matter how hard we try not to acknowledge it, it does shape our perceptions of people. Style also shapes our perceptions of people. The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign addresses how mainstream media portrays Black victims of shootings. This campaign started after Michael Brown an unarmed black teenager was shot by a police officer in Ferguson. The media then depicted him in negative ways. This has been the case for many other black victims of shootings such as Travyon Martin. In many of these pictures, race does intersect with style. Many of the victims are shown in hip-hop style outfits (e.g, hoodies, beanies, etc.) and this plays a role in creating a racialized bias in society.
While you can choose to change style to fit “in” with mainstream society and how you are perceived—you cannot choose to change your race. It’s important for parents and children to acknowledge how race may consciously or subconsciously play a role in reinforcing stereotypes in society. I will always remember the day race intersected with style, because race was acknowledged and a new sense of style was learned.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.