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If you dress like a thug ...

February 18, 2011

As a journalist, there are certain topics you simply avoid from time to time. Some of them are simple, like the difference between the words “effect” and “affect,” which still gives me fits as a professional writer. Others are more volatile, such as the powder kegs known as religion and politics.

Unfortunately, the ostrich method — simply sticking your head in the sand so you don't have to deal with the issue — does little to help things, and, by most standards, just makes them worse.

So, in the interest of self-help, I've decided to write an entire series of columns on topics most of us have absolutely no desire to tackle because of their volatility or “ick” factor. Think of it like Mike Rowe's television show “Dirty Jobs,” but instead of wading through sewage or getting kicked by a muddy, angry mule, we'll be discussing today's “dirty” topics.

And, right off the bat, let's start with racism and stereotypes.
First of all, despite what you may or may not have heard, racism is alive and well in America. Yes, 2,000 years after Jesus Christ and more than 40 years after the civil rights movement, people are still being judged by the color of their skin.

When it comes to racism, a large component of the monster is simply stereotyping. We're all guilty of it at some point in our lives, whether we quietly lock our car door as an African-American man walks by or get nervous on a flight because someone of Middle-Eastern descent is sitting nearby.

And while stereotyping is bad — yes, my dear readers, it's still a cultural no-no — we must all recognize there are aggravating factors involved. For example, let's look at that African-American male that caused us to lock our car doors.

If the man were older, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, how likely do you think we would be to feel threatened? It seems pretty unlikely, right? What if he were younger and dressed like a thug. Yes, a thug, and if you're unfamiliar with what a thug looks like, just watch a few episodes of “Cops” or music videos.

In both cases, we're not necessarily reacting to the person's race, but to what they are wearing and how they are carrying themselves. Take the same situation and make the thug Hispanic. I imagine he would get the same reaction.

In fact, make him Hawaiian. What can I say, it's the most non-threatening race I can think of, and I know what you're already thinking. “Thomas, Hawaiian people can be just as violent as everyone else.” Yes, I know this, but I'm envisioning Rob Schneider's character from “50 First Dates,” so give me a break.

So, we're reacting more to the way people are dressed or carry themselves than we are to the color of their skin or their ethnicity. OK, so maybe not in the airplane situation, but I think we're on the right track here.

The question that arises — and I still don't have a solid answer for — is why people of color choose to reinforce these stereotypes by playing the part, which includes dressing the part. If you're a young, black man and you don't want to be discriminated against, why in the world would you dress like a thug? If you're Hispanic, why dress like a gang banger unless that's how you want people — and law enforcement, for that manner — to perceive you?

In my mind, it's the equivalent of putting on a Burger King uniform and walking in to one of their restaurants, and when a customer asks for assistance you look at them and say, “What, just because I'm wearing this uniform doesn't mean I work here!”

It's downright confusing.

Each race has its own stereotypes and prejudices to overcome. Not all white people live in trailer parks, eat mayonnaise sandwiches and watch “Wheel of Fortune” all day. However, if you're going to run around acting — or dressing — like one of these people, don't act surprised when someone lumps you in with the stereotype you're portraying.

Each of us needs to attempt to be a credit to our race, religion or whatever group we identify with in our lives. There will always be knuckleheads looking to ruin things for others, and while we can't simply gather them all up and airmail them to Antarctica, we certainly don't have to take fashion or cultural tips from them.

In other words, if you don't want people to think you're an idiot, don't wear an idiot's uniform.

Thomas Jenkins is a Herald staff writer. Contact him at 263-7331 ext. 232 or by e-mail at

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