Hoodies and the beasts within our multicolored skins

In his very second outing, the newest Doctor Who (a white guy… ever wonder why the last remaining Time Lord in the universe keeps choosing to be reincarnated as a parade of white guys?) and his newest (and whitest; again, where’s the kick-ass black beauty Martha Jones who accompanied him for a season?) companion land on a strange sort of ship which is really home to all of Britain transported into outer space somehow. 

But something is awry (of course), as the Doctor soon notices (of course). Within about five minutes he is out checking glasses of water for something amiss, and suddenly points Amy Pond (his lily-white companion) towards a little girl sitting on a bench all by herself, crying.

The little girl is also white, of course.

The camera pans back towards the Doctor and Amy just before he darts forward. As Amy begins to follow him, from behind her we see a dark hooded figure emerge from the shadows, evidently following them.

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This is a point where I should worry about my 10-year-old daughter S (brown like me; too dark-skinned for my Indian parents’ liking), curled up beside me on the couch as I watch this new episode of a show which elicits a mixed fear/fascination response from her. A budding sci-fi fan growing up on the Harry Potter franchise and moving into more grown-up stuff, she loves the idea of Doctor Who – but, at this point, is also rather terrified of the show. Especially its penchant (like much British sci-fi) to throw children into harm’s way as is happening on the screen right now.

Normally, a scene like this one (see from c.6min into this clip) where a girl is crying and a darkly hooded figure emerges to apparently stalk our leads – such a scene would cause S to hold her breath, followed (when the hoodie appears) by her either bolting from the living room, or at least burrowing into the sofa cushions behind my back.

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Yet, as this hooded figure approaches the camera, her clutching my arm anxiously, and we can see his dark skin, the whites of his eyes, and then his full black face…

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…something surprising, and wonderful, happens: her fingers relax and S lets out her breath in an audible sigh of relief! Not a reaction even the creators of the show would have expected or wanted, I imagine, because the scene is clearly playing on our fears. And what’s more fearful in our culture than a black guy in a dark hoodie emerging from the shadows to stalk a pale white girl? 

So I ask her why she isn’t scared. She says because it turned out to be an African guy, and African-Americans she finds reassuring, so she doesn’t think it is a bad guy. As the story progresses, we learn, of course, that he is indeed not a bad guy. Yet, despite the obvious tropes being used on screen, this ten-year-old brown girl didn’t fall for the manipulation, saw right through it, because her gut told her that black was the color of trust and comfort and reassurance.

I wish I could say I taught her that.

I remember that little moment from a couple of years ago, for comfort and hope now, during these weeks when much of white America has seemingly gone crazy over fear of overly pigmented skin. It is suddenly OK (again) to kill black boys in hoodies. Or to beat brown women (in hijab? does it matter?) to death for simply being in this country. And even outrage over fictional characters in futuristic fantasies turning out to be black in a movie! There is of course also the country’s first black president, who is apparently responsible for every ill in society now. But this isn’t anything new – its just flared up now for some reason, is all. As my friend Danielle Lee (black, and proud!pointed out in a powerful blog post earlier today, having pigment is a hazardous thing even in science, as in many other areas of ordinary life in America (and elsewhere too).

How then did my little girl, born of parents from a culture that is among the most racist in the world (black/white – pffft!! Indians discriminate based on a whole gradient of shades of wheatish in our brown skins! Have even turned our dark-skinned gods blue because that is somehow better than being black! And slavery? Ha! See how elegantly our caste system has made people completely internalize slavery for thousands of years!), raised in a definitely-not-post-racial America, somehow overcome all this cultural programming to instinctively find trust and reassurance in a darkly hooded black face, instead of running away screaming?

She wasn’t even thinking about all this, of course. She has probably forgotten the incident entirely, moved on. At 12, she imagines herself as Katniss now, and will therefore be really righteously angry if she reads what the racist morons have tweeted about Rue being black

Wish I knew where (if) our parenting went right. I would take credit, happily! And if I could, bottle whatever it is that resulted in her healthy human attitude. Because clearly, the world needs more of that.

6 thoughts on “Hoodies and the beasts within our multicolored skins

  1. Raymond Gutteriez

    Hey Madhu, I read Danielle Lee’s article about hoodies and since I am not a member of scientific america I cannot post to her blog directly. In read you blog posting and Danielle’s I realized that I have given up wearing hoodies. Throughout high school and my first 3 years in college hoodies were the staple of my wardrobe. But, now there isn’t one in my closet. I don’t know if stopped wearing them because I had grow out of that clothing phase in my life, or if, subconsciously I knew that living in and attending school in white dominated areas not wearing a hoody would make daily life less confrontational. I stopped wear hoodies when I left salinas and moved to Fresno.

  2. Madhusudan Katti

    That is interesting, Ray. I remember seeing you in hoodies sometimes, but not lately. I just figured you had let your hair grow out too wild to be contained within a hoodie! :-)BTW, registering to comment on Sci Am’s blogs doesn’t cost anything. You should do it – I think Danielle would love to hear from you.  

  3. canislatrans

    At least some of is is because S. is made of awesome.It’s funny: I remember that moment clearly as well, and had the same sense of relief on seeing the actor’s face. I assumed it was his acting, wearing a guileless face. But who knows?

  4. DNLee

    Thanks Madhu for inspiring that post. Much to my surprise it really resonated with ALOT of people in science and academia, too. Perhaps many of us have been feeling this awkward reaction to our different selves, as I got quite a few comments from females and ‘hipster’ white folks. And that makes sense. Somehow, none of us fit the cookie cutter mold of what old school imagery told all of us who are the scientists or leaders in many arena.Here’s to all of us challenging assumptions (and hopefully warming hearts) along the way!

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