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Trayvon Martin, Hoodies, and the Power of Images


Mar 30 2012
Understanding our visual writing helps explain how we respond to the case.

My brother has two daughters. One of them looks like me. Guess which one I have a special bond with? Oh, sure, other factors played a part as our relationship developed over the years, such as our mutual love of fashion and books, and her sister's bent toward sports. But even before my nieces were old enough to show such interests, there was already, although I tried not to let it show, a special pull toward that tow-headed little girl with thick glasses in whom I saw myself looking back at me.

This tug of the familiar goes beyond the familial, though. For example, I love dogs, all dogs. But if a Boxer crosses my path, I feel an instant bond. For the most cherished dog in all my life was a Boxer, and, having loved one Boxer mug, I favor them all based on appearance alone.

We humans are funny that way. We typically depend upon sight more than any other sense. We are visual beings, image-driven slaves to seeing. And we're hard-wired, it seems, to be drawn to the familiar.

This aspect of our humanity helps explain—not excuse—some of the phenomena surrounding the Trayvon Martin case. While exactly what happened is yet to be known, it's safe to say, I think, that much of what unfolded both before and after the fatal shooting is rooted in this sight-reliant aspect of human nature.

Consider some of the most potent images from the series of events:

  • a hooded African-American youth spotted late at night in a crime-plagued neighborhood
  • an outdated photo of the victim provided by family, taken years before when he was a much younger boy
  • a later photo of a thuggish-looking youth making obscene gestures circulating on the internet, erroneously identified as the victim
  • the President remarking that if had a son, he would "look like" the victim
  • Geraldo Rivera's declaration that the hoodie Martin was wearing "is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death" as the shooter is
  • a national movement of earnest faces draped by hoodies in a (sometimes awkward) show of solidarity for the victim

The power these images have had in fueling the story also helps explain—but does not excuse—some of our most pervasive human prejudices. While discrimination certainly manifests itself in myriad ways, as evidenced throughout all of history, forms of discrimination based on visual cues—skin color, ethnicity, and bodily disability, for example—might be the most visceral and difficult biases to exorcise. No wonder Lady Justice and ancient Greek prophets are depicted as blind.

Related Topics:Social Justice; Violence

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