When the NFL penalizes players for “excessive” celebrating and dancing, my sister says they’re getting called for “too much Blackness on the field.”

Image from si.com

There’s that saying, “the Blacker the berry the sweeter the juice,” that comes with the caveat, “but if you get too Black, then it ain’t no use.”

Managing how our Blackness is perceived is part of how we move around this world. If you’re a Black person with a professional job, you learn quickly to police your own body for signs of excessive, discomfiting Blackness: hair that is too kinky, clothes that will be seen as too flashy, tones of voice that will be read as too angry, the knowledge that how you speak and move and live that will be accused of being ghetto, threatening, unprofessional, scary, rude, in the wrong place.

Human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan writes about what it feels like to monitor your own body out of fear of white fear of that body:

At different moments, I too have felt the exhausting burden of my Black skin being marked as a threat, as inherently criminal. I too have felt that deep desire to just be left alone, the frustration of being accused of something I haven’t done, and feeling helpless as my accusers have already judged me guilty until proven innocent.

Like Garner, I happen to be a large, heavy-set Black man. I have felt the size and Blackness of my body be met with fear and seen as a sign of trouble. I know too much about just trying to be, while my body was being seen as a weapon and a danger needing to be monitored, controlled, contained, and if not compliant, slain. From my own experience I know that being big and Black makes it hard to breathe in Canada too.

Image from AP Press

My friend called me the other day and asked me if I could bring him some clothes before his trial. Actually, that’s not how the conversation started. First, he told me at a pre-trial hearing how he was brought up to court early, and as he was sitting there the Crown walked in, looked at him, and then said loudly in tones of disgust, “ugh, let’s move over here. I don’t want to sit by him.” Then we talked about clothes. No red we agreed, looks like a dealer. Purple looks like a pimp. Not all black, it looks too gangster. Light blue? I suggested.

What colour of shirt do you wear when you’ve already been seen and treated like a piece of sewage? What colour goes best with a skin that marks you as already guilty?

What would you wear to your deportation hearing? How would you get dressed for the day you see as the passing of your death sentence?

Women fight against the clothing of sexual assault victims being introduced in court. We know what the words “tight,” or “short” are really conveying. We know what is happening when media reports describe a “lacy tank top” or the height of heels — it means she is slutty, trashy, that she must have wanted it, a liar, the wrong kind of woman. Her clothing is not a neutral detail, but a possible indictment.

Anti-Blackness is perpetuated in similar ways. It’s the “perp walk” footage of Abdoul Abdi being used over and over in news stories about his court hearings, because the news stations haven’t bothered to get any new footage of him at work, or with his family, or living in his community. Those images are five years old, but still we see him in handcuffs, perpetually presented as a criminal. Against that footage, what power do the descriptions of legal proceedings and arguments have?

And it’s not that the editors are people who go home and tweet about “Black crime” and “thugs.” It’s just footage that exists in the archives, so it gets rolled without much thought. It’s not malicious, but that doesn’t make it less damaging.

In a CBC story about the postponement of Abdoul Abdi’s deportation hearing, in the midst of quotes from his lawyer Benjamin Perryman about the legal arguments, we are informed that:

Abdi was at the IRB hearing, but did not speak at it, nor to media outside. He was accompanied by two women, identified by an IRB member as his aunt and mother.

He wore a red toque and a black sweatshirt with a giant gold Mercedes Benz emblem on it.

The reporter is working from files submitted by reporters at the hearing in Toronto. The intent here is probably to provide some description to break up the “dry” reporting on the ins and outs of immigration law. Set the scene, journalists are taught. Let the audience get a picture in their minds. I’m sure there was no viciousness in the intent. I want to be clear on that. I don’t believe this reporter intended any harm. But the intent is not the effect.

And the effect is jarring. Abdi’s clothes have no relevance to the proceedings. The only possible relevance they have is in highlighting him as a young, Black man. The reporter may have intended to provide “human detail,” but we live in a society where Blackness is never seen as human.

We do not hear what the lawyers are wearing. The effect of describing Abdi’s outfit, with no other context about him as a human being, is to introduce into the story imagery that signifies a particular Blackness to the audience. Not just a sweatshirt, but a sweatshirt with a “giant gold Mercedes Benz emblem,” like those rappers, like those thugs, like those cocky, arrogant Black men who need to be disciplined, controlled, and contained.

As Idil, an advocate for Abdoul, asked on Twitter, “how giant could the logo have been to distract from the real issues?”

Photo by Patricia Sampson.

How do we see reporter Anjuli Patil’s body and character differently based upon what she is wearing? The photos taken of her here are beautiful, but I’m sure she herself knows how women are scrutinized and judged, how the words “mini skirt” or “cleavage” can be weaponized. The shouldn’t be, but they are. As a brown woman herself, I’m sure she knows how race only intensifies that gaze. Describing Abdoul’s outfit also contextualizes his body in particular ways, ways that permit him to be hated, stigmatized, and deported.

When Black men can be shot for wearing a hoodie, how they dress is a matter of life and death.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown which photo would they use? pic.twitter.com/y3y8tFHtPN

— Mamba Mentality 🔁 (@WhoISdeante) August 11, 2014

The clothing Black men wear is used to signify a body out of place. A body walking through a white neighbourhood can be shot to death if it is wearing a hoodie. A body with sagging pants gets what it deserves. A body with a baseball cap should have shown respect. A body with gold, or jewelry, a body with the nerve to love itself or show off or demonstrate wealth or have pride must be put down.

We will never have to get up and get dressed for a hearing where we will understand that our own death is being pronounced. That Abdoul got dressed at all, that he gets dressed every morning and keeps going to work, and keeps living his life under the threat and pressure of deportation every single minute of his day is a strength we will never have to draw on. There is no shirt you can wear in that situation that will make you appear to be more human, or to feel less degraded.

Perhaps if we are ever in a life and death situation, we will find that the only thing we have to hold onto is our own identity and self. When everything else is being stripped away, while the whole country watches and scrutinizes, maybe we too would want to feel that the last thing we have is who we are.

Without rights, without status, with a job you enjoy gone, fearing any injury and illness without any health coverage, not knowing when your family and friends will be ripped away from you, being scared to build new relationships that will be cut off anyway, not knowing what day you’ll be put on a plane back to a place you don’t know and have no way to navigate — maybe we would want to at least walk out from that in our own body, not in a body mediated for the gaze of cameras; one constructed to be pleasing to the public gaze but alien to self.

Abdoul is suffering because of his body’s Blackness, but is then not even allowed to live in the Blackness of that body, not even allowed to own or control the one thing he still has left.

The Miami Heat protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. Image from grantland.com

Maybe we would not want, on top of all that, to have to look in the mirror and worry about how we’ll be seen, and how the choice of a shirt — one of the only choices we still have — can condemn us in the public eye.

What would you wear to have your life stripped away from you?

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani is a lawyer, law professor, and PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. She teaches courses that examine the law from a Sociological perspective. Al-Hassani commented on Twitter that the description of Abdi’s clothing echoed what she teaches her students about, in the ways that Blackness is placed on trial. I emailed her for further context. She responded:

Trials have been described by some Sociologists as “degradation ceremonies” that aim to degrade the person in court for an act that is deemed offensive to society, hence the terms “offence,” “offender,” etc. The person has offended social values and is therefore put in the spotlight and is subject to the law. These degradation ceremonies or trials can draw widespread attention from the media for various reasons. Those include:

A) the nature of the act;

B) connections to social and political issues;

C) the person on trial.

A) The act on trial can either draw public outcry or social support. It would draw public outcry when the act is particularly heinous, or targets a person who draws social sympathy. The act on trial can draw social support when committed in self defense, for instance.

B) The trial may be used by the media and/or social activists to draw attention to important issues. In Abdi’s case, advocates are using his case to draw attention to how the child welfare and justice systems fail individuals, particularly minorities.

C) Public figures on trial add a sensationalistic element to media coverage. When non-public figures are on trial, coverage is less sensationalistic, but not void of some element that would stoke public engagement. This is when gender, race, and other elements factor in and are manipulated by the media.

The media tends to draw on racial and gender elements by focusing on garb and demeanour in court. Descriptions of the person on trial play a great role in determining social reactions. If the person on trial is portrayed as tearful and remorseful, they’re more likely to receive some sympathy. If they are portrayed as cold and non-emotional, they are more likely to be condemned. Posture, movement (or stillness), words (or silence), clothing, etc. are descriptives commonly used.

This is why lawyers usually advise their clients on how to dress in court. Women are always advised to look more feminine and go for a “soft” look. The more feminine they look, the more likely they are to receive positive responses from the jury and public. Men are always advised to dress formally or semi-formally to be seen as “good citizens.” Courtrooms are like stages where stereotypes are often played out.

You can see how classism would play out in court. A person from a higher class would wear brands, and look more “sophisticated,” thus respected. A person from a lower class would dress within their means.

Racialized people are always portrayed as of a lower class, even when they are not necessarily so. Black men are usually portrayed as gangsters, thugs, etc. If what they’re wearing feeds into such a narrative, prejudiced reporters would zoom in on that. Sometimes, non-prejudiced reporters would fall into the same trap and describe their clothing. The key is to determine how they describe the demeanour of the person on trial.

I have taken a look at the article of interest.

It is not a trial, but a hearing. Nevertheless, it is still a courtroom appearance. The reporter’s description of Abdi’s clothing does not strike me as offensive on its own. She finds it important to describe his clothing for “journalistic integrity,” yet she does not describe his demeanour.

If I were to describe a person in court, I’d be more interested in their demeanour. As a reader of that article, I’m left wondering what Abdi’s emotional state was. The reporter dedicates a sentence to his garb, yet completely overlooks his emotional state. In fairness, I will note that the cover image for the article is of Abdi in a button-down shirt.

Image from cbc.ca

I’m not sure whether you’re following the MacArthur investigation in Toronto. One thing that strikes me is the constant use of images of him where he is smiling. We’re talking about a [alleged] serial killer behind seven disturbing murders. All I’ve seen in the media are photos of him smiling, by the Niagara Falls, etc. People are “surprised” he’s [likely] behind heinous multiple murders because he looks like an “average guy”. He’s also an older White man.

Image from cbc.ca

Tina Fontaine was the Indigenous victim of a heinous rape and murder, as well as of the child welfare system, yet her mugshot was used constantly in the media. A number of people challenged this portrayal, insisting that she be remembered in a better way, sharing photos of her where she looked healthy and smiling.

Racism absolutely plays into imagery in the media and the coverage of high profile cases.

Blackness is always on trial, and Black bodies are always being policed. When our bodies actually go into courtrooms, it’s an experience intensified but continuous with the ways we already live. And the reality is, whether we walk through that life in a collared shirt or in a sweatshirt with a logo, we walk the world in bodies that will never belong, that are always a source of fear, among a public that always feels safer when we are sent away.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Thank you for another thought provoking piece El Jones.
    When articles with discriptors are written they have the capacity to affect the view of readers of all ethnicities, cultures and classes.
    Persons of colour are similarly affected by what we read, such that we tailor our attire to suit how we will be viewed.

  2. El, I felt compelled to write to you to congratulate you for your continuing work: both for its content and quality of writing. I am, week after week, in awe of how you just “keep it up.” I have spent over 40 years as a “writer-for-hire.” I know the high level of effort, skill and humanity it takes to produce the kind of work you always do. Long may you reign!

  3. Reporters COULD obtain up-to-date photos relevant to stories they publish if they’re SO INCLINED. Relying on months or years-old footage is unprofessional and LAZY.

  4. Dean del Mastro looked very reputable and middle class when appearing in court.
    He was convicted of violating federal election financing rules, and in front of all the media he was led out to the paddy wagon with chains on his ankles and cuffs on his wrists. Somehow I don’t think he was about to leg off down the street to a getaway limo.
    Can’t imagine what would have happened if he had been convicted of trafficking young children, dealing drugs and assaulting an old widow.
    Google his name and look for his images. Every day he appeared in a suit and tie until he was convicted and the tie, as expected, is gone
    Every accused is told to appear in court in ‘respectable’ clothing, act respectfully towards everyone and be humble.

  5. This is a fairly lengthy piece about a one line description of something as seemingly innocuous as clothing. …But I must admit that when reading about the ‘big Mercedes symbol sweatshirt’ the other day I had a variant of the thoughts that El Jones describes, so kudos to her for reading my jilted white mind. Picking up on a seemingly innocent descriptor and tying it to our perception of race and/or wrongness was astute and well done. You’re right that what he wears is irrelevant and my perception of what is described is wrong. I can’t imagine choosing what to wear for such an occasion but it would probably not be innocuous…

  6. Issues of race are not the sole property of North America, the issues are worldwide. Try being a white or black person in China or Japan. Try being an English speaking person in France (or Quebec for that matter).

    Race is not really the problem; people in general are the problem and until that is actually realized, there will never be a solution to discrimination which really has its roots in social standing, social awareness, insecurities, lack of “sameness”, list is long and it does not simply revolve around race.

    Preaching to the choir will never solve any issue. The solution lies within how everyone is brought up from birth; for it is what children learn as they grow up that feeds their perceptions and how they are schooled to respond to their environment.

    Any fool can have and raise a child, and many do. Parents are not monitored or scored on how well they do the single most important task that they have been given in life… and I do not advocate that they should be; but we take away a person’s right to drive if they operate a vehicle without due regard to the safety and welfare of others… something to think about, eh?

    1. Not to speak for El, but I am quite sure she was not saying racial issues are the exclusive domain of North America. So, let me see if I have this straight – you’re saying racism isn’t a problem, “people” are the problem?!? Your argument is analogous to the foolish old trope, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Moreover you, entirely, missed El’s point. It is Riley’s group affiliation and white society’s perverse perceptions of it, based on racism and white privilege, that manifests the problem. To deny that by saying it is some reptilian part of our DNA and that individual parents can “solve” it is misguided and does nothing to intercept or disrupt the systems that replicate it. Like my colleague, Anthony Morgan, explained, my being big and black usurps any other identifier in a system that has been designed to see my skin colour as an indictment, by design.

      Oh, and btw, English and French are culture or ethnicities, not “races”.