'Don't Be Threatening': Geraldo Rivera's Impossible Advice


The internet was abuzz with outrage yesterday after comments national joke Geraldo Rivera made on Fox & Friends. In response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, he reflected, "I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was." The angry response he unleashed was warranted, but it's worth taking a look at what Geraldo was trying to say — and why he's full of shit.

I was reminded of a series of sexual assaults that occurred on the Berkeley campus in 2009: a man followed women home from late-night parties and attempted to rape them with his finger. His targets were exclusively women in short skirts, which led the campus police department to suggest that women avoid wearing those skirts to parties until the rapist was caught. Many were horrified — the police response sounded a lot like victim-blaming. But there was a level of practicality to it that goes beyond the typical asshole response to rape, "Did you see what she was wearing?" This predator was targeting women wearing a specific piece of clothing, and not wearing short skirts for a period of time was a form of protection.

There's a key difference between what Geraldo said and what the Berkeley campus police said. There is no serial killer targeting men of color in hoodies, the way Berkeley's serial rapist was specifically focusing on short skirts. Both responses might seem problematic, but only Geraldo's devolves into actually blaming the victim. Targeting the hoodie is just a roundabout way of pinning some blame on Trayvon Martin, who chose what to wear that night. Besides, what he's really saying is, "Don't dress like a 'gangsta' if you don't want to be treated like one." Or as he tweeted yesterday, "Its not blaming the victim Its common sense-look like a gangsta&some armed schmuck will take you at your word."

It is blaming the victim, but that's been argued to death. I'm more interested in the meaning behind Geraldo's words, which in my mind boils down to a warning: Do not act in a way other people might find threatening. Except that's a complete impossibility — the feeling of being threatened is subjective. Geraldo's implication is that racist white men will assume black men in hoodies are out to get them, and he's probably right. But by that same logic, he should be telling white men to tone down their whiteness around black people. If a white man wearing an NRA shirt got shot by a black man, would Geraldo blame the shirt? Maybe it was self-defense. The black man who shot him could have assumed he was another George Zimmerman.

Ignorant people are irrationally threatened by so much of the world around them; it would be impossible to go through life conforming to some sort of neutral, non-threatening ideal. Think of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998 for being gay. The basis of homophobia is fear: a fear of being hit on by a gay man, of femininity, of being perceived as gay by those around you. Geraldo's message to youths of color is to tone it down. Take whatever it is about your cultural identity that scares others and get rid of it. Following that argument, should gay men act less "faggoty"? If we're going to blame Trayvon's hoodie for Zimmerman's violence, we could also blame Shepard's "gay appearance" for his murder.

The "common sense" Geraldo speaks of is nonsense. To a racist asshole, it's "common sense" that black men are more dangerous. To a homophobic tool, all gay men are out to recruit your children, and to a frightening number of misogynists, women who dress "slutty" deserve to be raped. Barring mandatory uniforms for every person in this country, there is no "common sense" way to dress or talk or act. There will always be someone threatened by you, and that responsibility falls on them — and on law enforcement, whose job is to make sure no one turns a perceived threat into a stupid, fatal mistake.

There's a difference between being aware of how others see you and catering to their prejudices. Author Touré contributed an article to TIME magazine that captured the practicality Geraldo Rivera was attempting in his statements. In "How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin," he speaks to the negative perception so many black men have thrust on them from birth.

Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It's possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity. Being black could turn an ordinary situation into a life-or-death moment even if you're doing nothing wrong.

Touré advises caution: we live in a world of dangerous inequality, where simply being a person of color can put you at risk. But he doesn't blame Trayvon Martin — or bring hoodies into the equation. Geraldo could have made a similar point if he'd thought out his position and articulated it well. But then, that's a big "if."

[Image via AP]