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Brown Faces in White Places doing science (and wearing hoodies)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I was having a Twitter conversation with @LeafWarbler about being a lone brown face in a research setting.  I told him of my adventures in field research in rural Illinois (outside of Urbana-Champaign).  I was trapping small mammals on corn fields just off of a rural road. It became common for law enforcement to show up and check me out.  For each visit, I would have to explain that I had permission to be there (provide name of land owner), who I was, what I was doing (often having to show them the animals I had in hand to prove it), and wait. Wait for the call-in and confirmation.

After so many visits, one cop eventually said he’d leave a note with dispatch so that they would stop responding to calls about me.

LeafWarbler asked if I was wearing a hoodie (when the cops arrived while I was doing research); and I laughed because, yeah, I was.

Me at my field site wearing a hoodie

Being stopped or suddenly surrounded by authorities isn’t a new thing to many researchers.  However, researchers of color who do research in the field (also outdoors men and women) have these kinds of stories to share, often.  We laugh about it, but it’s quite sad that something about ‘us’ – hoodie or not, evokes such fear and suspicion.

Is it really the hoodie, like Geraldo Rivera suggests?

I donned my hoodie for Trayvon Martin.  Like so many other people I couldn’t believe how the law was interpreted and how George Zimmerman was allowed to walk away from killing this young man without so much as a Grand Jury trial.  And yes, it felt personal and real and quite possible for me.

Me and my hoodie wearing younger brother

This is my younger brother, known as the “One Boy”, because he’s my mother’s (and father’s) only son.  My parents love all of us, but my brother evokes a hard to explain protection from them and from me and my sisters as well.  Perhaps it’s because he’s the youngest.  Perhaps it’s because we all worry about trouble finding him, getting hurt or getting that call that breaks hearts.   It’s a fear that is all to real for most people I know from my Memphis neighborhood. I’ll admit I prefer him when he looks like this:all cleaned up. But something about his size, his booming voice, dark brown skin, and long locks while wearing a hoodie (like above) evoke suspicion in others, especially authority figures.  A year and a half ago, he and my cousin were approaching my sister’s front door when the cops began questioning without cause.  They were looking for someone who stayed next door to her, but decided they looked suspicious enough and they were taken into custody immediately.  The charge: “Standing in the street”.  No kidding, I can’t make this up.  I know my brother’s dress didn’t help convince them that he wasn’t a gang member. (He was wearing a red hoodie – his high school colors, in a known Blood neighborhood).  But I also know that city cops are known to harass and abuse young men for no real cause.  I beat the police to the police station which was only 4 blocks away and demanded to see my brother and cousin.  They weren’t there. In fact, the dispatcher had no record of any young men being picked up in the last 30 minutes.  I quickly whipped out my ‘Dr title ‘and called my ACLU lawyer friend.

Within moments, my brother and cousin were returned to my sister’s house, unharmed.  Maybe things turned out fine without my intervention; but the sad fact is, this is the life of many young men – black, brown, even white.  Something about a certain style of dress and appearance evoke suspicion in some people. And everyday, poor (inner-city) people are abused or killed by cops and vigilantes like George Zimmerman.

I’m not sure of the psychology of this madness, but Melanie Tannenbaum addresses some of these demons with her Guest Blog post Trayvon Martin’s Psychological Killer: Why We See Guns That Aren’t There.

But to me, the banter around the topic really calls to mind this notion of Brown Faces in White Places.  Dr. Caroyn Finney wrote her dissertation on African-Americans and the great outdoors which included how people of color often have negative experiences because of the reactions of authorities or other visitors.  She became aware of this notion of place as a child. She grew up  on a 13-acre estate in a wealthy white neighborhood of Mamaroneck, N.Y., where her parents worked, taking care of the grounds and house.

It was, she recalls, “a beautiful piece of property,” with flower and vegetable gardens, a lake, and a variety of fruit trees. The owners, who were there only on weekends and holidays, lived in “what I call the big house.”
“I remember being 9, and walking home from school,” she says. “There were always police patrolling the neighborhood, and one day there was a new policeman on patrol. When he saw me walking home he asked, ‘Where are you going?’ And I said, ‘Oh, around the corner,’ and I gave him the address. And he said, ‘Do you work there?’”
Even in the recounting, Finney is incredulous. “I’m 9,” she repeats. “I said, ‘No, I live there.’ And so, reflecting back, I was completely out of place.”

And I imagine that is what is happening with so many of us who do science – in the field or industry – or work in academia.  Somehow, no one was expecting to see this face – this brown face or young face or female face or male face or unkempt face or this hoodie-clad face, whatever it may be.  Oftentimes, persons of authority and persons of privilege (usually one in the same) have no problem descending upon us, questioning our presence in this place. Asking, nay, demanding that we justify our presence in a place. Behave in an acquiescent manner while we are being held up and distracted from our jobs or simply minding our law-abiding business, lest we be arrested or harmed.  And until the possibility that any kind of face could be the one doing science or teaching class or leading a project or walking down the street in a gated-community with Skittles and an Ice Tea, then we’re still likely to have conversations like these in the future.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. mtbluegreen 8:56 pm 03/27/2012

    This is a beautiful piece. I am Irish-American and have raised two children of color — one Asian/Irish-American and one Mexican Indio/Irish American.

    It is scary and angering beyond belief to see the difference in the way they are treated; and the difference in how I am treated. Each according to stereotype.

    You don’t know how bad it is till you’ve been there. I am so glad women like you are bringing these insights into the scientific community; it has been a long time coming. Here in Albany, NY we have an amazing set of labs in the middle of neighborhoods of color where I live and teach. My middle school students had no idea the labs were there, nor what cell biology/molecular biology and microbiology were. The cultural gulf between my community and the practice of science is very wide.
    We believe we don’t live in a segregated country, but we have a long way to go until we all live in the same universe; until then, the dialogue across these lines is important. Don’t quit speaking up and don’t quit generating data out there.

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  2. 2. CliffClark 9:24 pm 03/27/2012

    One thing I’d love to do just for fun. Go by the gated community, from the outside, and put a big chain and padlock on the gate. Keep ‘em in, you understand, where they belong. But I’d probably get into trouble even though I’m ghostly pale. Sigh!

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  3. 3. Bops 11:18 pm 03/27/2012

    All people feel uneasy about anyone who conceals their face for any reason. It’s a natural emotion for everyone…even if a person won’t admit it. It’s one of the many in-born ways all people protect themselves.

    It’s not just people, animals react the same way if they feel unsafe.
    They back up, escape or attack. It’s very sad what happened.

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  4. 4. GG 11:19 pm 03/27/2012

    Yes, a convenient “feel good” one sided story. The other side of the coin, that you forgot, is what would happen if a hoodied brown person did commit a crime, but the police looked the other way, just for upholding political correctness…The sad reality is that there are lots of hoodied black criminals out there. These stereotypes do not rise out of nowhere.

    There is also a tremendous amount of built-in assumption in your story…Supposedly, you were checked out BECAUSE you are brown and the way you dress. How do you know that a blonde, blue-eyed dude in pin striped suit would also not be checked out by the rural police? In fact, I’m pretty sure that he would. Should he wallow in a discrimination story too?

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  5. 5. way2ec 4:12 am 03/28/2012

    DNLee, Thank you for posting this, straight from the heart, backed by experience. You remind all of us, all of U.S., that “it” is still happening, anywhere, anytime. You’ve added new dimensions to the old old “know your place”. Thank you for making your place in the science community, rural community, urban community; any place you choose, every place you choose, must always be your place, ’cause that is where you are.

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  6. 6. Professional_Scientist 4:54 am 03/28/2012

    “You don’t know how bad it is till you’ve been there.” @mtbluegreen has the answer to the fourth through sixth comments, which annoyed me so badly I went through the rigamarole of making an account with SA to respond.

    It is only possible to rationalize an instinctive fear such as that brought up by Bops. But everyone is capable of rationalizing it if the situation calls for it. “He looks suspicious, but I will obey the law enforcement that I alerted and stay out of his way, since after all he is just walking in the drizzle with a hood up.” So, back up or escape. We are different from animals. We can choose not to attack if we’re not downright cornered.

    I say the drizzle, because Orlando, FL – just adjacent to Sanford – had rain every day in February. http://www.nws.noaa.gov/climate/getclimate.php?wfo=mlb – it’s otherwise conjecture. Since when does someone have to justify wearing whatever the heck they like in order to not get killed, or raped, or otherwise physically attacked?

    So, DODAVATAR, if one wants to keep one’s head dry, one should also wear a sign that specifies that it’s not a fashion statement, in order to be safe in certain neighborhoods? And if one could actually arrest the person who shot the other at close range, it might help the people we mandate to conduct these investigations to answer your question about why it happened. But it’s not up to DNLee to figure out why before offering her opinion or sharing her experience getting harassed. There are lots of blogging platforms out there where you could also offer your own opinion and share your experience about facing “fear”. “You don’t know how bad it is till you’ve been there.” I wouldn’t presume that the fear DNLee feels about the safety of her little brother is negligible over the long term.

    GG, if you were a scientist, you would go out and test your assumptions. That’s what we do, multiple times a day. Your conjecture is worthless until you have tested it, and then is still only worth something if it can be independently confirmed. I’m “pretty sure that he wouldn’t” (get harassed like DNLee) – and is my certainty more valuable than yours? No. Just as worthless, until it’s tested and hypotheses rejected or not.

    And priddseren is just a troll. Enjoy your white privilege and flocking with the birds of your feather. I wonder what kick he gets from issuing the challenge he did.

    way2ec wrote it beautifully in that last sentence. Every place anyone chooses in a free society, if one is a law-abiding citizen until proven otherwise *by people competent to do so*, is the place that person belongs, as much as any other. No one else should be making judgments that affect such citizens’ behavior to the point of physically constraining them to do something they wouldn’t have normally.

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  7. 7. way2ec 4:56 am 03/28/2012

    @Priddseren. You trapped yourself really early in your commentary. Only idiots use terms like white, people of color, brown scientists? and only to pretend that there is still rampant racism? You then go on to write that “white guilt” needs to end, relate a rejection to being an air traffic controller because you are a white male, and use the terms “non-caucasion”, and caucasion, as a reference to non-white and white people, (spelled Caucasian, after the totally bogus idea that the Caucasus region is the homeland of the white race, that includes many non-white and non-European groups). IF you are trying to say that you believe that rampant racism is on the decline in America, fine, but then you question where is the “real racism” in reference to the fact that white people are being attacked in “certain areas”. I think it would be easier AND more accurate to state that racism is alive and well in the U.S.; that skin color and race and ethnicity and place and privilege are all mixed up with anger and fear and politics and that we are ALL vulnerable and affected by “it”. At an even more primitive level it all boils down to US and THEM, and how do WE respond to that ever present THEM, whatever form they take, color, religion, language, race, even clothing, veils, hoodies, baggie pants… your neighbors and mine.

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  8. 8. Stephanie Z 7:24 am 03/28/2012

    “I work with teams that always consist of people from ALL OVER THE PLANET and both genders and not one time have I seen or even heard of any one suffering from some sort if discrimination at least in the last 20 years.”

    Yes, because you’re exactly the sort of empathetic person that anyone would go to in order to share these experiences. Or, you know, not.

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  9. 9. GeoChemGirl 7:27 am 03/28/2012

    When people still have to debate this, there is clearly still an issue. Being a white girl sitting next to the minorities in my classes…I saw the judgement, I saw the anxiety on professor’s faces. In my research class, it was me, a Puerto Rican and an African American. They were both males. I was the only female. I also had a mohawk and tattoo sleeves. One day, one of them said “We like having you around. They are harder on you so we can relax.” Until you understand the paleolithic world of science dominated by white conservatives, you will never appreciate this woman’s story. I suppose if I looked different, I would have been taken more serious and gotten better grades…then again I suppose if Trayvon wore a polo that day…he would still be alive. The point is his story provoked a memory she probably long overlooked and back-shelved. This proves we aren’t all crazy. It’s a step towards enlightenment and a lesson on judgement to enhance human life.

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  10. 10. Professional_Scientist 7:59 am 03/28/2012

    (snicker) What an excellent parody!

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  11. 11. scicurious 8:33 am 03/28/2012

    I can’t believe some of these comments. DNLee, this post is fantastic and what a lot of people need to read. Thanks so much.

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  12. 12. DNLee 9:40 am 03/28/2012

    Thanks all for your comments. And thank you for coming to my assistance and putting the trolls in place. And there were trolls. And I booted those comments.

    So, some of your comment responses might not make sense to readers now. But that is a warning to trolls all over.
    It amazes me how trolls have all the patience in the world to sign up for accounts to leave the most random and instigating comments. But that is their nature. God love them or slay them, whatever S/He thinks is best. (LOL)

    But seriously, I’ve done nothing but share my personal account of doing science. Did folks call the police because I was a stranger in a smallish community? No doubt. Did folks call because I was doing something discernible out in the field? No doubt.

    Did they call because I was black? Maybe. I don’t know. I never said they did. I simply remarked how I – this very different person – registered with them the need to call the authorities. Often. Despite the fact, I was never seen doing anything malicious, destroying property. And I know that other researchers/outdoors people from many backgrounds have similar stories to tell, but people of color (and females) get the “what are YOU doing here” reaction more often than our white (male) counterparts.

    My account was more about how easy it is for people to NOT assume that brown faces could be doing science or enjoying nature. It’s more about how many folks default to fear and suspicion – ONLY – and not be inclined to be curious yet cautious, or even eager to befriend a stranger. Emphasis is on the ‘strange’ness of seeing brown face in what are commonly white places of work, play, recreation, and leadership.

    That is all.

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  13. 13. jenetics23 10:33 am 03/28/2012

    Thanks DNLee, for your strength and resolve to help this discussion occur. I participated in a career fair at a local high school recently & I saw a wonderful range of every skin hue. My “take away” for science careers was that there are so many different areas of science, and so many new fields that every perspective is needed. In a perfect work everyone would appreciate that everyone needs science & science needs everyone. I thought I saw a rainbow of nodding high school heads, but maybe that was them listening to their ipods & eating the twizzlers that I passed out! :)

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  14. 14. Bashir 11:19 am 03/28/2012

    Thanks DNLeee. It is important to share these stories just to get over the “you’re just crazy and paranoid” chorus.

    Reminds me of a discussion of building security at a departmental meeting. Someone noted that technically after 6pm campus police could ask for an ID from anyone in the building. Most of the profs were surprised by this and reported never having been asked to show ID. The one black professor, who’d been there for years, ALL THE TIME. She mentioned it, but that’s it. I think she had long given up on convincing folks why. Many were certain that there must be some good reason that she’s the only one ever stopped.

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  15. 15. Rachel H 11:49 am 03/28/2012

    I’m so glad I stumbled across this article! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I had been really depressed the last few days, reading racist responses to the Hunger Games movie. Some people apparently found the film “ruined” by the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Disgusting, horrible tweets out there. Your article here hasn’t made those comments any less disgusting or horrible, but you’ve given me a new perspective on them. Because it’s the same thing, isn’t it: here’s a brown face in a place where it doesn’t belong (according to some people), on a sweet, noble, sympathetic, tragic character.

    Which still sickens me, but I’m a writer and I like finding parallels, even when they’re awful. Understanding the problem, naming it, looking at it, talking about it out loud — surely that’s got to be some small help. I hope so. Keep up the good work. You are important.

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  16. 16. vaw06 3:17 pm 03/28/2012

    Sigh … I didn’t see this post until after the trolls’ comments had been removed. However, I can imagine what they were like.

    I did my Ph.D. fieldwork deep in the forests of Maine. So you can imagine the stares that I, a scruffy, scraggly-bearded black man (looking very much like a former logger), received while tromping through the woods and rural towns of the whitest state in the US. Fortunately, I never had encounters with law enforcement when I was up there. Of course, that might have been because I was out in the middle of nowhere much of the time. But when I *did* encounter people, I always had the sense that they were initially shocked to see me so far outside the confines of Portland or Boston.

    While I often sensed that the Mainers that I encountered were somewhat surprised to see me, I never sensed that they were unduly suspicious of me. It was almost as if they were thinking, “Well, if he is up here then he must have a pretty good reason for it. He wouldn’t be snowshoeing through three feet of snow if he didn’t.” I always felt relatively safe up there … much *safer* than I now feel in the affluent (and nearly all-white) western suburbs of Boston where I now live. I get the old side eye around here all the time. And all I have to do to warrant those stares is to go for a quick jog through the small town (pop. 10000) where I currently live. And if I’m ever in a *really* masochistic mood, I could just go a couple towns over into Belmont and go for a jog through Mitt Romney’s neighborhood.

    I can’t *wait* to get out into the field again.

    PS: Your mention of Dr. Finney’s work reminds me of this ( http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/24b56caf3e/black-hiker-with-blair-underwood ) old Blair Underwood video. I’m sure that you’ve seen it before, but perhaps some of your haven’t.

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  17. 17. vaw06 3:19 pm 03/28/2012

    Final sentence should have read: “… but perhaps some of your readers haven’t”

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  18. 18. DNLee 4:29 pm 03/28/2012

    Ha, that Funny or Die Skit with Blair Underwood is so true, especially the “you knew that” part. I get that comment alot and it grates me.
    Ugh!

    But yes, isn’t the outdoors beautiful. I can’t wait to get into the field,too. Good times!

    Thanks!

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  19. 19. GG 9:11 pm 03/28/2012

    Trolls and foolish people can exist on the politically correct side of the spectrum too…They may have good intentions, but other than that they can exhibit the same trollish characteristics.

    Case in point here is the user “Professional_Scientist” (post#6)…He/She dismisses other people’s thoughts as “worthless conjectures” unless tested. Except the same standards then should also apply to DNLee’s post that she was picked on because she is brown skinned, and was wearing a hoodie. But somehow this “professional scientist” fails to follow through her/his own logic. (“professional troll” would be a better user name for her/him)

    So, I suggest a simple experiment: send out to a rural place, people impersonating different social stereotypes, and then measure the discriminatory behavior of the locals…

    Last but not least, this is just a blog, and just a forum, where people express their opinions and exchange ideas. I do not have to “scientifically prove” my point to any self-aggrandizing “professional scientist”, pffft!!!

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  20. 20. Professional_Scientist 10:16 am 03/30/2012

    GG, certainly you do not. But you have proven your desire to engage in the “exchange” of ideas to my satisfaction. Your experiment is not so simple, and you have called upon no evidence (yet) to back up your assertions. You are only right to say that DNLee has not proven her contention that her skin color and perhaps dress were instrumental in her treatment. You certainly have not disproven it with your remarks, and rather support her position despite yourself in your choice of verbs and punctuation marks. Nonetheless, a truly simple solution exists – you go out and help her in her field work. The two of you can take parallel roads, and collect data as well as samples. Please report back on who (if both, neither, or only one of you) gets investigated by the local law enforcement (my suggestion is that you both wear gray sweatshirts with hoods, rather than pinstriped suits). Make sure to agree on what you are measuring: use of certain words, length of interaction… I am sure you have many creative ideas. My suspicion is that skin color trumps clothing, but DNLee could address that by wearing a polo shirt when she does field work on her own.

    Or you could just take the anecdotal evidence she and other commenters have presented at face value, have your opinion, and I will have mine.

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  21. 21. missbehavior 11:54 am 04/14/2012

    Thank you so much for posting this powerful piece. I am so glad your voice is in this “place”.

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  22. 22. tblanco 2:20 pm 11/20/2013

    DNLee, that is a great post! I agree with you that there is a “rule” to see a specific kind of person at certain places. And, a hoodie? Oh, no! That is not a “good” thing; there should not be restrictions to what you want to wear and how you look anywhere. Thanks for your post!

    Link to this

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