An Interview with Alison Kinney

An Interview with Alison Kinney

Everyone, Alison Kinney says, wears hoods. It’s the uniform of Zuckerberg and girls who visit their grandmothers in the woods, of basement bloggers and bad hair days, as familiar and cozy as a fairy tale — but hoods are also central of the stories of Trayvon Martin, Abu Ghraib, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Kinney’s book Hood, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, explores how one piece of clothing has the power to threaten, terrify, comfort, as well as cover pizza bloat. A writer whose work has appeared at Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The New York Times, her first book is about ambiguity of the hood through time, and how “this ambiguity tends to serve the powerful, at the expense of the powerless, regardless of who’s wearing the hoods.”

In a series of emails zipping between London and Berlin, she discussed how she uncovered a cultural history of this age-old garment, and her work to put it in the crucial, urgent context of the violence perpetrated against black people today.

Do you think there’s a connection between the ubiquity of the urban hood and the rise of state surveillance?

Yes, but I don’t know that I can answer this neatly. Since my interests with respect to surveillance have to do with the right of people to mind their own business, and to exercise their freedom of self-expression and dissent, I’m interested in how hooding is protection against the abuse of state power and violent attention. (The first time I went to Seattle and went out to breakfast, I looked around the crowded restaurant and saw that every single person was wearing a black hoodie. I thought, “Are they anarchists? Are they feeling chilly? Are they just — Seattle?” And the answer was: all three, or none, or somewhere in between.) But the other side of surveillance on dissent is privilege. When I go to a protest, I’m 100% sure that I’m going to survive it, even when I’m engaged in civil disobedience. I sympathize with people who face greater risk, who are in the terrible position of having to be afraid of the state, of being surveilled unjustly, of having any purportedly routine check turn into their own murder.

The other half of this, of course, is anti-crime surveillance. I’m all for the kind of state-supported security that actually provides service to communities of people of color, to protect their lives. But all too often, policing doesn’t work that way: it turns against victims, it kills the people who’ve called for help, it uses brutal force against people who have mental illnesses and disabilities. So I’m totally opposed to the kind of surveillance that assumes criminal intent in every person pulling up his hoodie because he’s trying to stay alive, in an environment that’s pitted against him. I’m less afraid of crime, than of one of my neighbors being murdered by the state.

I think that seriously assessing what one should be afraid of is part of checking one’s privilege. Many people have expected me, as an Asian woman, to sympathize with their fear of young people wearing hoodies and approaching them on a dark street. But I grew up in a place with neo-Nazis and Klansmen. I’ve been violently attacked by more than white person, once on the street, once at school, for starters, in plain public view. And I say that people like that are the people who need surveillance on them, not the black kids in hoodies in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, who are just trying to get by. They’re afraid of crime, too, and of white supremacists, and of being killed by the people who are supposed to defend their lives. When they walk down a street at night, they have to face more threats than I ever will.

What surprised you during the writing of Hood?

Everything! The research was hard — and exciting — because there were so many myths and lies, assumptions that had been repeated in supposedly authoritative texts. The Klan’s hood, executioners’ hoods, the history of the hoodie, Spanish Inquisitors’ hoods — I turned up so much mistaken history, and so many great articles and books by people who’d done the real digging. (On that note: I wish online publications would cite more. I got credited, wrongly, for writing whole paragraphs that I’d included in my book as block quotes! I did not prepare all those damn footnotes for nothing, people!) Pointing out what’s true and false was a huge part of the project: to overturn racist assumptions about hoodies, and to try to bring the focus back to the right of people to wear hoods for their own private, personal reasons.

The people who freak out about my book — “It’s stupid, everybody wears hoods, they don’t have meaningsare so often the same people who claim, “I wear a hoodie and it’s just a piece of clothing — but when other people — those kids — wear hoodies, it means something entirely different.” The double standards, assumptions, attributions of intent, and hatred don’t surprise me — but that anybody thinks this kind of double-think is something I’m going to engage them on is surprising. It’s like the people who are surprised by my “liberal agenda” halfway through the book.

So when I write that “we all wear hoods,” I mean that for two millennia, people have been wearing hoods for any number of reasons, while minding their own business. But the prejudice and violence toward people wearing hoods don’t have the same consequences for every group of people that decides to wear them — and this inequality has also been going on for centuries. That the history told the same narrative over and over — that was the theme that emerged, the more I researched. Being shamed or blamed — or killed — for being, supposedly, scary or dangerous, because of other people’s hatred, and because you’re in a hood (whether you’d wanted to wear one, or been forced into it), happened with Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition, prisoners being executed, prisoners from WWII to the Iraq War, and peaceful protesters everywhere.

The racist violence against black people, especially young black men (in hoodies or not) is clearly the most important issue related to hoods today. I’m putting that violence and bigotry in conversation with the longer history, not to diminish it or shift focus, but because the long history helps indict the killers and haters today. So many apologists focus on hoodies as a supposed symptom of deviance and crime — but when you learn about anti-Semitic “Jews’ hats” rhetoric, the racism becomes that much clearer. I wrote the longer history, because I was surprised to find that these rationales belonged not just to a long history of racist oppression — but also to a history of violence, blame, and scapegoating related specifically to hoods. Someone who says, “A kid wearing his hoodie pulled up must be up to no good,” is allying himself not just with (frequently) racist attitudes against people identified with hoodies, but also with 800 years of specifically hood-related bigotry. They’re not the same narrative — but they absolutely go hand-in-hand.

I realize that these standards are slightly different in the UK, where race and class come into it in a different way. Let’s just say: I’m talking on a large scale about phenomena that are particular for certain places and times. I come from a very small town that was almost entirely white, yet the community’s narratives about race and class followed these general patterns, where criminality and otherness got projected onto working class and poor white kids. But in the end, much of it was still about hating and distancing themselves from black people.

You make the connection between the rise of the hood and shifting attitudes to capital punishment — when did this first strike you?

I got on this trail by looking at historical museums with so-called executioners’ hoods and masks in their collections — but in the end, I didn’t have room for the museum masks in my book! So I wrote about them separately in an article that’s coming out in the June issue of History Today. I had a lovely talk with a keeper at the Tower of London about them.

When I went looking for executioners’ hoods, I discovered that they’re a very recent phenomenon — even possibly just a twentieth-century phenomenon. It wasn’t till after the nineteenth-century abolition movement that executioners wore hoods — certainly not in the medieval or early modern periods. I wasn’t expecting to find this at all, but then it was fascinating. It all tied in, in an exciting way, with the history of penal reform, all the way up through 2015. One of the things I write about is from Ivan Solotaroff’s fantastic book The Last Face You’ll Ever See, where he describes how the state of Florida outfitted its executioner with a “medieval” hood — in the 1970s!

You use artwork like a mural of the hooded man of Abu Ghraib by Iraqi artist Salaheddin al-Sallat to underpin parts of the book — what’s your favorite depiction of a hood in art?

I wish I could have included hundreds of images! This book could have been a picture book. Kehinde Wiley’s paintings are the most beautiful, glorious things ever. Seeing them in person, if you can, you can see the luminosity and depth. For the total ambiguity and mix-up of signs, which is what the book is about, the Brueghel and Holbein images of Death are tops. Ben Shahn’s 1942 poster talks so clearly with a whole century of state violence and torture, including the Abu Ghraib images. Medieval art, and online fan art, are both treasure troves of whaaat; I’ve collected so many stills from movies and TV; Key and Peele’s “hoodie” skit is great.

Incidentally, I’ve seen two newspaper accounts that referred to Sallat’s mural as amateurish or clumsy. Even if that assessment were correct — and who made them art critics? — what kind of person feels the need to make a comment like that? What do you get out of putting that mural down? Does it entitle you to a free latte at the local arts center?

What contemporary depiction of hoods do you find most telling right now? I know you recently watched Attack the Block

I tweeted that I wish somebody had told me to move Attack the Block up to #1 on my Netflix queue while I was actually writing the book! I think the best fantasy is all about assessing and critiquing identity, power, and the state, and there’s no more iconic fantasy hero than that. I’ve got some disappointed readers out there who were really hoping that my book would have more stuff about fantasy, sci-fi, and the possibilities of transformation — and if I’d already seen Attack the Block, I’d have put it into Chapter 3. I also loved the new Star Wars movie’s Jedi hoods.

And, like everybody, I was terribly interested in “Formation.”

Unlike the burqa, the controversy over modern hoods tends to split along class and racial lines, not gender or religion. Do you see this changing? The only gendered aspect I can think of for hoodies is the stereotype of “basic white girls” wearing them, which unlike the “thug” stereotype doesn’t have violence associated with it.

I don’t see this changing, not while hoods remain ubiquitous. It took roughly 400 years for white hoods to shake their anti-Semitic association with Jewish people. It took about 300 years to shake off anti-Catholic associations (I’m pretty sure a lot of associations between Death and black hoods come from Protestant propaganda — I mention this very briefly in the book, but that was something else I didn’t have room to go into). Hooded sweatshirts existed for a few decades without being racialized, but it takes longer to destroy a bigoted impression than it does to create it.

Whenever a famous white person wears a hoodie and appears in the news for something embarrassing — like Lindsay Lohan, or Martin Shkreli — there’s a new flurry of interest in hoodies: what do they mean? On one hand, they’re just garments, and on the other, meanings that have attached to them have to do with double standards, racism, power, etc. It’s got everything to do with the distance between the intentions of those wearing them, and the intentions attributed to them. And it dates back to the moment (1990?) when hoodies stopped being seen as just something that everybody wore, and came to be identified — and I blame racism in media, entertainment, and fashion for this — exclusively with black urban youths, and, simultaneously, monetized and demonized. The dominant culture still does make that identification, no matter how many millions of dollars affluent white people have spent on hoodies in the past 26 years. Mark Zuckerberg, amen.

Ten years ago, there was a spate of hoodie bans in shopping centers in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand — what happened after that?

I’d love to know! When I wrote this book, I was basically an essayist, researcher, reader. Since then, I’ve done a lot more reporting and interviewing, and my approach has shifted from essaying to journalism. If I were to write the book now, I’d probably just call all over New Zealand and Wales and say, What’s happened to your hoodie bans? My guess is that they petered out, were difficult to enforce without being obviously selective, and authorities just moved on to being obnoxious and exclusionary in other ways. But I don’t know! Anybody who wants to send me an email with an update: please do! I’ll tweet the hell out of your photos!

Have hoods ever been respectable? Has there ever been another point in history where the populace at large was wearing hoods?

I’d say that now counts as one of those times. I think that any work of social justice or cultural history needs to point out that what we see, what we find visible, is selective and filled with bad assumptions. As for respectability, I’ve started a collection of members of the British royal family wearing hoods. My favorite is the picture from Vogue, of little 3- or 4-year-old Diana Spencer, before she was the Princess of Wales, in a black hooded… well, it looks like a sweatshirt to me, a hoodie. Say that in public, and somebody’ll come along screaming, “That’s an anorak you dumb bitch!” Well, okay, if you say so — but that kind of hair-splitting boundary-setting didn’t seem to come into play when it was the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, who was wearing a hooded anorak the eighth time he got pulled over for Driving While Black.

Hoods have gone in and out of fashion, but people really, really like them, because they’re comfortable and convenient — I think it might be harder to find a time and place where people don’t wear hoods. (I’m talking about a specifically European and American sartorial context, and I know that’s really limited — but it’s the history of the American hood that I’m really looking to take apart.) I just found a bunch of hoods from the second, fifth, and twelfth centuries in museums in and around Paris, from Roman and medieval France. The Tudor queens wore hoods; women wore hoods in Marie Antoinette’s France and the nineteenth-century everything. Laura Ingalls Wilder owned two hoods, a black one and a white one, for going sledding with Almanzo Wilder. I’m living in Berlin now, and there’s this gigantic memorial to the Soviet soldiers of WWII — with these whopping statues of soldiers wearing hooded cloaks.

Casual sports clothes were invented by the English upper classes over a century ago, and they morphed into the Ivy League Style of the 1960s. White affluent people wore a lot of hoods, including hoodie sweatshirts — they raised them into iconicity and respectability — and they still wear them in those contexts. But that’s not part of the dominant media message about hoods.

Do you remember the first hood you loved?

It’s a toss-up. When I was in high school, my little sister was cool, and I was not. I borrowed — stole — all her clothes: among them, a drawerful of great cotton hoodies. (I still steal her clothes. I made off with one of her fantastic maternity turtlenecks this past February, so well made and comfy — and I’m not pregnant.) Then there’s the black hoodie my grandpa used to wear. He’d worked in the mines in northwest New Jersey. So here he was, this old white working-class man in a hoodie and baseball cap sitting in a lawn chair and grumbling, while I sat next to him, in my black hoodie and baseball cap but young and Asian-American and a girl, but also grumbling.