I have traveled extensively and even lived abroad in cultures that were quite homogeneous and where I was one of few, if not the only one who "did not belong". While I'll difference were easily identifiable based on external indicators alone, the sense of being surrounded by others did not send me into a mad anxiety attack (ok, once in a very crowded Beijing mall, I had a bout of cultural claustrophobia) or fear for my life. Yet, last year while walking in my hometown, l lost breath in a terrified gasp, when I turned a corner downtown and walked smack into a pack of male university students sporting red caps and sweatshirts. Was it the passage through rowdy young men that almost stopped me in my tracks, or was it the recently internalized halt at a red hat sighting? It should be noted, they were wearing university logo hats, not the other ones
After the highly divisive and polarizing Presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016, MAGA (Make America Great Again) became well-known as it acquired a life of its own. On cups, T-shirts, caps and myriad other things, the big, white letters presented on a bright red background symbolized everything right about the land of freedom, the United States of America and everything wrong with it. The growing chant of nationalism, incendiary remarks by white supremacists and persistent narratives against immigration and building walls had much thinking: “are we witnessing a new form of the KKK?”
Cynics and moderates would dismiss such allegations as knee-jerk reactions. They are likely not historically marginalized people of color or immigrants. But like there cannot be smoke without fire, the idea was not entirely unfounded. After all, the President’s controversial remarks after the shooting at Charlottesville showcased a growing intolerance against ethnic minorities, especially African Americans.
As a rule of our inhumanity, majorities have often discriminated against minorities, whether based on hijabs, tattoos, cultural dresses, and traditions, or the way the minorities, largely people of color behaved or looked like. Even the law against natural or ethnic hair still stands (except for a recent legislative epiphany in NYC), women in Congress cannot bear their arms in the summer (no, the 2nd Amendment does not account for JCrew career attire), and people wearing MAGA hats hail that as a victory. The exploitation of African Americans has always been a reality, and KKK only exacerbated matters. When suspected vandals burned crosses on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawns, people realized that factions carrying KKK’s ideas were still present. In many ways, the 21st century is witnessing a resurgence of such ideas. Instead of burning houses, they are man-handling reporters at rallies and standing down against Native elderly veterans.
When caps become identities
At a time when the US is battling its own founding ideals, caps have become identities. Those who wear MAGA caps share a common set of beliefs and those who don't sport the caps generally share another. Sociologists and scholars suggest that we are seeing a resurgence of ‘clothes-define-you’ syndrome. Back in 2010, Catastrophe Management Solutions in Alabama, a local enterprise, said that they would not hire a woman with dreadlocks. Later, the court ruled that was not illegal. (fingers crossed that remains the ruling!)
With MAGA caps becoming the ‘Right Ones’ and those without being booed at, activists and pacifists fear that more people could become victims to latent racism. When details of the Jussie Smollett hate crime attach broke, the fact that his alleged attackers were wearing MAGA hats and strung a noose around his neck was plausible causes for deep sighs of anxiety and trauma. For Smollett outlined a realistic nightmare many people of color face in their days awake and woke.
The psychology of fear
Experts suggest that those who retaliate against minorities do so because they fear what they do not know. And since they do not wish to know either, their hatred for ‘the other’ increases exponentially. Since then, social scientists have blamed three schools of causes which may explain such conflicts: primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist. All of these rely on the fear of ‘the other.’
Consider these examples: The Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s between the Hutus and the Tutsies, Secessionist movements in many former Soviet Bloc countries, the still-lingering conflagration in the Palestinian lands, and the very recent Muslim-Buddhist rioting in Myanmar’s Rakhine region, which has threatened to upset the image of its premier, Aung San Suu-Kyi. In all these instances, people are discriminated against because of their attire, mannerisms, and appearances. Nationalistic personality disorders aside, abusive people often hide in plain sight. Today, they are bold about their position, and when one or two is gathered, the urge to act out increases because they are stronger together. From there, the need to hide no longer exists as they use uniform, labels and everyday dress to communicate not only allegiance to an idea or group, but as a means to elicit fear, trauma, and to signify collective unity against another. Think Swatzika on SS uniforms, youth camp white shirts and khakis, dock martens and mohawks (the late 70’s and 80’s scary punk era), and in some cases, police uniforms.
For historically marginalized women - women of color, immigrant, LGBTQ, and impoverished women, abuse and violence is almost twice as likely to occur. Dr. Susan M. Blaustein, the founder and executive director of WomenStrong International, an organization that supports women-driven solutions to poverty, says about identifying abusers, “When someone comes across as "likable," that's when "people put aside those alerts or warnings that they would take with them walking alone down a dark alley," These women may have developed a hyper-awareness of their environment and those with who they share it. The hats make it easier to know when to turn left.