By Michael Obel-Omia
Special to The Journal
“The apparel oft proclaims the man.” That quote, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” is advice that’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Recently, I was out with a few friends, one of whom was a new acquaintance. The woman, who hadn’t spent much time with me, remarked that the top button on my polo shirt was buttoned. She noted it curiously at first, but then felt a need to unbutton it — yes, I am that irresistibly sexy in person — for it drove her crazy that I was so “buttoned up” on a warm summer evening. Smiling while dodging her furious hands, I told her, “I paid for the button, so I shall use it.”
Buttoning up, for me, is not only a matter of pride — I need to look good when I go out — but also a wonderful metaphor for how I view my world. As an African-American man who is predominantly surrounded by white people, I feel a need to be reserved, cautious, aware, well-spoken and even better dressed. I know that I am being judged by my words, by my actions, by my appearance.
Yes, I said “shall” to that woman, because I speak in a way that arrests attention. How I look and how I talk matter.
During last summer’s rush to buy school supplies, my wife, a white woman, allowed our biracial son to pick out a shirt. He came home and proudly showed me the T-shirt: “Wake Me Up For Lunch.”
I lost my mind. I told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t wearing that shirt to school.
I think my strong reaction has everything to do with my perception of how my son may be viewed: as a biracial boy in a whitewashed suburb of Providence, will his shirt be taken as a harmless joke, or will it trigger in the teacher some latent sense that this child, this half-black child, cannot and will not do the work?
My perception is probably as outdated as my conservative, ’60s country-club dressing style, but I still feel it — and, more important, fear it. As a black man, I, and by extension my children, need to be on point, both in speech and in dress, because I feel as if I am — we are — being judged.
I still remember my mother dressing me in the hand-me-downs of my older cousin. The shirts and pants could not have been more corny, and I was mercilessly mocked by my classmate Moses: “Michael, the 1950s are calling; they want their argyle sweater back.”
I fought with my mother about those outlandishly outdated clothes, but later, after elementary school, I started to choose to wear them. The reason is that I began to recognize that clothing says a lot about who we are. I had just entered a private school, and in order for me to fit in, I had to dress in ’80s preppy style (which seemed straight out of “The Official Preppy Handbook”).
Apparel doth oft proclaim the man, and we see that with “thugs” walking our urban streets with their pants halfway down their legs. Even when I, a black man, see these children, I don’t see innocence; rather, I see potential danger.
I button up not only to lower anxiety when people meet me, but also because it reminds me how to proceed — with caution. I don’t think I have the luxury of speaking and dressing as I like, because I fear that I am being judged by what I say and how I dress.
As post-racial and as accepting and as inclusive as we like to imagine ourselves, we are still a nation of people who quickly judge. By dressing as inoffensively as possible, I try both to blend in and to let my words allow me to stand out.
Michael Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.