Recently I spent a weekend in the Crown Height, Brooklyn – a Hasidic neighbourhood.
As I walked to and from my friend’s apartment, I was surrounded by men in black suits, white shirts and hats or yarmulkes, and a few women in long skirts.
Despite being a person of colour who is used to being the only POC in a room, it was nevertheless a powerful experience to be and feel so obviously different as I walked along the street because of my clothing. I stood out.
I wondered what it must be like to dress the same as everyone else. And I remembered my high school uniform; the blessing it was for a kid who didn’t have the “right” clothes, and yet how stifling it was to my teenage self. I tried many ways to assert my individuality in that uniform.
I’m not equating a high school uniform with cultural and religiously significant clothing! These clothes and ways of dressing signify beliefs and a way of being. And of course Hasidic Jews are not the only ones who experience this. Hijabs and Turbans are two other examples that are also very visible. But I did wonder about the sense of community.
I wondered what it is like to share culture and religion so publicly, constantly, and consistently. I wondered what it was like to be so visibly part of a community, and to be IN that community – and by contrast what it was like to walk in other parts of the city. I also wondered if, outside of the community, this defining way of dressing may feel different if one is alone, or with a group of similarly-clad people. (I did see groups of Hasidic boys in the various subway stations on Friday). And I reminded myself that how it feels is likely impacted by how one is received by others.
When we are obvious in our difference, we can more easily become targets for discrimination and hate. Although for us, those markers may be sources of pride and provide a sense of belonging.
And as I walked, I also wondered what these markers don’t allow us to see because of the assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices that clothing can inspire – consciously and unconsciously.