“Your shirt yesterday was scary,” says Armando (not his name). “I am glad you brought a different one today.” It is a Sunday afternoon in one of California’s many State Prisons. We, a team composed by two outsiders and five inmates, have just finished a Basic Alternatives to Violence workshop in Spanish, and are going through the required post-workshop processing. The workshop went well, everybody is happy and relaxed. “What do you mean scary?” I ask. The day before I wore a black long-sleeved tee with pink girly motives, bought at a winter resort sale years ago. I needed a warm but not too thick something for skiing, and since it had become a comfy informal attire. “It had brass knuckles on it,” Armando says. “And razorblades.” The other guys nod in agreement. I frown, trying to visualize my tee. Cherries, a little bird, and high-heeled shoes come to my mind. Brass knuckles? “Oh, come on! Those are bear paws!” I remember finally. Armando shakes his head. “Those are brass knuckles,” he says with an authority I do not dare to dispute. He must know much better than I do. While this group of men has long ago renounced their violent past and seek for ways to rehabilitate themselves, there is no denial that their 25 to life sentence was for a reason.
I do not really know what a brass knuckle looks like. I google the image, and then compare it with the supposed bear paw on my shirt. They look identical. For the first time since I bought it, I start actually looking at the motives. Cherries, a high-heeled shoe, a bird. A razor. A razor blade. Brass knuckles. A cold, uncomfortable feeling settles in my stomach.
I bought the tee because of its fabric and its fit. I looked briefly at its decorations, and saw what I wanted to see- a silly collection of girly fluff: cherries, little birds, shoes. The image of brass knuckles was not familiar to me, so my mind substituted it with the nearest similar image- bear paws.
After this experience, I had searched a bit further and have discovered many websites featuring merchandise with brass knuckles on them, including women’s t-shirts.
While going to a State Prison may not seem similar to enter a classroom, there are indeed many similarities, and one involves to consider what we wear. There have been many discussions about what is preferred in a classroom: a serious formal attire or a relaxed, modern outfit. The former is sometimes appreciated by students and can elicit respect for the educator; but may be also seen as stiff and distant. The latter may help to establish a more open classroom community, but some formal students may see a jeans and sneakers-clad instructor as too lightweight. At prison, besides the rules (no blue, orange, or khaki, no jeans) it is important to avoid clothing with messages on them that may be disturbing or proselytizing, and similar care has to be taken in the classroom.
I was not aware of the menacing meaning of my supposedly harmless piece of clothing. It was sold by a well-known apparel company, as part of a very ordinary-looking selection of winter shirts.
This is the end of my story- my shirt has been relegated now to the pile of exercise clothes, and I will be looking much more closely at any other piece of clothing with small decorations on it. Semiotics experts may discuss the importance of symbols. Other disciplines may analyze how the human brain interprets information (see the famous gorilla video or the more recent gorilla in the radiology image study).
But it still bothers me.
If you wish to know more about the organization I volunteer for, Alternatives to Violence project in California, please visit the website avpcalifornia.org.