The saying “Clothes make the man” is firmly entrenched in our everyday parlance, but is it true? If how we dress can alter one’s perception of us, can wearing a suit instead of a hoodie protect young Black men from being mistaken for “thugs,” even when they’re not? A group of Illinois teens hopes so.

“When people see a Black person, they don’t really think he can be smart,” Feli Keti, a senior at Central High School, tells WICD.

Keti, along with students at Central and Centennial high schools in East Central Illinois, participated in a video project called “Suit and Tie in the 217” in the hopes that by seeing them dressed up, America will begin to view young Black men differently.

“We’ve gotten a bad rap for a long time,” Central High senior Hayden Hinton says. “People think that we’re thugs or gangsters when in reality, we can be business men and scholars, and important people in the community.”

Inspired by a similar video by the men of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at the University of Illinois, the teens say they hope to show others that they defy the stereotypes about young Black men and tell the real story of who they are.

“It’s (sic) a counternarrative that you can write your own story and don’t let any else — the media, other people – tell your story; tell it for yourself,” Tiffany Gholson, Central High School Social Worker, explains. “The negative stories told daily in the media and in our culture about our young African-American men tend to ignore their successes and don’t tell the full story about how young black men are becoming leaders within our community schools.”

The video shows the young men playing sports, dancing, volunteering, working, scouting, and hitting the books—things many young men do, but when we comes to Black teens, they are images we rarely see.

While I commend these young men for seizing control and telling their own stories, I can’t help be feel conflicted at the need to “change the narrative” about young Black men and present themselves in a “respectable” manner in the first place.

Moreover, no matter how much I wish it would, I doubt this well-meaning video, or V-neck sweaters and khakis, will protect any of these boys from being stopped by overzealous cops, or shield them from racists who could care less about what they have on and more about the skin they’re in.

Take Part’s Liz Dwyer sums up my ambivalent feelings about this project perfectly: “As nice as it is to see these young men looking sharp, they shouldn’t have to prove anything. Their clothing isn’t the problem. What is, is that they had to make this video at all.”

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