Toriano Porter

Why was an African-American teen told to remove his hoodie at a KC grocery store?

Signs posted outside Marsh’s Sun Fresh in Westport don’t include hoodies among the items banned from the grocery store.
Signs posted outside Marsh’s Sun Fresh in Westport don’t include hoodies among the items banned from the grocery store. The Star

For Sherry Mirador, the fear of young black males being racially profiled is real.

An encounter last month at Marsh’s Sun Fresh grocery store in Westport left her 17-year-old son shaken and made Mirador determined to change the stigma associated with African-American teens and hoodies.

After Mirador’s family arrived at the store, employees asked her son to remove his hooded sweatshirt, which was pulled up over his head. They cited unnamed security concerns as the reason for the request.

When did wearing a sweatshirt become questionable behavior? And is grocery shopping while black one of the noncriminal activities that now creates suspicion?

Signs that ban guns, knives and other weapons are visible at Sun Fresh. So are others that prohibit soliciting and loitering. But there’s nothing posted on the premises prohibiting hoodies. And the lack of clarity raises questions about whether a young, white woman would be subjected to the same wardrobe limitations.

Businesses can’t pick and choose when to enforce rules — and which customers must abide by them. Subjective policies only lead to acts of profiling and discriminatory behavior.

Mirador’s son was unnerved by the incident, she said. He returned to his mother’s car to avoid a confrontation when asked to remove the hoodie.

Mirador questioned how the store enforces its policy, but she said she was brushed off by a security guard, a manager and store director Bob Smith. When I visited Sun Fresh recently to ask Smith the same question, he repeatedly shooed me away.

“This is a private matter that doesn’t involve you,” he told me. “I’m not talking to you. Write what you want.”

Repeated calls and email messages to owner Gary Marsh were not answered. On another recent trip to the store, Smith again summoned security when I asked to speak to him privately about what had transpired.

I left Sun Fresh without incident. I could only imagine what Mirador, her son, a daughter and a family friend felt when they were singled out.

Weaponizing security guards to remove a complaining customer (or an inquisitive journalist) is a heavy-handed tactic. It’s also bad for business.

After the encounter at Sun Fresh, the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin weighed on Mirador’s mind. Trayvon was 17 when he was shot and killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman after a physical altercation.

Trayvon was wearing a hoodie when he encountered Zimmerman that night in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was later acquitted of murder. The case remains in the psyche of parents like Mirador.

“I felt like at that moment, any mother raising a young black male could find themselves walking in (the shoes of Trayvon’s parents),” Mirador said of her son. “It saddened me to think that he’d been targeted.”

Mirador, though, wants to find turn her family’s experience into positive outcome. She plans to host a hoodie for bow-tie and button-down shirt exchange in the near future. The aim is to collect at least 100 hoodies and donate them to a local homeless shelter.

“I want to change the narrative for young black males and hoodies,” she said.

Her goal is a good one. But we should also question when hoodies went from athletic gear to criminalized clothing that young black men should avoid.

Four white women in Tennessee wore hoodies inside a mall after four black teens were escorted out of the same establishment for simply doing the same. Unlike the women, the teens’ heads were not covered, according to published reports. Security never asked the women to leave.

“We live in a society that we are all not created equal,” Mirador said. “Life is hard enough raising our sons in this racial climate. Now we have to add eliminating certain clothing they can wear in public.”

Someone in authority at Marsh’s Sun Fresh should answer questions about what appears to be an unwritten rule prohibiting certain customers from wearing hoodies. Until the store explains how the policy is enforced and why it isn’t posted, Mirador and her son are right to feel unsettled.

Toriano Porter is an opinion writer and member of The Star’s Editorial Board. He’s received state-wide, regional and national recognition for reporting since joining McClatchy in 2012.