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I confess, I only own one suit.

"You're a politician, sitting up there wearing a tie!" One woman yelled from the back of a crowded public forum. I sat on stage speaking about my experiences being harassed, cuffed and detained by police while shopping for Dress in Red day of AIDS Life Cycle. Because officers perjured themselves in court, years later I would later find myself undertaking leadership to persuit of police accountability by working with other advocates to address profiling, racism, and bias within our police force.

I never found justice after officer’s perjury in court related to circumstances that lead to my sitting in the back of a police vehicle, broadcasting my situation to the outside world from my phone trapped between my cuffed hands – fully uncertain if I would lose my life or freedom. Watching silently as my records were being pulled up. I have no police record because I am lucky enough to have never been criminalized or become trapped in the criminal justice system that has destroyed generations of Black and Brown men. Wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, an American Flag t-shirt. A red handkerchief fitted about my neck – fitted the gayest way possible. This style of dress must have seemed like a threat.

We live in a world where people who look like me and come from communities or experiences the same as mine are often shot dead while wearing a hoodie. We are more often denied opportunities for simply not “looking the part.” We’re taught from an early age that a professional appearance opens doors. That tie I wore came from Ross, costing less than $10. My only suit is now four years old and falling apart. It was all of $100 + tax. It’s simple and black. It’s more of a uniform than anything else. It functions more fittingly as a protective gear against a class-driven society. Like a Peacock’s feathers, it serves to project an image that helps to attract my prizes and keep to doors from shutting in my face.

Because I am a person of color in the public spotlight. I am sometimes criticized, like this, for how I dress. I have been spending time thinking about identity and image. I can’t afford brand name apparel and in fact, don’t like to be labeled. Before exposing my experience with poverty, people seriously believed that I was rich when I was dirt-poor. Of course, that was by design to help protect me and my interests. By observation, I notice how people responded to my presence. There is a measurable difference between two types of reactions. When I am in my casual dress vs. when I am in my professional dress. I can correlate the difference to that of a smile filled with love and an awkward expression filled with assumption.

One day I leave the house all dressed up and everyone smiles, an atmosphere of decent interaction and baseline respect is displayed. People I don’t know refer to me as “Sir”. The next day, I leave the house dressed casually in sweatpants and hoodies and people act as if I am suspect or put on an air of superiority as if my existence is beneath them.

I was not entirely sure why, what I was wearing became a part of the subject matter of the evening’s forum around police accountability. I’m not sure why the police officers believed that I might have a “gun” or “knife” in an outfit that left little to the imagination and little opportunity to conceal even a tick-tac from view. (I kid, but you get what I mean). There I was feeling ostracized for being myself and looking like the educated, professional man that my mother groomed me to become. She’d prepared me to be strong for a world that destroys black men and boys in plain clothes or “urban attire”.

I remember growing up to comments like: “Boy, you better bust those wrinkles out them pants.” “Boy, you better pull them pants up.” “Boy, where is your belt?” “Boy, you’ll never get a job dressed like that!” But most importantly it was, “boy, you better watch out, out there.” That night, while being criticized, I maintained my focus and attention on the purpose of the evening. Many people have made comments on my clothing not knowing that those comments are insensitive.

I only own one suit and it’s falling apart.

Most of my wardrobe is older than some of your children. I don’t mind because I believe that it is individual that makes the clothing look good by how we hold ourselves. Because I take care of my clothes and am particular about my selections, they served me well at many high-class functions where a professional image opens doors to opportunity. A sharp appearance lets me exist in a world a little less entangled by bias, racial and class profiling. Two pairs of fancy nice dress shoes help complete the image I project and are hand-me-downs. My most complimented coat is now 12 years old and the second most complimented coat was a fabulous thrift store purchase of $15. I took a look at what I was wearing, yesterday, and realized the most expensive item on my body was a $25 pair of shoes from Ross. UcenterDress fall mother of the groom gowns

This suit is now four years old. The lining has become tattered and I wear it with pride, more often, to ensure my safety, dignity and to ensure my access to opportunity. As a Black man, I understand that what I wear, how I wear it, when I wear it and where I wear it impacts how I am perceived and dealt with by others in today’s unforgiving society.

But in the end, I only own one suite and the next one(s) I invest in are likely to cost the same. I’m frugal because I prefer to invest my money back into the community.

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