Dress Codes Have Not And Will Not Save Black People From The Ills Of White Supremacy
Black people have been trying to dress their way out of oppression for too long.
Madison High School principal Carlotta Outley Brown’s parental dress code has been a polarizing subject since she enacted the policy in early April.
Brown started her policy on April 9, a day after her staff turned away Joselyn Lewis, who was attempting to register her daughter for classes at the Houston, Texas, high school, as Blavity previously reported. Lewis told KPRC 2, when she'd been turned away, she initially thought she'd been mistaken for a student.
"I could see if it's a student, yes they have a dress code. I understand that. But I'm not a student, I have no dress code. So who are you to tell me how to dress?" she said while recounting her interaction with at the school.
Brown apparently justified her decision with a condescending letter urging parents to have “high standards” for their attire. In the letter, she barred parents from wearing several items including bonnets, pajamas, hair rollers and low-cut tops. The decision sparked outrage across the country. It led to heated debates between people who opposed the policy and those who supported Brown’s decision.
A few days after the dress code policy was published, Brown doubled down on her justification for the policy.
She told Inside Edition a parent came in wearing a shirt so sheer her breasts were semi-exposed.. It's unclear if she was talking about Lewis, who wore what she'd been wearing to the school in the above interview.
"A mother came in with a see-through shirt, and you could clearly see her breasts and her nipples," Brown recalled to Inside Edition.
The timing of the policy and the order in which the rules were listed make the story doubtful.
The memo started with a lecture about Brown’s standards but somehow revealing clothing wasn’t mentioned until the sixth bullet point. One would think if someone’s mama walked into Madison High School with her bare boobs swinging in the wind, a request to cover up be the first item on the list. Instead, readers are subjected to a respectability politics-peddling lecture about what is appropriate attire outside of a person’s home.
On May 7, Brown told Vox if her students wanted pursue a college education, they should start “with how we present ourselves.”
Anyone who went to college will tell you sweats are the unofficial college student uniform.
Brown also minimized the importance of race.
“This is not about race, creed, or color and especially not about socio-economic status,” she said. “It is about elevating standards for students who will go out into the world in the near future and seek opportunities for themselves. I do not want them to face possible barriers.”
Yes, it is.
Black children are already over-disciplined in schools and the dress code presents another opportunity to enter children into the school-to-prison pipeline.
As Lewis’ experience showed, Brown is willing to call law enforcement on parents who don’t follow the policy. As we say in the South, "There is more than one way to skin a cat" — Brown’s methods are not only classist; they are also anti-Black.
Brown’s policy reads like a set of rules from a book about Black stereotypes. Bonnets, head scarves and shower caps are almost always attributed to Black women. The only time these items are associated with white women is when they want to turn them into the newest unseasoned trend like The New York Times attempted to do in 2016.
The same can be said of Black men, sagging pants and the way the style is criminalized when it is placed on a Black body.
Since Black people stepped on to this continent, we were taught we could alleviate some of our oppression with a nicely curated outfit. If we followed the rules, we could get some of white supremacy’s prizes.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both in suits and ties when they were murdered. When our elders were marching in their Sunday’s best, those nice clothes were tattered by attack dogs and water hoses. When Trayvon Martin died, he was attacked by critics who believed his hoodie contributed to his death.
There are plenty of stories of well-dressed Black people who did everything “right,” and still got screwed over. Journalist Brittany Noble Jones was famous for her reporting on the Michael Brown case and should have been a highly sought-after journalist. Instead, she was told her natural hair was unprofessional when she asked a supervisor if she could stop straightening her hair.
“After having my son, I asked my news director if I could stop straightening my hair,” she recalled in a Medium post. "A month after giving me the green light, I was pulled back into his office. I was told my natural hair is unprofessional and the equivalent to him throwing on a baseball cap to go to the grocery store. He said, ‘Mississippi viewers needed to see a beauty queen.’ He even asked why my hair doesn’t lay flat.”
Madison High School’s student body is overwhelmingly Black and Latinx, so even if every parent followed the policy discrimination is still a possibility. Teaching children they will be protected if they wear a button-up and take off their bonnets does them a disservice. As Yasiin Bey said in his song "Mr. Nigga," “They say they want you successful, but then they make it stressful/ You start keepin' pace, they start changin' up the tempo.”
Even when Black folks start wearing the “right” clothes, we'll get clocked for something else. On April 24, Texas mom Angela Washington posted a picture of her son’s haircut, after it was ruined by an administrator with a Sharpie marker, who deemed it “out of dress code,” as Blavity previously reported. Not to mention, the number of stories which have circulated from schools where Black children, although in uniform, were sent home because their braids were deemed inappropriate.
California’s Senate had to pass a law to ban businesses from discriminating against Black people’s hair, because many dress codes have “a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group."
My majority Black and low-income schools were adamant about their dress codes, but like many schools, they dropped the ball elsewhere. There were times when we were fed expired and moldy food. We shared tattered textbooks. There was an extreme focus on standardized test preparation instead of making sure the students could read. I was reprimanded for wearing a shirt that didn’t cover the top of my leggings, but I don’t remember a time when they actually taught us how to dress for an interview.
Brown was hired as a turnaround expert to fix issues at Madison High. An October 2017 article by The Houston Chronicle deemed Houston, TX, high schools a "dropout factory,” because the dropout rate is over 40 percent — I doubt a bonnet had anything to do with this statistic. Black children are often over-disciplined and undertaught, and there aren’t enough button-down shirts and press-n-curls in the world to fix this issue.
It remains to be seen what the effects of Brown’s policy will be, but I hope she put this type of passion into helping her students rather than controlling them.
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