Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson got into a war of words with Republican lawmakers over his choice to wear a dashiki on the floor of the state legislature.
His garment was criticized in person and on social media, leading him to call out some of his colleagues for bias.
The Hill reported that Rep. Pearson wore a black dashiki on the Tennessee House floor to honor Black History Month and “[pay] homage to the people who allowed me to be here.” However, during proceedings that day, Republican lawmaker David Hawk seemingly threw shade at Pearson and his clothes, invoking the name of the late Lois DeBerry, one of the first Black women to serve in the Tennessee assembly. Honoring DeBerry, Hawk argued, included “how you look and how you appear.” In addition, Hawk implied that DeBerry would object to lawmakers not wearing ties while in the chamber.
Soon after, Pearson expressed his feelings about the incident on Twitter. “We literally just got on the State House floor and already a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki,” Pearson tweeted on Feb. 9. “Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable,” he added, alongside a picture of him in his dashiki and black mask raising a Black Power fist.
We literally just got on the State House floor and already a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki. Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable. Thank you to every Black Ancestor who made this opportunity possible! pic.twitter.com/HGNtMmH5OY
— Justin J. Pearson (@Justinjpearson) February 9, 2023
The Tennessee House Republican Caucus responded to Pearson’s post, tweeting that “referencing the bipartisan and unanimously approved rules for House decorum and dress attire is far from a racist attack.” The Tennessee Republicans further responded to Pearson that “if you don’t like rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.”
Referencing the bipartisan and unanimously approved rules for House decorum and dress attire is far from a racist attack.
If you don’t like rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them. https://t.co/UdPkk8WLCS
— TN House Republicans (@tnhousegop) February 9, 2023
Even on the Republicans’ Twitter page, responses to their post overwhelmingly favored Pearson. Many posts questioned whether the Republicans were citing legitimate rules or simply singling out Pearson for criticism over his pro-Black attire.“Wouldn’t expect anything else from the group trying to eliminate black history being taught in Tennessee,” Memphis City Councilmember JB Smiley tweeted.
Wouldn’t expect anything else from the group trying to eliminate black history being taught in Tennessee.
— JB Smiley, Jr., Esq. (@jbsmileyjr) February 10, 2023
Twitter user Andi Maria, meanwhile, was blunter and responded to the Republicans, “Uh oh, y’all’s racism is showing.”
Uh oh, y’all’s racism is showing
— Andi Maria (@Andiwithaneye) February 11, 2023
Speaking to CNN days after the initial exchange, Pearson maintained that “there’s nothing in the rules about attire at all.” Nevertheless, he told CNN that, while he would continue to wear his dashiki, he would wear a coat and tie over it to ensure he is recognized during proceedings on the House floor. Pearson argued that the spat over his clothes is “not a problem of dress, it’s a problem of principle that is wrong and lacks inclusivity.”
The Tennessee legislature continues to debate proposals ranging from sending some juveniles to adult prisons and enforcing laws such as those banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” like the existence of white privilege. With such legislation on the table, debates surrounding bias and exclusivity will continue to arise in the state.