While school is going to look different this fall (understatement of the century), it’s about time it changed even more, by abolishing school dress codes. To some, this may seem like a radical move. Don’t kids need some rules to keep them in line? As we still limp through this pandemic, and work to make sure that racial justice remains at the top of our priorities, it makes complete sense to remove the rules that have become an obstacle to equitable education.
“Dress code has always been about policing the body,” Dr. Christopher Emdin, associate professor of Science Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, told SheKnows. “What’s happening right now is that we are pushing back against the concept of policing without purpose or controlling without really good reason, and one of the mechanisms that we use to police and control in schools is dress code and hair styles [rules].”
Not a dress code for all
This has been a long time coming. A few years ago, there was a flood of news stories about dress codes — often involving girls who went viral on social media as they protested how their schools’ teachers and administrators unfairly punished them for violating rules designed to keep them from “distracting” boys with short skirts and shorts, and revealing shirts. In these incidents, the girls were pulled out of class and even suspended for the sake of these boys, and the teachers ignored the irony of how distracting this was. Girls, their advocates, and academic scholars began to gather evidence that girls and students of color were getting disciplined far more than white boys for these rule violations.
But even worse were the stories we heard about the Black, Latinx, and Native American students, some heartbreakingly young, who were sent home for wearing their hair in braids, dreadlocks, Afros, or other natural hairstyles. Administrators repeated those same “distraction” arguments for their rules about hair length, but the pictures showed Black children unable to attend first grade and high school students not being able to graduate. (Should we be thankful that they have at least stopped using the unfounded, despicable argument that these hairstyles are supposedly dirty?)
The racist outcome of these rules is no surprise to the people paying attention.
“We have to situate this policing of hair in the larger context of: whiteness or closeness to whiteness is always right,” Emdin said.
The Crown Act, a movement to get states to prevent discrimination against Black hairstyles, had already been slowly gaining ground before 2020. It has been signed into law in seven states so far. When the Black Lives Matter movement swept the world early this summer, we began to have hope that things were going to change faster and more dramatically, and Emdin has, in fact, seen some educators change their way of thinking.
“I think that there are schools and districts that are really reconsidering what their positions have been historically,” he said.
But at the same time, there are others that are not. Teen Vogue just reported on schools in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Brooklyn that are enforcing dress codes even when their students are attending via Zoom.
“During standardized testing, we were forced to have our cameras on and to be ‘appropriately’ dressed or our scores would be invalidated for fear of cheating,” Justin, a Black student at Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn, told Teen Vogue. “I personally was told to take my hood off by a teacher during a test since they wanted all of our faces to be on camera.”
Earlier this month, 6-year-old Asten Johnson was refused entry to Zion Temple Christian Academy in Cincinatti, due to his dreadlocks. Though the city has its own law against hair discrimination, religious institutions are exempt.
This isn’t just about allowing children to show off their hair or wearing cute cutoffs. It’s about the fact that people’s insistence on rules becomes a slap in the face to the children who are otherwise eager to learn.
Emdin has found this in his conversations with Black and Latinx youth, who truly come to school with a love of learning and often find that school institutions don’t return that love.
“When young folks are free to be who they are in the classroom, they learn better,” he said. “They’re not consumed by whether or not [they’re acceptable. They are not worrying about how they are going to be perceived or interpreted. They’re not worried about: am I breaking a rule or am I not? Am I going to anger somebody? And the reality is, when a young person is consumed by how adults are viewing them, based on how the hair grows out of their head, for example, they don’t have the mental space to also learn.”
But should we ban all dress code rules?
You might be reading this far and wonder why we can’t simply make sure dress codes don’t ban natural hairstyles and that they are enforced equally. We don’t exactly want our children to go to school naked or to have to sit in a classroom with someone wearing Nazi regalia, right?
In districts in Oregon, Seattle, and California, schools have been experimenting with abolishing most rules about dressing. They follow a model developed by the Oregon National Organization for Women in 2016. The model places a higher value on student self-expression and comfort than on “unnecessary discipline or body shaming,” and it frees educators to focus on teaching instead of enforcing rules. For the sake of everyone’s health and safety, they have to have certain body parts covered. The also can’t wear anything that has hate speech, profanity, pornography, or promotion of drugs or violence.
So far, we haven’t heard of these new rules backfiring in anyone’s faces.
Some of the arguments for dress codes and school uniforms are that they discourage kids from judging each other based on their clothing and unify them as one. This is not what actually happens.
“If you created a school culture where everyone was valued for their self-expressiveness and their culture and their style, then you wouldn’t have to worry about using dress to be the mechanism to build community,” he said. “If you really build a strong community, you wouldn’t need what people wear to define it. There’s a wide array of modes of self-expression, actually [helping] to make the community stronger.”
The mask exception
We’ve seen the irony of the same kinds of people who love a good dress code suddenly arguing that no one should be forced to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And now, even progressive educators are worried that mask rules might be one more way that students of color are going to be unfairly disciplined.
Emdin had a reasonable way of looking at this: “If it causes harm or discomfort to another human, then it should not be welcome.”
By not wearing a mask, you may be causing harm or discomfort to another. On the other hand, reusable masks are now offering kids a different opportunity.
“What’s inevitably going to happen is that they’re going to put on masks and the masks are going to be the chief mechanism through which they express their culture.”
What can parents do?
If you see dress codes being inequitably enforced in your child’s school, it’s time to use your voice. Let the administration know that your top priority is that the school is a place of learning and acceptance, not of molding little humans into some uniform ideal. They may even pay more attention to you if you make these opinions known without your child having been dress-coded. And then tell your friends, your PTA, and more. Systemic change works when we join together and speak up for each other and for those who can’t.
Help your kids express themselves with these face masks from Black-owned brands.