By now we’re used to seeing kids be sent home, suspended, shirt-swapped and shame-suited for all manner of dress code violations, but this is a brand-new one! A little girl in Biloxi, Mississippi, had to change her shirt for one reason only: It made the principal uncomfortable.
Eight-year-old Makiyah-Jae was dressed in accordance with her school’s dress code, or so her mother, Sharika Jolly, thought. The shirt the little girl left the house in is one she’s worn many times before: a long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Black Girls Rock.” Here’s a variation of it:
Jolly told a local news outlet that she initially purchased the shirt for her daughter to give her a self-esteem boost after her daughter told her that she wanted to straighten her hair and dye it blond. Jolly purchased the shirt from a nonprofit of the same name, which seeks to “[build] the self-esteem and self-worth of young women of color by changing their outlook on life, broadening their horizons and providing tools for self-empowerment and efficacy.” So the shirt had a double purpose: supporting a great cause and giving Makiyah-Jae one small means by which to be proud of herself the way she is, no lye or dye necessary.
Seems pretty innocuous, right? Positive message, cute shirt, happy kid. That’s why Jolly was a little surprised when her daughter came home dressed in something else because her school’s administration told her to change. When she called to find out what rule her daughter had violated, she got her answer: none. The principal just made a “judgment call,” and that call was that the shirt had to go.
It seems we can’t win when it comes to dress codes. Step outside the bounds? That’s a write-up. Adhere to the policy? Well, the goal posts can move at any time. If that’s the case, why bother with a dress code at all? Spending all this time on what kids are wearing on their bodies seems like a massive Sisyphean task if they can do everything right and still get dinged for it.
Especially at 8, when kids have a really literal sense of fairness, this is so frustrating, and it opens the door to the mentality of “well, it doesn’t really matter if I follow the rules, so why bother?” In this case, it has potentially worse implications. This is a young girl of color who went to school dressed, by all accounts, “modestly” (whatever that really means), in a shirt that had no reference to violence, drugs or anything else that dress codes list as verboten. So what was wrong with it? She had to fill in the blanks herself, and to a kid that age, that means drawing the conclusion that there is something offensive about the concept of black girls and whether or not they rock.
For a kid who, only months ago, was considering changing her entire appearance with a little chemical help, that can be pretty damaging.
Eventually the school apologized, and the district superintendent, Arthur McMillan, attempted to make good with this mess of inexplicable projection: “Sometimes with decisions we make even as parents, we go back and look and think, ‘I wish I’d made that decision different’ … In today’s world, we think about all the politically correct things that we don’t want to offend anybody; probably overreached in this situation.” No kidding, dude.
The thing is, as parents, we may regret our decisions, but we don’t print them into a handbook that rivals a property law textbook in its thickness, the way schools do with dress codes, and then ignore that just to soothe our sense of discomfort when our kids follow the rules but we change our mind anyway.
As far as the “politically correct” quip, it’s not clear what he’s getting at here. Her shirt didn’t say “White Kids Suck” or “Black Girls F***ing Rock”; it was a simple message of empowerment. You have to do some impressive mental gymnastics to find something offensive in that.