Last week, Katie Steen wrote a great column about the difficulties women face due to the clothes they wear, whether as professionals in the workplace or students conforming to a school dress code. However, I did take issue when she started talking about men. Don’t get me wrong, most men do have a much easier time getting through the whole clothing issue than women. But, the black community especially deals with a quite damaging stigma surrounding dress choice.
The way our society defines proper attire is not just sexist, but also inherently racist. Black youth have been associated with fashion choices such as sagging their pants and wearing backwards baseball caps. In passing dress codes that forbid these style choices, schools have effectively instructed young men and women that the popular styles in their demographic are wrong, while “white” fashion is right. All this amounts to is a codified decision that one culture is inherently better than another.
Young black men are told that the fashion trends popular in their community are not allowed — that sagging pants and backwards hats equate to the uniform of a criminal. This simply isn’t true. Movies and television may have us believe that certain types of dress are synonymous with thugs, but clothing is nothing more than personal style — a point made clear in my interview with Harwood McClerking, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University. He’s a visiting scholar at the Center for Political Studies here at Michigan and specializes in black politics.
McClerking — typically dressed in track pants, a long sleeve t-shirt and baseball cap — is an embodiment of the very concept that clothes don’t make the man. We talked extensively about different issues surrounding dress codes and cultural perceptions of dress, drawing on McClerking’s experience as a police officer in Columbus, Miss. He explained to me that in the beginning of his career, the gang film “Colors” came out and several of his colleagues began identifying gang members by their clothing choices. Despite a huge absence of major gang activity in Mississippi at this time, pop culture socially constructed an idea in officers’ minds about the existence of gangs and how to identify them.
Sadly, he explained, kids took cues from these movies too. Baggy clothes, big coats, low pants and all-black outfits were the rage, but also the target of police profiling. This has, of course, translated into school dress codes, where parents and administrators have banned certain styles as a way to combat “gangs” and “crime.” I can remember my sixth grade social studies teacher explaining that sagging pants were banned because “certain groups of people do that to keep their guns there.”
When I was in middle school, all of my friends rocked the sagging pants. We did it just because it looked “cool” at the time. Some of my friends still do it. Our fashion rights were trampled on just the same as black kids, but as whites, we had our own cultural style that was accepted. Black kids are told that the fashion they choose is inferior to mine. Sure, I’ll admit that walking into a workplace in jeans, a white tee and Jordans would be frowned upon, but it’s not like a student of any race shouldn’t be able to wear this outfit to class. If schools required a jacket and tie, maybe this argument would be made, but dress codes tell kids that one type of casual fashion is higher on the social ladder than another — it has absolutely nothing to do with workplace clothing.
I was always taught to dress well and dress conservatively — not for me, but for whoever I may end up meeting. Looking “like a thug” would make people draw unfair conclusions about me, resulting in lost opportunities. However, I was also taught in school not to judge others based on how they looked. We saw a lot of pictures of people in hijabs, sombreros and other “ethnic clothes.” But dress codes imply the exact opposite. Whether it’s labeling a girl with short shorts as a slut or telling a black kid with baggy pants that he looks like a criminal, judging on appearance alone goes against all the things school taught us about diversity. Race is a social construction, and so is fashion. How we appear is nothing more than our personal style. If our schools and society plan on teaching real acceptance and tolerance, then it’s time we start to actually accept and tolerate everyone.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.