Column

When acceptable attire depends on the color of your skin

Parental dress codes are a thing in some educational institutions

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Every day educators teach students the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Many are familiar with the biblical verse, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that one day we’d live in a nation where children (and their parents) “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” All of these sayings are saying the same thing — yet what does it say about us when we judge someone by the most superficial cover of them all: their wardrobe?

While wearing a respectable suit and tie, Donald Trump announced a policy that separated children from their parents coming across the border; he looked businesslike as he referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as “shithole” countries; he was dressed formally as he signed the largest corporate tax cut in U.S. history into law; and he looked like an upstanding citizen when he likened torch-toting neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers to antiracist activists in the aftermath of the Charlottesville riots. Trump may have been appropriately dressed on all those occasions, but his actions betrayed the dignity of the White House.

Still, he wasn’t wearing his pajamas, or exposing his body parts, like some parents do when they take their kids to school, and that’s the important thing, you know.

“A principal I talked to told me a lady came into the office with her sleepwear on with some of her body parts hanging out. You got children coming down the hall in a line and they can possibly see this,” Tennessee State Rep. Antonio Parkinson said on the NBC show TODAY in January.

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Parkinson is making waves, writing dress code policy for public school parents who he’s told are “wearing next to nothing,” and while walking their children to school no less. He introduced a bill requiring schools to adopt a “comprehensive code of conduct” that would describe the “types of behavior expected of all people entering school grounds,” and although it doesn’t mention a dress code, his public comments suggest he believes it would empower schools enforce dress codes for adults.*

These loutish parents, according to Parkinson, are freely exposing their expletive-ridden tattoos to the detriment of decorum, respect and dignity, as well as vulnerable children. Parkinson is pushing a deficit narrative — negative presumptions about particular socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups. We are to assume the parents targeted by Parkinson are a danger to themselves and others.

As a former school leader, I well know that there are certain behaviors by parents that must be confronted. Violence of all kinds must be strongly discouraged. There should be standards around communication that’s befitting of an educational institution. But if you’ve been exposed to schools that educate students from upper-income families, you’d know that business suits cover tattoos, but they don’t conceal a lack of kindness, respect and cordiality. You don’t have to use swear words to be vulgar; the stereotyping of black and brown people happens regularly, without a swear word attached to it. Likewise, there is no regular outcry from legislators and principals from white, middle-class schools about parents donning gym attire and yoga pants when they bring their kids to school. The double standard is as crisp as the fold in Trump’s ironed pants.

In recent years, politicians and school officials have introduced proposals for creating adult dress codes for parents (and volunteers who aren’t parents!) attending school functions. In 2014, both the Broward and Palm Beach County school boards in Southern Florida discussed implementing policies on parents’ attire at school functions, citing the ubiquity of pajamas, hair rollers, and sagging pants, according to Associated Press reporting. Neither board actually ended up creating policies for fear that they would be difficult to enforce and because of the belief among board members that it wrongly defamed parents. “We say that parents send the best children they have to school,” Debra Robinson told the Associated Press. “Well, guess what? Kids send the best parents they have too.”

Palm Beach County considered a dress code for all grownups on campus after a mother complained that her son in elementary school reported that a volunteer wasn’t wearing underwear. The board scuttled the proposal for fear that it was alienating the adults that schools are trying to engage. But many schools and districts have succeeded in creating dress codes for adults. For instance, the employee dress code of the New Hanover County School System in North Carolina bars “revealing necklines, bare midriffs and excessively tight clothing.” The dress code also mandates that clothing not rise more than 4 inches above the knee. Not surprisingly, the majority of dress code policies are targeted at women.

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Legislators who should be writing policy that gets to the source of inequality and injustice instead resort to respectability politics, which the writer Damon Young defines as “what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.”

These deficit narratives that assume the culture of the parents and students are the cause of underachievement overlook the culture of the school, course of study and lack of extracurricular offerings, which are influential for student outcomes. Principals who blame parents probably don’t want to be held accountable for what the school is actually responsible for. Blaming parents is often a misinformed and racist distraction: Black parents tend to value education more than other groups.

“Hispanic and black parents are significantly more likely than white parents to say it’s essential that their children earn a college degree,” found a 2016 Pew Research Center survey. People of color believe in the power of education. The report finds that 86 percent of Hispanic parents and 79 percent of black parents with children under 18 say it is either extremely or very important that their children earn a college degree compared to about two-thirds (67 percent) of white parents who say the same.

If we’re going to judge people by their attire, then saggy pants and hair rollers should be the mark of high aspirations, based on the Pew data on the high value that black and brown parents place on a college degree.

Underachievement isn’t from a lack of will; there is a lack of way, meaning quality, highly resourced schools and college access. We have to stop blaming black parents for their underachieving kids. I see the value in creating community standards, but browbeating parents publicly is no way to get them to conform. Parkinson and the educators who are informing him are modeling behaviors we don’t want in our schools — badgering and bullying. If a principal will disparage a parent, that principal will most certainly belittle a child — also an affront to positive community values.

Trump makes it crystal clear that we should be more worried about well-dressed men in power than scantily clad women bringing their kids to school when it comes to harming society.

This story about dress code discrimination was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

*Clarification: This story has been updated to include a link to Parkinson’s code of conduct bill.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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