Fatima Goss Graves is president and chief executive of the National Women’s Law Center.
Schools are opening their doors to a new group of students, ready to take lessons designed to shape their lives and worldviews in lasting, meaningful ways. But what lessons will they draw from restrictive school dress codes? Nothing good. Yet, schools such as Roosevelt High School, which fared poorly in the National Women’s Law Center analysis of school dress codes, continue to enforce rigid dress code rules, regulating girls’ bodies with detailed descriptions of “appropriate” necklines, fit and shirt type and even banning skirts, dresses and shorts entirely.
Since the release of “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies and Bias in D.C. Schools ” last year, there have been positive conversations about school dress codes and significant progress in the District and around the country. Students have organized protests, parents have prompted dress code committees, and there is new legislation in some states, including recent legislation in the District banning suspensions for dress code violations, closely followed by a resolution from the D.C. Council urging schools to end any classroom removals over dress code violations. The most recent report compiled by the NWLC, “Dress Coded II: Protest, Progress and Power in D.C. Schools” specifically examines that impact. Despite these positive steps, our new study indicates there is still much work to be done to remove the discriminatory dress codes.
Our analysis of 29 public- and charter-school dress codes shows 59 percent of high schools regulated the length of skirts and shorts, 55 percent regulated tightness and fit of clothing, and 48 percent banned hair wraps or other head coverings. And more than half of the schools with the harshest dress codes have a majority black student population. These findings demonstrate a much larger problem within our school systems: Dress code regulations impose double standards for black female students, reinforcing racialized gender bias.
Of course, that isn’t the justification offered by schools, who argue that dress codes can foster professionalism or reduce distractions. Some even claim there is a correlation between D.C. school dress codes and school performance. Each of these arguments, according to our research, is murky at best. On that point, Diedre L. Neal, the principal at Alice Deal Middle School, said it well: “I don’t know if I equate dress codes with student success. Of course, we want to limit any distractions in the classroom,” she said. “But honestly a stringent dress code could also be a distraction, right?”
Indeed, we have yet to see a legitimate justification for strict codes that lead to the policing of black girls’ bodies. That is true, also, for arguments of “respectability politics,” the idea that to be respected, black people must conduct themselves like upper-middle-class white people. If you aren’t too loud, aren’t too aggressive or dress a certain way, you will be safe from unwanted attention or worse, physical harm. But the other side of the respectability rules are young students feeling shamed.
Restricting black girls from wearing cultural staples, such as headwraps and other nonreligious headscarves, is a double standard that can produce feelings of internalized shame. When schools single girls out for the tightness of their clothing, it reinforces the belief that the very presence of their bodies is a distraction. These sentiments normalize sexism at an early age and only encourage the widespread victim-blaming and shaming we see in our culture today.
There are alternatives. Instead of pushing black girls out of school, our schools can be spaces where young girls obtain a quality education free from comments about their bodies and restrictions of self-expression and cultural identity. Perhaps we are more likely to get there if we follow the leadership of the students themselves. Students at School Without Walls, for instance, organized a protest that resulted in the school changing its dress code policies.
Arguments of respectability for black girls will continue long after graduation. Dress codes that reinforce double standards for black girls and women unfortunately continue into the workplace, as does the hypersexualization of black women’s bodies. By listening to and following the leadership of students, our schools can disrupt that pattern and abandon these biased rules and the respectability approach that drives them. Black girls have the right to an education and individualism, regardless of what they wear.