Why School Dress Codes Are Often Biased Against Black Girls

A schoolgirl working at her desk.
Dress codes are often applied unevenly based on race.

At this point, it’s a well-established fact that there are vast disparities in how different children receive disciplinary action in school. With disparities presenting as early as pre-K, it’s also abundantly clear that there is something deeply wrong in how schools and teachers view those students who are subject to harsher and more frequent punishment—students with disabilities, black students, and boys. Beyond making school a hostile environment, harsh discipline that takes students out of the classroom can change the trajectory of their life. There’s research showing kids who are subject to out-of-school suspensions are more likely to fall behind, drop out, or encounter the criminal justice system—all consequences that can affect lifetime earning potential.

But beyond a murky sense of unconscious or conscious bias, the root causes of these disparities—and how to remedy them—doesn’t seem all that clear. A new report from the National Women’s Law Center aims to help fill in that gap, homing in on one underlying origin of the discipline disparity between black girls and their peers: dress codes.

Conducted through one-on-one and small group interviews with 21 black girls in the Washington, D.C. area, the report illustrates how dress codes left up to the discretion of administration create an environment where the bodies of children are subject to adult’s prejudices. Black girls in particular face “unique dress and hair code burdens,” largely due to the intersection of their racial and gender identity. It’s no secret that the enforcement of school dress codes tends toward sexist—scarcely a month goes by without a story about a high school forcing a girl to put Band-Aids on her nipples or wear tights in the summer heat because ankles are oh so provocative. Like most high school dress codes, many of the rules enforced at D.C. high schools disproportionately target young girls—bans against crop tops, leggings, makeup, and mini-skirts, and rules dictating the proper amount of bared skin are just some of the ways gender stereotypes are systemized. “The girls get in trouble more often for ripped jeans and tank tops, but the boys usually don’t,” said one 16-year old. One high schooler quoted in the report mentioned how even though her high school didn’t have a bra requirement in the dress code, they still told girls at the beginning of the year “that we need to wear bras, which was gross.”

Dress codes are theoretically about teaching children professionalism and modesty—two concepts, which, laden as they are with specifically white meanings, tend to be at odds with black self-expression. As the report’s authors note, “Traditionally Black hairstyles and head coverings, which often have specific cultural or religious meaning, are sometimes viewed as ‘unprofessional.’ These stereotypes can influence dress code policies, many of which target students of color.” The fact that black girls are also subject to hypersexualization—from both inside and outside the communities they inhabit—also goes a long way towards explaining why the very presence of their bodies is deemed a distraction. The myths of the Jezebel and the fast-tailed girl endure and at their worst are used to silence victims of sexual assault. In school settings, that sexualization means that dress codes that prohibit “tight” or “revealing” clothing signal an open season on black girl’s bodies. Factor in the adultification of black girls—the ways in which adults view black girls as less innocent and more sexual than white girls of the same age—and the fact that black girls are 20.8 times more likely to be suspended from D.C.
schools than white girls starts to make more sense. And while D.C. public schools are technically forbidden from sending students home for dress code violations, the NWLC reported that punishments for violations still include being sent home or excluded from class without a formal suspension or “shame-based” attention-grabbing clothing fixes, such as intentionally ill-fitting clothes or duct tape over holes.

When girls are sent home or taken out of class for dress code violations it sends a message that someone else’s perception of her body is more important than her education. As the report’s authors write, “When students see educators talking about girls’ bodies, they learn to ‘sexualize’ young women and view them as objects meant for others’ pleasure rather than full human beings.” Schools sound be a safe haven for students, not a place where societal prejudices and oppressions are re-enacted. Its increasingly obvious that that isn’t true for most of America’s children.