A Texas High School’s “Dress Code for Parents” Revives a Familiar, Insidious Explanation for Racism

In the foreground, five students sit around a wooden desk, looking towards the front of classroom. A teacher standing in front of a white board is in the background. Tables full of other students, also turned towards the teacher, are in the room.
Respectability politics teaches children to focus on how they’re perceived, rather than their studies. NeONBRAND/Unsplash

At this point, it’s clear school dress codes are, more often than not, relics of “traditional” values that tend to disproportionately affect girls and students of color. Every few months some school’s unnecessarily punitive dress code goes viral. BuzzFeed has an entire video series dedicated to adults trying to navigate the school dress codes of specific states, with the simultaneously strict and vague mandates rendering half their closets unwearable. Amid all this, it’s hard to be too surprised by the lengths schools will go to eradicate the scourge of bare shoulders. Even so, a new dress code from James Madison High School in Houston announced in April managed to raise some eyebrows because of its new target: parents.

Announced in a letter, the public school’s new dress code bars parents from the school grounds if they’re wearing ripped jeans, leggings, short-shorts, mini-dresses, sagging jeans, undershirts without an additional layer, or cleavage-exposing tops. A number of other items, including hair bonnets, pajama pants, and rollers have also been banned, in a supposed effort to teach children “the appropriate attire they are supposed to wear when entering a building, going somewhere, applying for a job, or visiting someone outside of a home setting.” The strange new policy went viral when a parent said she was prevented from enrolling her daughter in school because she was wearing a T-shirt dress and a headscarf. It has since faced widespread criticism. The Washington Post reported that 58 percent of the students at Madison are Hispanic, and 40 percent are black. And as Nadra Nittle of Vox pointed out, a ban on items like hair bonnets seemed to “disproportionately target black women’s grooming practices.”

Though the school’s principal, Carlotta Outley Brown, denied that the new dress code had any discriminatory intent, her defense of the policy still manages to traffic in respectability politics: “[The policy] is about elevating standards for students who will go out into the world in the near future and seek opportunities for themselves. I do not want them to face possible barriers,” she told Vox. “Respectability politics” describes the idea that black people can disprove perceptions of their inferiority thorough their own personal behavior, like, you know, not dropping off your child at school in a hair bonnet. The thinking goes that if we don’t respect ourselves, how can we expect others to respect us? Because, clearly, respecting ourselves not only requires submission to antiquated ideas of propriety that cater to whiteness but also means black cultural traditions are inherently not “respectable.” These politics place the onus of eradicating racism on the victim of a stereotype instead of on the person who holds and weaponizes the stereotype.

Even if we accepted that premise, there’s evidence it doesn’t work. Proponents of respectability politics, who have included Booker T. Washington to Charles Barkley, have long argued that the more education black people attain, the less likely they will be to face discrimination or be treated unfairly because of their race. In fact, the opposite is true. Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that more than 8 in 10 blacks with at least some college report they’ve experienced racial discrimination, while fewer than 7 in 10 blacks with high school or less say the same. (About 2 in 10 blacks with some college reported regular discrimination, while fewer than 1 in 10 blacks with high school or less do.) Half of all black people with some college experience say they’ve feared for their personal safety because of their race, while only about a third of those with less education say the same. This holds true across multiple surveys: A 2017 NPR report found that black people with college degrees were more likely to report being subjected to racial slurs.

The working theory behind this apparent paradox is that because college-educated black people are more likely to work and study in predominately white environments, they are also more likely to be exposed to racial prejudice. But these studies also suggest that even if black people adhere to bedrock social definitions of respectability by pursuing higher education, they still face—or are even more likely to face—the barriers that path would supposedly prevent. Dress codes like the one at Madison High School are just another rung on this creaky ladder.

In truth, racist social barriers are simply standards invented to justify racism, codes put in place to assert black inferiority. Teaching children that they can avoid bias by wearing business casual 24/7 lends undue credence to the idea that black people are somehow to blame for our own marginalization, that if we just stopped wearing sagging pants or hair rollers—in, let me reiterate, not a work-related context—that we’d get more respect. It ultimately prepares kids for disappointment, anger, and heartbreak when, even in their sweater vests at the grocery store, they still face discrimination. The solution to racism is not to put the weight of eradicating bias on the shoulders of high-schoolers, who are at school to learn, or to suggest to them that their parents are not worthy of respect because of the way they dress. James Madison High should focus on giving these kids a real education—not in the service of disproving racist myths, but because by virtue of being a child in America, that is their right.