In my experience, school dress codes are a frequent topic of debate, particularly amongst adults and teenagers. I’ve heard stories about girls being asked to change because their shoulders were showing, have seen girls get sent out of class for showing bra straps, and have seen boys get in trouble for sagging their pants (which is an understandably annoying trend, but I digress.)
Earlier today at school, a boy was instructed to take off his du-rag. I was uncomfortable because it was a white teacher ordering a black student, as I have recently begun to examine interactions between white teachers, who tend to hold positions of power because of their race, and their black students. I, having seen family members wear du-rags on bad hair days, initially thought it to be a ridiculous rule. The teacher said the red du-rag could be a symbol of gang affiliation. When I asked about headwraps black women wear, he also said this could be a symbol of gang affiliation. I was angry and also embarrassed, but I couldn’t understand why.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad teacher in my four years of high school, but all but one were white. I specifically coveted my single black teacher and his African American studies class for three years, finally fitting his class into my schedule after changing my lunch period. He often lamented the fact that African American History was an elective half-year course instead of being taught along in “normal” social studies classes. Since I learned so much from him, I agree.
It’s not just what I learned from him, though. I still go back and visit him because of the safety I felt in his classroom. If anyone saw him, they’d probably be afraid, because he’s a big black man with a deep voice. But I knew I could discuss microaggressions with him without facing ridicule, the first time I’d ever been able to do so with any teacher. I could talk to him about snide comments made about slavery or black people or black culture, about white kids who said the n-word, about situations that made me feel uncomfortable even when I didn’t understand why. He understands. White teachers, although they may want to, do see the microaggressions. In fact, they’re often perpetrators.
The teacher who yelled at the student wearing the du-rag is one of my favorites. I’ve had him for four years. But when he talked to me about gang affiliations, I got the feeling I often get when white people say things that make me uncomfortable. My stomach sinks and I grow silent. I don’t say anything because I still want their respect and don’t want to ruin a relationship. However, in the immediate moment, I’m not sure how to articulate why the situation seems wrong to me.
Here’s what felt wrong: a white teacher calling out a black student for a distinctive part of black culture. The idea that I wouldn’t be able to wear a headwrap to school. The fact that this was somehow because of the dress code.
We aren’t allowed to wear hats at school, but du-rags and headwraps aren’t hats. I checked the official dress code, but these accessories aren’t explicitly mentioned. Instead, the code bans “any combination of clothing which law enforcement agencies currently consider gang-related” while acknowledging that “these may change.” After reading this, I became even more uncomfortable. How does this rule work in real time? Do teachers single out students who appear as if they might be affiliated with a gang? Are they relying on stereotypes or old information? And, with the tension between black people and police, I wondered how much “gang related clothing” had to do with clothes black kids like to wear.
According to GQ, the durag’s “existence as a utilitarian marker of black cool loosely parallels the head wraps worn by women in slaver-era America.” Both share aesthetic roots in sub-Saharan Africa, but the different stylings express individuality. For the author and other black men like him, the durag became a symbol of black excellence. Similarly, black women have regarded the headwrap as a “helmet of courage,” and “a uniform of rebellion signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.”
Durags and headwraps are elements of black culture and ways for black teenagers to express themselves while also maintaining a connection to their identity. However, they’re viewed as “gang related.” What does that even mean? I kept asking myself that question over and over again today.
According to Homefront Protection Group, “the leader in reality training for the law enforcement community in the United States,” some types of jewelry, clothing, accessories, and bandanas with certain colors or symbols could be gang representation. To me, this is entirely too vague and leaves too much room for adults, like teachers, administrators, or even police, to rely on their own notions of what gang representation is. Homefront provided their own example: a racially ambiguous (but brown) young person who looks like they could’ve been an extra on A Different World.
At what point do these arbitrary methods of gang identification infringe upon a student’s first amendment rights?
In Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District, a gang known as the “United Homies” wore rosaries at school, causing the school district to ban all students from wearing rosaries to school because they had become “gang affiliated.” However, not all students who wore rosaries to school were gang members. Therefore, a federal court ruled that the rosary ban infringed on the First Amendment rights of students to express their sincere religious beliefs.
Similarly, du-rags and headwraps are methods of expression for black students. Banning them in the name of “gang suppression” is a repression of black culture, and frankly, misguided. Gang violence is obviously a big issue, but research doesn’t support the position that school rules restricting student clothing have any significant effect on safety and security.
Newspaper accounts and anecdotes are not empirical evidence. Feelings white teachers or administrators may have are not empirical evidence. The lack of evidence supporting the banning of du-rags and headwraps makes me wonder how much skin color has to do with the situation. There are gangs that only wear Ralph Lauren. Will teachers pull white kids wearing Ralph Lauren sweaters out of the hallways and force them to change?