DC Is Going Back to School, and This Time Black Girls Will Not Be Left Behind

I’m no stranger to dress codes in D.C. I bounced around District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for my entire high school career, and two things remained the same no matter the institution: 1) the oppressive nature of dress codes, and 2) the fact that I was most likely to be targeted by them. Like many Black girls born and raised in DC, body policing is something I’m intimately familiar with. It’s everywhere. We see it at school, where our bodies are the subject of constant discipline, punishment, and judgement. We know it on the block, where no matter how we dress (be it for comfort, style, or convenience), strangers see our bodies as available for public consumption without provocation or consent. Even in our homes, where the [understandable] desire to protect Black girls from the social ills of a racist, sexist, and rapacious society is prominent, we are forced to bear the responsibility of other people’s respect, common decency, and self-control.
Just look at the news. School is barely back in session and Black girls are already being punished because of what they look like. But despite all the ways Black girls are targeted, shamed, and punished for our bodies, there has been little amplification of our voices. Instead, opinions are formed, and policies are made by governing bodies that aren’t our own. These bodies include school police officers, who often play into antiquated racist stereotypes and sexualize young girls for their bodies and clothing choices. Or teachers who tell Black girls that their clothing, bodies, and hairstyles are “inappropriate,” an argument used by policymakers and peers to justify sexual violence that happens to us. Or school officials who deny us equal education when they suspend us, pull us out of class, and send us home for minor violations. All of these stakeholders fail to realize the ways in which dress codes are used as a tool to discriminate, and by doing so refuse to recognize our autonomy and full humanity.
In a time where social activism and change is of the utmost importance, we must all be constantly questioning ourselves, our institutions, and our beliefs. Black girls and NWLC have banded together to create a safe space for ourselves to ask and begin answering these questions, and to nurture the change-agents within us all.
This is why the National Women’s Law Center partnered with 21 Black girls who live and learn in D.C. to release, Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools. The report gave students the chance to speak for themselves on how dress code policies affect them. Unsurprisingly, the co-authors shared a whole host of problems with dress code enforcement, including: hairstyles that are associated with Black girls and women being banned; uniform requirements that add financial stress to many families; girls’ bodies being treated as enticements for male students, prompting teachers to embarrass and shame girls in class for clothes deemed “immodest;” enforcement through physical touching without students’ consent; and learning time denied to girls when they are punished for dress code violations. They told us they felt shamed, unwantedly sexualized, ostracized, and flat-out angered by policies and enforcers alike.
But the Black girls of D.C. are not prepared to sit idly by and be discriminated against. Our co-authors have not only identified the problem of dress codes but have brainstormed possible solutions as well. There are many ways policymakers, school administrators, and teachers can begin changing the culture of racist and sexist dress codes. For example, co-authors recommended that rather than purportedly teaching professionalism by removing students for wearing ripped jeans, instituting a “business week or [or policy where] one Friday out of the month, you have business casual attire” during which constructive feedback is given to students depending on the career they are dressing for. This approach teaches addresses two problems: removing limitations on students about what careers are acceptable and dispelling the notion that professional attire is one-size-fits-all. Co-authors also recommended that policies need be equally enforced, dress code committees with students created, and not allow classroom removals. Some co-authors even said dress codes should be eradicated entirely because “what does wearing ripped jeans have to do with others’ learning?”
The report used a form of research that centers and relies upon Black girls’ voices and experiences, a tenet of Black feminist philosophy that forces us to rethink terms like “expertise,” “intellectual,” and “scholarship.” Simply put, the report reinforces the fact that Black girls are experts of their own experience. They understand situations and circumstances and thusly are best-equipped to provide the solutions. It also reminds readers that girls’ and women’s bodies are not the world’s political and social playgrounds.
Just like the Dress Coded co-authors, my experience with D.C. dress code policy, and other forms of body policing, is not singular, nor is it unique. Black girls all over the city have been suspended, sent home from school, pulled out of class, and judged harshly for minor dress code violations, oftentimes ones from which our non-Black and non-female peers would be absolved. Currently, Black girls in Chocolate City are more than 20 times more likely to be suspended than white girls ,often for similar infractions, a fact I knew to be true from life experiences, and which NWLC and Dress Coded report has further validated.
I want to personally thank the student co-authors and contributors at NWLC for an inspiring, and game-changing report.