Leggings, Tank Tops, and Short Skirts: How Dress Codes Affect Girls of Color
It all started when a Catholic mother of four sons wrote a letter to the editor of the University of Notre Dame newspaper criticizing a group of young women who were wearing leggings to mass, claiming that the form-fitting pants are too much of a distraction for young men. First Twitter, then the mainstream media exploded, with The Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS, BBC, and Vox, among others, reporting or commenting on the issue. Young women, from a mostly White and wealthy student population, donned leggings to protest in solidarity on campus.
To be fair, Notre Dame has no such dress code. But plenty of P-12 schools do. So where are the hashtags and media attention for the young women and girls who are most oppressed by this sort of mindset and the policies and systems that come from it? These are the young women and girls of color — especially Black girls — who go to school every day knowing that they are more likely to be suspended, expelled, harassed, and bullied than their White peers — all too often for their clothing choices. Rules like these send the message that what girls are wearing is more important than what they’re learning.
In a report that my Ed Trust colleague Kayla Patrick co-authored, the National Women’s Law Center looked closely at dress code policies in schools in the nation’s capital and found, “[p]lain and simple, D.C. dress codes promote race and sex discrimination and pull students out of the classroom for no good reason — often through illegal suspensions. As a result, Black girls fall behind in school, which threatens their long-term earning potential while also exacerbating longstanding and widespread racial and gender inequalities.” In D.C., 42 percent of schools with dress codes ban tights and/or leggings altogether.
The Black girls whose bodies and clothes are actually being policed across the country aren’t getting the same sort of voice and defense on the internet. Where’s the outrage for Ayiana Davis, who was 16 when she was told by school officials that she couldn’t take off her jean jacket while waiting for the bus in the sweltering summer in D.C. because her top was strapless?
Where’s the anger on behalf of Samaria Short, who was 13 when she explained her experience being “dress coded” in middle school: “I live far. I have to catch two buses and get up at 6:00 in the morning just to get to school on time. They almost made me go all the way back home, just to change my uniform pants, because my uniform pants were dirty. I said, ‘I can’t go home, ’cause there’s no one there and it takes a long time for me to get home and get back here.’ So, they made me come try on all these different pants they had. Some of them were small, and some were too big. They told me to go home because none of the pants fit me.”
Where’s #LeggingsDayDC? Or #TankTopDay? Where are the tens of thousands of shares and likes of Ayiana and Samaria’s stories on social media? The silence is deafening — but not surprising to Nicolle Grayson, Ed Trust’s director of communications, who wisely reminded me: “The media is more adapt at telling stories of injustice for rich White folk than people of color.”
I appreciate the many voices who came to the defense of the young women at Notre Dame. As a leggings-wearing White woman with privilege, I identify with them. But as an ally in the work promoting racial and social justice, I identify more with the voices that are not being heard, and I’m committed to lifting them up.
And not just around the issue of young women and girls of color more often being “dress coded” than their peers. Students of color and students from low-income families go to schools that are underfunded, are disproportionately disciplined, have less access to strong, consistent teaching, and are less often enrolled in high-quality preschool. (Stay tuned for more from Ed Trust on this!) We all can and should do better about using our platforms and our privilege to bring attention to these issues and finding solutions.