Federal Judge Struck down a North Carolina School’s Policy
“Last week a federal judge struck down a North Carolina school’s policy requiring girls to wear skirts for violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause. In his ruling, US District Judge Malcolm Harris wrote that “[t]he skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female” (Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc., 2017). The ruling comes as part of a larger wave of awareness that appears to be building among researchers and education advocates regarding the psychosocial implications of the strict demands of propriety applied to the bodies of women and girls in the form of school dress codes. New-wave feminism, informed by the #MeToo movement and a greater awareness of the need for intersectional activism, has shed light on the degree to which a uniquely undue burden is placed on women of color to conform to society’s standards of acceptable dress.
In February of this year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights instituted a law that bans discrimination by employers, schools, and other public places, based upon hairstyle, citing discrimination against women and people of color. This legislative development represents the exception, not the rule. In most parts of the country, school dress codes continue to explicitly on inexplicitly demand that black children in particular adhere to standards of “respectability” that are inherently misogynistic and racist.
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It is worth noting that while black men and boys in America are indeed subject to arbitrary standards of whiteness, black girls occupy a unique position that renders them vulnerable to the dual harms of racism and sexism.
Indeed, research shows that black girls bear the brunt of discriminatory dress codes and their consequences. In June 2017, Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality (GLCPI) released a nation-wide study finding that adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14. The study found that black girls are both hypersexualized and viewed as more combative than their white peers, making them more susceptible to disciplinary action like dress code violations. The researchers also determined that black girls are five times more likely to be suspended from school as white girls, and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys. A similar study analyzed the interaction of race and gender on disciplinary action in 6-12th graders in Kentucky; the authors found that public school discipline disproportionately penalizes African American girls for behaviors perceived to transgress normative standards of femininity (Morris & Perry, 2017).
In May 2018, The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) released a report co-authored by 20 African-American high schoolers titled, “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools.” The report presents jaw-dropping results, noting that black girls are 17.8 times more likely to be suspended from D.C. schools than white girls, and that school dress code enforcement is based largely body type and stereotypes about the hypersexuality of black women. The NWLC also found that the majority of school dress codes are ambiguous and unclear, using subjective terms like “distracting,” “provocative,” and “inappropriate.”
Punitive responses to dress code violations have real and lasting consequences for young women. Dress code violations usually result in an in-school suspension, or the student is sent home. This means that black girls are missing school because of clothing deemed to be “distracting” to their male classmates (NWLC, 2018). This type of enforcement not only denies black girls their education—threatening their long-term earning potential and health outcomes as well as perpetuating longstanding gender and racial inequalities—it also flagrantly promotes rape culture (NWLC, 2018). The very premise of dress codes is that everything from leggings to lipstick can be used to seduce suggestible young men away from their studies. Furthermore, it presumes that there is a certain “type” of girl who wears makeup or a particular style of clothing, and that donning them suggests something about the girl herself. Dress codes teach men and boys that “good girls” look and dress a certain way, and that girls who do not look “good” deserve to be punished.
Existing research shows that school practices distinguishing certain students from others can actually cause young people to form biases based on these distinctions in how students are treated (Patterson & Bigler, 2006). The field of psychology is all too familiar with the phenomenon of stereotype threat, whereby black and female students, when reminded of racist or gendered stereotypes, perform worse on academic tasks for fear of conforming to those very stereotypes (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995). It seems clear that these biases represent a greater threat to students’ concentration and moral character than a tank top with spaghetti straps. We already know that nationally, white girls are 1.2 times more likely to enroll in postsecondary education than black girls, and that black women who do not graduate from high school are 2.17 times more likely to be unemployed than white women (Ginsburg, Gordon, & Chang, 2014). And yet school dress codes continue to prioritize the education of boys and notions of modesty that are fundamentally racist and sexist. Even dress codes that incorporate uniforms pose problems, as the cost of new school-specific clothes is prohibitive for many families. A student who cannot afford to replace a lost school-issued uniform sweater must either go cold in the winter or get “coded” and face disciplinary action for wearing her own clothes to class.
School dress codes are in desperate need of a policy update on a state-wide and/or federal level. Research shows that in their current form, dress codes hurt students—especially black girls—and actively detract from the learning environment. Furthermore, students who spend less time in class are less likely to perform well academically, increasing their likelihood of dropping out, which itself constitutes a risk to community health more broadly. As the NWLC points out in its report, dress codes should focus on equity and diversity. Promoting equal access to education rather than the marginalization of minority students should be of paramount importance to those working in the field of education.”