Since Treyvon Martin was murdered, the hoodie has become, for me, a complicated emblem. When George Zimmerman killed him, I watched the world around me put a dead teenager’s character on trial despite his innocence. I watched the world focus on a conversation about self-defense. In my visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in the summer of 2018, many of the anecdotes included about why black men were lynched were due to accusations from white people, who like George Zimmerman, were claiming some form of self-protection. It reinforced what we see now, and what we saw in 2012; the line self-defense really only applies when you are “protecting” yourself from a black person.
The implications for this death and many others plays out in a variety of interactions with black students. From parents giving “the talk” to school dress code guidelines, we see how the hoodie, and anything associated with black culture, has been criminalized or ostracized.
At a visit to a school recently, I walked around campus and through classrooms with a black principal. This day was one of the very few cold days in St. Pete. As such, students were wearing hoodies and jackets and blankets to stay warm. I watched this principal address three or so black boys about wearing their hoods up. The way she did it was lovingly, no yelling or derision. I did appreciate that, but my issue was that I watched many other students who were not black boys with their hoods up walk by without comment or corrections from the principal. Was the case that this woman, who I know has a passion for equity for black children, only saw the black boys’ hoodies? Was it a bias issue? What it a protection issue?
This question of the hoodie is really bigger than just the hoodie, of course; it extends to dress code at large. In many ways, dress code ends up being racial, from what we even notice to what we codify into our school expectations.
At one school where I was a staff developer, I had to deal with a teacher who relished writing students up for tardies and dress code. One of the most memorable moments in dealing with him was when two students- a white girl and a black girl- walked by him. They were both wearing the exact same, low-cut dress, but the only student he stopped and wrote up was the black girl. Even in my own time as a teacher, I really only remember regularly harping about dress code to black students.
Other facets of the dress code that seem to disproportionately impact black students are things pertaining to hair. While India Arie asserts that “I am not my hair,” there are countless stories of black hair being criminalized or marginalized. Over the summer when I posted the link to this video on Facebook, a school administrator posted this question, “This is very informative. How would you respond to a student who refuses to remove her sleep bonnet or go to class because her hair isn’t done?” It led to an interesting discussion that include the following responses such as “if the student came to school and the bonnet isn’t impacting anyone’s ability to learn, why does it matter? Why punish kids for showing up?” and “This is a legit struggle for a good administrator. It is the tension between your teachers wanting you to be the ultimate cop and your heart wanting to be the impactful teacher.”
In the end, the comment I most identified with was this: “I think I hear each of you saying building positive relationships with our students (earning the right to be heard) is far more productive than enforcing arbitrary dress codes. This from a person who has spent a lot of years negotiating a balance on this topic. Let’s get them in class, engage them in meaningful learning and then talk about appropriate dress for school. How many times is our very first greeting ‘you are not appropriate.’ Then we get angry because they are not ‘motivated’ to learn.” It resonated with me because it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, our first commitment in our work is to students, and sometimes that means bucking an unfair system.
And as I was finalizing this post, a video went viral of a student athlete who was forced to cut off his dreads to compete in a wrestling match. Many of the tweets of this video focused on the student’s sportsmanship or the fact that he won the match, but I watched this video with a lot of heartache. It is so evident how sad he is about what is happening. The fact that so many allowed this to happen and did not stand up to the ref on behalf of the student really shows the epitome of the evil of these misconceptions. In the end, the spectators must have agreed with the ref on some level that blackness is inherently wrong or unacceptable, and that his locs had to go.
I need ya’ll to just let our babies be, let our babies live their fullest possible life.
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