Racist and Sexist Dress Codes Make School Hell for Black Girls


It turns out that school dress code policies—which prohibit harmless black cultural signifiers and draw attention and shame to individual body parts—make school disproportionately difficult for black girls. Imagine that!

Researchers at the National Women’s Law Center have released “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools,” a report about the impact that school dress codes have on black girls’ education, body image, and confidence. Co-authored by 20 black girls who attend or recently attended D.C. public schools, the report unearths the extent to which black girls are asked to leave class or are suspended for defying overly restrictive dress codes.

From “Dress Coded”:

Black girls are 17.8 times more likely to be suspended from D.C. schools than white girls. One reason for this disproportionate punishment is that adults often see Black girls as older and more sexual than their white peers, and so in need of greater correction for minor misbehaviors like “talking back” or wearing a skirt shorter than permitted. Race- and sex-based stereotypes result in unequal enforcement of rules.

These suspensions can make it hard for black girls to graduate, and studies show that students missing three or more days of class in a month can put them a full year behind their classmates.

Seventy-four percent of D.C. public high school dress codes allow disciplinary action that can result in missing classes or entire school days. This is particularly controversial in D.C.: a Washington Post exposé revealed that D.C. public schools often illegally send students home without receiving formal suspensions, in an attempt to lower their suspension records.

The dress codes examined in the report are also culturally insensitive, often in the hopes of adhering to more mainstream (read: white) views of professional attire. According to the report, 68 percent of D.C. public high schools ban hair wraps or head scarves, a staple in many everyday hairstyles for black girls.

Additionally, girls attending these D.C. middle schools and high schools recounted instances of public shaming by administrators and manhandling as a form of discipline by staff.

A 13-year-old girl attending a D.C. middle school recalled a time she was almost forced to go home because her pants were dirty.

If you break the dress code, the school will say ‘You gotta go to the office,’ or, ‘Oh, you gotta go home.’ Last time I got dress coded, I almost had to go all the way home. 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. That wasn’t right. Not everybody is the same size. Some people are big, some people are skinny. . . . [Once] they sent me to ISS—in-school suspension. They give you work. They tell you to get work from your teachers but sometimes that’s hard because you don’t know what to do. So you end up doing the wrong thing and you have to do it over again.

Dress code violations are also unfairly doled out to curvier or overweight students more than slender, less developed students. For example, one school lists the following rule in its code of conduct: “Clothes that are inappropriate in size (too tight) or see-through or expose undergarments may not be worn.” This rule inherently makes larger bodies a target of administrative scorn, lest they wear a shapeless sack at all times.

Aside from these dress codes being sexist, racist, and arbitrarily enforced, they’re also incredibly unforgiving to weather constraints.

A 16-year-old student got a dress code violation for wearing a strapless shirt outside in the sweltering heat:

Last year, when we were in a temporary building, we had to transfer from academic to arts block, so we had to wait for buses. It was really hot that day and I took off my jean jacket because since we were outside; inside, I was wearing a jacket. Since the shirt I had on underneath was strapless, I got dress coded and I was told that I couldn’t wear that. But I was outside and it was really hot. What do you expect?

If you’ve ever spent a hot day in D.C., you understand how fucked up this is.

These schools—and others across the country that enforce similarly restrictive dress codes—seem more concerned about body shaming their students into a rigid form of respectability than making sure they’re getting an education. And black girls are feeling the brunt more than anyone else.

Read the full report here.

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