I went to a predominantly white high school and then to a historically black university. Each of these institutions, at some point, plastered posters featuring this visual: President Obama with his arms crossed, juxtaposed with a black youth wearing sagging pants whose body was marked with a big “X.” The poster included a snarky caption that read something like, “To get ahead, you must pull your pants up your behind.” The message was clear to my friends and me: We didn’t matter to anyone if we looked “black.”
Let me be clear. This is not about letting students sag their pants. This is about the insidious message we send to our students, a message that rests on respectability politics. As teachers, we all too often believe and reinforce the societal narrative that asserts that one’s potential correlates with one’s respectable appearance. As a black man, I can personally attest that many black students are rarely assessed solely on their academic merits, but rather on their ability to look and dress as “non-threatening” as possible. That usually means dressing “well off,” which usually means dressing “white.” (Let’s be honest: They’re usually seen as the same thing.)
Black students are held under a hypercritical lens. This results in a black student population who feel restricted, policed and regarded as potential problems—rather than as students with potential. At my high school, for example, there was a vice principal who had zero tolerance for untucked shirttails and sagging pants. She essentially stalked halls, breezeways and visited classrooms to check for dress-code violations. (Let’s also be honest about the fact that, in some schools, dress codes are made specifically to keep black students looking and acting “respectable.”) Students who committed such offenses were immediately sent to in-school suspension (ISS) for the remainder of the day. I “committed” those offenses several times, and I always noticed that the trailer where ISS was located was full of black boys.
In retrospect, my high school was like a microcosm of the prison industrial complex, and far too many schools today are that same microcosm. Many educators, unaware of their biases, perceive and accuse black students of “insubordination” or criminal behavior just for being or “acting black.”
Of course, there are educators who understand that the United States isn’t too kind to black students who dress “urban.” So many of these educators feel as if they’re giving life-saving instructions by encouraging black students to look and act “respectable.” But this type of survival rhetoric is dangerous. It facilitates, rather than challenges, the anti-black status quo: a reality in which those with political, economic and societal power—and who can be white people and people of color—use innate and covert racist, arbitrary logic to justify the mistreatment, over-policing and marginalization of people of color.
When I was in school and dressed “black,” my mentor at the time would say, “Don’t make that a habit. People might think you’re up to no good.” Remarkably, my mentor never told me that I looked like I was ready to steal millions of dollars or evade paying taxes when I wore a suit to school (on the several occasions I did). There’s a difference between telling a black student his attire is violating dress codes versus telling him that, because his attire violates dress codes, he’s less worthy of respect and human decency.
Black students mostly already know the world feels that their lives and potential are expendable. But when educators propagate these ideas—through respectability politics and otherwise—they earn the resentment of their black students. This resentment can turn into distrust of their school, depression, anger, hopelessness and unmitigated helplessness. So many young people internalize these anti-black beliefs. And in a social environment that’s already an obstacle course for black students, it’s not hard to see why they might give up on school.
We need to bifurcate the message that students’ intelligence and appearances are related. Their intelligence, academic performance and human value do not become nonexistent the moment they step in school with baggy jeans. Nor do their intelligence, academic performance and human value automatically increase when they put on button-down shirts and bowties. Even more serious: They do not become criminal, nor does their potential for criminality increase, the moment they dress in a way that an educator thinks criminals dress. Given the rampant anti-blackness around them, we need to pull our black students closer and affirm to them that their lives do matter, regardless of what they’re wearing.
Cook is an English instructor at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Tennessee.