Parent Dress Code Fail: When Respectability Disrespects Families

The idea of a dress code for parents—like the one at Houston's James Madison High School—should bother us all. Schools need to engage with families as partners in students’ education, not troublemakers to control.
Bookmarked 8 times

When a parent showed up earlier this month at Houston’s James Madison High School to enroll her child, she was asked to leave for violating the school’s dress code. Wearing a T-shirt dress and her hair wrapped in a scarf, she didn’t at first understand. When she pressed school officials to show her the dress code policy she was violating, they called the police. 

The day after the confrontation, an official policy was created and posted on the school’s website. A letter informed parents and guardians that they cannot show up at the school wearing leggings, pajamas, low-cut tops, house shoes, sagging pants, short shorts, hair rollers, or a satin cap, bonnet or shower cap.

Don't Call the Police Over Parental Dress. Full Stop.

It is never OK to call police on a parent for what appears to be a minor issue that should be resolved between adults. We know that the presence of police on school campuses often creates more conflict, as we understand the history of police abuse toward people of color. This particular school is predominately comprised of black and Latinx students. Police should never take the lead in a situation that doesn’t pose a physical threat to the well-being of people in the school community.

The Problem With Respectability

Justifying the school’s new parent and guardian dress code, the principal, an African American woman, says the policy’s purpose is to set an example for students. The letter explains, “To prepare our children and let them know daily, the appropriate attire they are supposed to wear when entering a building, going somewhere, applying for a job, or visiting someone outside of the home setting, I am going to enforce these guidelines. ... We are preparing your child for a prosperous future.”

Failing to distinguish between “going somewhere,” “applying for a job” and “visiting someone outside of the home setting,” the letter reinforces a dangerous narrative. While the list of prohibited items includes a range of clothing that cuts across cultural traditions, when the school framed the list in terms of “professionalism,” they joined a long and damaging tradition of arguments about respectability. These arguments are particularly harmful to black and Latinx people, who are most often their targets. They suggest that, for black and brown people to be seen and taken seriously, they must be respectable in dress—no matter the context. 

While some have supported the school’s new policy, plenty of people have also pushed back. Families point out that the content and the language of the letter are surprisingly condescending.  

Adults bringing their children to school are told, “We value you but we must ask you to follow the rules.” Any assurance of their value is hard to believe when they are also told, “No one can enter the building or be on the school premises wearing a satin cap or bonnet on their head for any reason.” 

There’s no recognition that head coverings aren’t always about style, that they serve an important function for some African American women who are in between hair dressings or do not want to get their hair wet. There’s no gesture toward understanding, no acknowledgment of cultural norms. Instead, parents and guardians of James Madison High School students have been given an ultimatum: Meet a set of “professional” standards or don’t engage in your child’s schooling in person. 

Who gets to set those standards? It’s certainly not black people, but we often adhere to them in the hopes that respectability works. It doesn’t. 

The dress code is just the latest example of black women being stereotyped or demonized for the same behaviors white women are applauded for. Just last year, for example, when a famous white actress wore hot rollers in her hair to pick her children up from school, Allure magazine ran this caption: “Jennifer Garner Wore Hot Rollers and Red Lipstick in Public, Like a Goddamn Hero.”

“I’m almost insulted,” one parent told the Houston Chronicle. “I really think it was discriminatory, the language that was used. It was demeaning. And I’m African American—and if it’s misty outside and I have a hair bonnet on, I don’t see how that’s anyone’s business.”

Another parent told a local news outlet that she was handed a copy of the parent dress code when she rushed to the school after her son broke his arm. She was wearing a satin cap. 

Will having a parent or guardian come to school without a bonnet or house shoes improve a student’s academic performance? Will it erase the systemic oppression that created economic disparities in their community? Will it remove the anxiety a heavy police presence produces in some students?

A Deficit Mindset

When educators are more worried about respectability than actually respecting someone who is different, we all lose. 

In “Controlling the Student Body,” Alice Pettway challenged educators to question dress code policies that affect students of color: 

“Is it truly disruptive, or is it just different? If the answer is different … then ‘educators should adjust their perception of what is appropriate rather than requiring students to fundamentally alter their bodies and identities.’”

Respecting students and their families is the first step toward working in partnership to create a healthy learning environment. When educators approach a community as one that needs to be fixed or controlled, they run the risk of breaking that partnership. And that doesn’t help anyone. 

When schools focus on difference or reinscribe arbitrary boundaries rooted in respectability politics, when schools enter relationships with students and families with deficit mindsets, they work against their goals. It’s critical that educators encourage parents and guardians to continue engaging with their students’ school, rather than give them reasons not to come back. 

Talking to a local news reporter, one parent explained it this way: 

“I can wear what I want to wear. I don’t have to get all dolled up to enroll her to school. My child’s education, anyone’s child’s education should be more important.”

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

Add to an Existing Learning Plan


    According to the Houston Chronicle, one of the parents in that school came wearing a lace top with nothing underneath and everyone could see her breasts. Is there ANY dress code appropriate for parents at school?
    Group of adults listening to one person speaking.

    Apply for Learning for Justice's Inaugural Professional Learning Institutes!

    Join us this summer in Mississippi and Alabama for low-cost, weeklong, place-based, immersive learning experiences that support educators' capacities to implement social justice education. Applications are open now until April 16.

    Learn More!