This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.
I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.
So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.
One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”
Hold up. I teach English.
I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.
In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.
But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.
I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.
It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.
We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.
It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.
I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.
Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.
And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.
The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)
So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.
And a difficult one.
Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.
So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.
But Amy was wearing a big red S.
By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.
I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.
And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.
Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.
Even that didn’t work.
When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.
But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.
Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.
Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.
“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.
“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.
And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.
And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.
I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.
It just seemed so unfair.
Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.
They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.
However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.
Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.
Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.
In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.
However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.
Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.
My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.
Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.
I say again – I don’t know.
However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.
The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.
This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.
If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.
Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.
But this kind of thing happens all the time.
White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.
And in each case, the beneficiary is invariably the white person and the loser is the black person.
That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.
It’s something we, white people, need to acknowledge.
I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.
I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.
It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.
I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.
But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.
Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.
It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.
And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.
Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.
I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.
In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.
Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.
Especially when the norm is whiteness.
Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!
I mean how white can you get?