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School dress codes unfairly target Black girls. But students are fighting back

For Indiah Porter, it happened during a middle-school production of The Pirates of Penzance. Porter had long been a theater kid, interested in all the productions at school and nursing a love of singing. When her middle school decided to take on the classic comic opera, she was of course on board.

“The teacher was having us try on costumes, and she said, ‘You all look so beautiful,’” Porter, now a 21-year-old college student, recalled to Mic. “And then she goes, ‘Oh, and Indiah, could you either straighten your hair or just leave it in a bun like that for the performance?’”

Porter was one of the only Black students at her private, all-girls school in Philadelphia. She was one of just two Black girls in the Pirates of Penzance production, and the other Black student had her hair in a straightened weave. The teacher didn’t comment on any other of the girls’ hairstyles.

“I just felt so sad because I loved my curly hair, and in that moment I was like, why wouldn’t I be allowed to wear it out and curly?” Porter says. “It was really disturbing for me, because for a school that preached being feminist and for girls’ rights to make comments like that was so disheartening. These people who were supposed to help you, guide you, and be an advocate for you, really weren’t unless you looked a certain way or dressed a certain way.”

Across the country, Black girls and young women like Porter report being singled out and punished in school for their clothing or appearance, or for wearing natural hairstyles. The discrimination against traditionally Black hairstyles extends to male students too, but when combined with the already heightened scrutiny of the female appearance — which happens across race lines — Black girls in particular tend to be more explicitly targeted.

“When we looked at the issue of school discipline and dress codes, we knew that the people who would understand them best and know how to fix the problems were those who were targeted most frequently by them — and that’s Black girls,” Nia Evans, the lead researcher for the National Women’s Law Center’s new report on Black girls and school dress codes, told Mic. “If you really focus on the barriers affecting Black queer girls in particular, you can solve so many of the issues of discrimination that exist in our schools.”

With the intersection of racism and sexism, girls of color are often hyper-sexualized and viewed as being older than they are.

Drawing from tired race and gender stereotypes, America’s schools continue to over-police Black girls and LGBTQ Black youth through their dress code policies — creating a barrier to their educational success and well being. Dress Coded II: Protest, Progress and Power in D.C. Schools, the NWLC’s groundbreaking report on the issue, documents discrimination faced by Black girls attending public and charter schools in Washington, D.C., as well as their efforts to fight for just educational access. Both Dress Coded II and its companion report, published last year, were co-authored by a group of 21 Black girls currently enrolled in D.C. schools.

Black girls are disproportionately harmed by school dress codes, whether they’re sent home from school for a violation and forced to miss class, shamed for wearing natural hairstyles, or subject to the trauma and discomfort of feeling uncomfortable in what they wear on a daily basis. For queer, trans, and nonbinary Black youth, the NWLC found that dress codes are particularly harmful, because they are rooted in strict definitions of how boys and girls should look.

“With the intersection of racism and sexism, girls of color are often hyper-sexualized and viewed as being older than they are,” Charlotte Jacobs, executive director of Girls Justice League, a girl-led advocacy organization in Philadelphia, explained to Mic. “And because of that, in schools there’s this feeling that they have to be controlled in a way that’s different. There’s an assumed lack of innocence for them compared to white girls.”

Dress Coded II graded D.C. schools based on the restrictiveness of their dress codes, and the vast majority received a grade of C or lower. Dress code violations contribute to vastly disproportionate school discipline rates for Black girls overall — in D.C., they are 20 times as likely to be suspended as white girls for any infraction, even though there is no evidence that Black girls are more likely to break school rules. These staggering rates of discrimination in school discipline are not limited to the nation’s capital, but are found in research on Black girls and school discipline from across the U.S. And Black girls who are criminalized in school — particularly queer and trans girls and those with disabilities — face a higher risk of being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline.

After working with other Black girls on Dress Coded I & II, Ayiana Davis, a 17-year-old high school senior, found her eyes opened to gender-based discrimination at her mostly Black, arts-focused public high school. One theme that stuck out most to Davis, who describes herself as “really small and skinny,” was how much girls with curvier figures were targeted for dress code violations. “The idea that if you’re not skinny you need to make sure you cover yourself up and be conscious of what you’re wearing,” Davis told Mic, should not be enforced via the pressure of a school dress code. “Being modest, or being professional, or being conscious of what you’re wearing in a particular setting — I don’t think that equates to covering up.”

At Davis’s high school in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, she reports that girls have trouble complying with the dress code because it restricts comfortable clothing options, particularly in hot weather. “When school starts, it’s hot outside. The clothes I have for summer are the clothes I’m going to wear regardless of where I’m going to be at,” says Davis. “Most of my summer clothes are going to be shorts and crop tops, and I don’t own shorts that go almost to my knees. So I wear what’s in my closet.”

When girls are not allowed to wear to school the clothing they wear outside of it, this creates an extra financial burden that boys do not face, essentially mandating that girls’ families purchase one wardrobe for the classroom and another for normal life. Moreover, dress codes often send messages to girls telling them that they are responsible for men’s reactions to their bodies — rather than men being responsible for themselves. Dress Coded found that enforcement of dress codes can normalize scrutiny of girls’ bodies and even provide school staff with a guise for sexual harassment.

Since working on Dress Coded I, the Black girls who wrote the report have spearheaded efforts for increased equity in dress code policies at their own schools. These efforts, such as meeting with D.C. council members and Department of Education officials, are documented in Dress Coded II. For instance, after a male staff member at Davis’s school made several girls, including Davis, uncomfortable with the comments he made about their appearances under the guise of dress code enforcement, they organized a group of students and parents to express their concerns to the school administration. As a result, the male staff member was retrained on dress code enforcement, and he hasn’t posed a problem for Davis or her classmates since.

“The message is, ‘Your body is not your own.’ Because we get to tell you what you do and do not do with your body and how you dress your body,” says Jacobs, who is also an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s a message that your body, and you, need to be controlled in some way. So that’s the message we’re giving girls, instead of helping young people figure out how to make decisions that work for them.”

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Black girls attending predominantly white schools often feel particularly singled out by dress code enforcement. Porter, who remembers having only one Black teacher throughout middle and high school, says that teachers regularly made derogatory remarks about her appearance. In one case she recalls her math teacher telling her in front of the whole class that her skirt was “way too short, you should stop rolling it.” Because Porter had a curvier figure than most of the other girls, the skirt appeared shorter on her, she says, and she was forced to demonstrate in front of the entire class that she was not, in fact, rolling it up to shorten it. Her senior year, when she wore a fitted, knee-length dress to school for “career day,” Porter says her college counselor came up to her and remarked, “Oh, you have a lot going on there.”

Thanks to the activism and advocacy work that Porter did with Girls Justice League, she felt equipped to respond to this counselor to inform her that “comments like that lead to over-sexualization of Black women’s bodies.” Porter also used her school’s senior assembly to educate the entire school about the over-criminalization of Black girls in schools and how the trend is connected to police violence against Black women. Unfortunately, Porter says, the school administration was lukewarm in its response and didn’t make any policy changes.

The advocates Mic spoke to have a number of recommendations for improving equity and inclusivity in school dress codes. First and foremost: Give students a seat at the table in designing dress code policies. Other recommendations include prohibiting students from being forced to miss class because of what they’re wearing; removing police officers from dress code enforcement; and avoiding vague language in dress code policies that leaves room for interpretation, such as “appropriate attire” or “distracting.”

At the heart of this issue is that schools need to “start teaching students to respect each other no matter what they’re wearing,” as Evans put it. “Your dress or your appearance should not be an indicator of how you are treated. All students deserve to be treated with respect no matter what they’re wearing.”